Britain's Tippett writes music to his own drum

IN 1943, he was handcuffed to a man convicted of manslaughter and carted off to a British prison called Wormwood Scrubs. In 1983, he was presented with the exclusive Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II - an honor reserved for only 24 people, including J. B. Priestley and Lord Laurence Olivier.

In the 40 years between, he doggedly fashioned a musical language that has led some critics to bracket him with Benjamin Britten and William Walton as one of the three major British composers of the late 20th century.

Sir Michael Tippett - whose newest work, commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its 100th anniversary, premiered here last week (see review, Page 27) - has hardly become a household name. But he has achieved something few composers ever attain: the unfailing respect of many of the world's leading musicians. The Boston opera doyen, Sarah Caldwell, sees him as ''a giant on our horizon.'' This latest work, ''The Mask of Time,'' drew critics from as far away as Paris and London.

It wasn't always so.

''There was the idea in England in the early days that the musician wasn't supposed to be intellectual or intelligent,'' says the tall, boyishly handsome man who was once T. S. Eliot's neighbor and friend. ''I had to fight for the belief that I had a right to use all my faculties,'' he adds, referring to the dense and literate nature of his vocal works - for which, he says, he looked to William Butler Yeats as ''my master.''

Then there was the iconoclasm. The Manchester Guardian referred to him as ''an apostle of nonconformity all his life.'' A profoundly self-critical man, he failed to produce a work he was willing to sign before reaching the age of 30. ''He really is . . . unique,'' observes American composer John Harbison, who says he has studied Tippett's works intently in recent years and found ''a Beethoven kind of rigor and complexity in his thought.''

''He spent all those years building a technique and a point of view,'' adds Harbison, ''stone by stone.''

The musical edifice that Sir Michael has built stands tall enough that such influential composers as Gunther Schuller refuse to discuss it lightly. ''Look, he's a most important composer,'' he says, ''and if I talk about his music, I want to think about it and say something cogent.

''I'm very devoted to him.''

Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici shares this devotion. ''Of all the composers in the world,'' he says, ''he's the one I would most like to meet.'' Del Tredici recalls that hearing Tippett's Third Symphony ''gave me the courage to pursue the tendency I was leaning toward - greater simplicity of means.'' Calling the symphony the contemporary equivalent of Mahler's great ''Das Lied von der Erde,'' he praises Sir Michael as ''a really individual voice , very clearly himself.''

Yet it has taken decades for the music world to begin to turn around and recognize Sir Michael's considerable creations. Nor did he do much to hug the limelight. Just as he began to acquire something of a reputation as a composer of lyrically interwoven works, he decided, as he puts it, to ''learn the whole thing all over again'' - fashioning a hard, inaccessible musical language that assured him of continuing anonymity.

Even in the most musically knowledgeable American cities, his work still remains largely unknown. Most observers attribute this ignorance to the fact that he stubbornly chose to go his own way in life and in music.

In life, the choice landed him in jail as a conscientious objector during World War II. In music it meant a refusal to adopt mainstream thinking about serialism, atonality, and the other prevalent ideologies of the day.

So he remained chronically out of fashion - until, late in life, he gradually began to become a fashion of his own. In the 1960s and '70s, his music was championed by British conductor Sir Colin Davis, who brought the best of Tippett's work to the United States. He made his first American visit at the age of 60, ''because, in a way, the music (had made its own way), and I felt that I belonged.''

Sitting in the back of Symphony Hall here - a quiet, slender figure in a brightly striped white pullover - he does seem to belong. Sir Colin Davis is rehearsing ''The Mask of Time'' - a massive work that took three years to write and which in many ways sums up half a century of musical thinking - and Sir Michael is listening.

If you ask him, he'll tell you that listening is the key to writing such music.

''The way I work - if I may say so, Stravinsky had it also - is with a high degree of accuracy of hearing,'' he says. He adds that he has ''a sense of what the timbre of voices and instruments are going to do. It is extremely accurate, before I even reach any sound that is played to me.''

''Nevertheless,'' he adds, ''one is reasonably human; and it is exciting to hear it all for the first time.''

The excitement is palpable in the nearly deserted hall, as the piece itself, which has until now dwelt in the silence of Sir Michael's mind, takes tangible life for the first time. Later, during a leisurely lunch between rehearsals, he chats pleasantly and firmly about the days when the excitement often turned to dismay.

In the 1950s his opera ''The Midsummer Marriage'' opened two months after ''Troilus and Cressida,'' an opera by an elder contemporary, Sir William Walton. ''Willie's opera was sort of presented as the modern opera with no problems,'' he recalls, ''and they had to present 'Midsummer Marriage' as the modern opera with all the problems.''

But, he adds, the opera ''couldn't quite be killed. There was about it that odd element that it wouldn't die.''

Years after the disastrous premiere, the work was redone by the BBC. Sir Colin Davis heard a tape, which led to a recording - and the opera eventually grew to a healthy international stature.

And so it has been, as the road to fame has yielded its miles grudgingly. ''I was never disturbed by that,'' he muses as he toys with a fork. ''I was never impatient.''

''I had some arrogant belief that it was for real,'' he says, ''and if I hadn't made (the music real and lasting), it would have to fall away.''

The major milestones in his output have not fallen away. Among them: the 1939 ''Concerto for Double Orchestra'' (an almost weightless meditation on movement, rhythm, and color, which rises to a radiant conclusion); the cultivated complexity of ''Little Music for String Orchestra'' (1946); the sudden austerity and vaulted invention of ''King Priam'' (1962); and the twin streams of lyricism and intellectual rigor of the 1979 ''Triple Concerto.''

Looking back on half a century of music that began in the declining shadows of Debussy, Ravel, and Elgar, Sir Michael notes that his life in England has become ''fairly austere.''

''It has to be that way at this stage of my life,'' he explains. ''I compose each morning,'' he adds, ''and then think about it.''

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