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Symphonic music in our modern times: Tippett and the Symphony

Research output: Contribution in Book/Report/Proceedings - With ISBN/ISSNChapter

  • Edward Venn
Publication date01/2013
Host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to Michael Tippett
EditorsKenneth Gloag, Nicholas Jones
Place of PublicationCambridge
PublisherCambridge University Press
ISBN (print)9781107606135
<mark>Original language</mark>English

Publication series

NameCambridge Companions to Music


Writing about concert music, and in particular the symphony, Michael Tippett drew a distinction between ‘historical’ and ‘notional archetypes’. The former, represented by the middle-period Beethoven Symphonies, provides an enduring cultural understanding of what the symphony ‘is’. The latter, Tippett argues, is an expanded category that encompasses works that relate, albeit sometimes tangentially, to this historical archetype; it is here that innovation can occur, but at the risk of undermining the very identity of the work as ‘symphony’.
Turning to his own compositions, Tippett traces a line from his first published symphony (‘the culmination of a long period of struggle with classical sonata forms in the Beethovenian sense’; through to notional archetype that formed the ‘initial premiss’ for his Fourth Symphony. In mapping out such a trajectory, Tippett offers a narrative that gradually opens out his own personal historical and notional archetypes of the symphony, and which presents his development as linear.
This chapter explores, and re-evaluates, Tippett’s four published symphonies against this background. It first revisits the notion of ‘archetypes’ in order to position Tippett’s work against an evolving historical and generic background. Following this are individual accounts of each symphony, summarising not only the musical content, but the ways in which each work engages with tradition. In doing so, the chapter demonstrates both Tippett’s evolving conception of the symphony, but also the numerous ways in which this evolution is both more complex and richer than the composer’s own accounts would have us believe.