There is much discussion around how to make classical music more accessible. Oliver Soden, in his biography of Michael Tippett (1905–98), ‘one of 20th century Britain’s great visionary composers’, has resorted to a time-tested approach, producing a narrative in which readers can effortlessly lose themselves. Anyone wishing to discover the life of Tippett as a way into his music – his works include A Child of Our Time, five operas and four symphonies – will find in Soden’s book meticulously researched biographical detail and a good story well told.
From the outset, Soden beautifully captures the details of Tippett’s world. He visits the Suffolk village where Tippett grew up on ‘an enchantingly bright and sunny day, the sort of day that makes sense of the flat Suffolk landscape: there is so much sky’. He continues, ‘In the garden I see the well from which water was drawn, and the pond in which … Michael caught tadpoles.’ Throughout, Soden contrasts the details of Tippett’s life with events around him: the collapse of empires, the rise of the suffragettes and the horrors of two world wars.
Soden’s prose style is not merely decorative, however. It is essential for capturing Tippett as a human being. For, as Soden says, this biography complements, rather than replicates, studies of his music. Indeed, you will not find musical analysis here or a narrow focus on Tippett’s career. Instead,