Introduction It is crucial with these types of questions to fully establish what is meant within the question. Just because an opera receives a positive review, does not necessarily mean it made a significant contribution to the genre. In fact, throughout musical history and across all genres, many performances which are poorly received are the ones which make the biggest contribution. It’s about pushing the boundaries. Therefore, my main focus will be exploring whether Tippett’s Operas pushed the limits of music at the time.
I also hope to discover if they had a significant effect on others composers of the genre, or whether there was minimal impact at all. Acts within operas This is only a small point, but just as crucial when it comes to the analysis of influence. One factor which remains unchanged across all of Tippett’s operas is the number of acts. It is always 3 acts. This is particularly interesting, as he did not compose immediately after his 1955 opera, The midsummer Marriage, and when he did begin composing once more, his style in many aspects had changed, however, one aspect which remained consistent was the number of acts.
He was very fond of trying to leave the style of the 19th century, so one must ask the question, why did he continue to produce 3 act operas? Many composers of the time were beginning to branch in to new fields of genres (Britten with community opera, Maxwell-Davies with Children’s opera, among others). Although the decision for 3 act operas may simply be down to the commission, the rigid use of the 3 acts almost suggests he did not have any intention to experiment. He did not have to worry about pleasing a librettist either, as he was always wrote his own libretto.
It is possible hat he simply did not want to leave the 3 act style, as that was what he was comfortable with. Whatever the reason may be, it is very clear that in regards to the operatic structure, he did not push it as much as his contemporaries. King Priam It is often regarded that King Priam was the major turning point in Tippett’s career. Of course, the first question which therefore should be asked is why? As with many questions, there are a wide range of possible answers for this. It was certainly a piece which offered a different musical pallet when compared to earlier works, and indeed his earlier opera, A Midsummer Marriage.
In fact, King Priam, according to one review was ‘far better controlled, both theatrically and musically. However, the same review continues by stating? It is not perfect’. To me, this is crucial. The critics did not regard it as a ground-breaking work, though they agreed it was better than his previous opera. With that in mind, can it be argued that outside of his own career, King Priam had a significant impact on opera? To add to the doubt, the day after its premiere, Britten premiered his War Requiem in the same location. The same reviewer (Andrew Porter), said about Britten’s work ‘In short, the work is a masterpiece’.
Although they are two different genres, it is important to realise that for both premieres, the audience would have been quite similar, and therefore quite likely many would have shared similar views. At this stage, it is important to assess how Tippett’s musical style evolved between ‘The Midsummer Marriage’ and ‘King Priam’. Rather intriguingly, his music style almost immediately alters for his future works, and all of his compositions between the two operas are in a very similar style to the opera King Priam. Firstly, the overall styles of both operas are completely contrasting.
The Midsummer Marriage is a comedy with an invented story, whereas King Priam is a tragedy, which has its roots from a traditional story. It is possible to argue that this is almost a step backwards in terms of progression. Many 19th century (And indeed earlier) operas have their origins from poems, stories or myths, however, since The Midsummer Marriage was a completely original story, it gains a sense of uniqueness, despite the fact one review from the time described it as having ‘a close of obviously intentional resemblance to ‘The Magic Flute’.
Whether or not this is truly the case, in contrast, King Priam is based off a traditional Greek myth, which is not a unique or original way of choosing a libretto. (Although composers today still use Mythology for operas, such as Birtwistle’s The minotaur). The aspect which can be seen as progression of Tippett’s operas is how he treats the positioning of scenes. In The Midsummer Marriage, the scenes tend to flow smoother, however, this is not the case within King Priam. In this opera, the scenes are in fact abruptly juxtaposed .
This has obviously been done in order to draw attention to the highly contrasting moods and scenarios within the opera. Alongside this, scenes are often separated by the use of musical interludes. These interludes most likely serve a dual purpose. One reason is simply to allow for any alterations to be made to the stage, and the other reason is to set the mood for the next scene. This allows for the music to flow and prevent unnecessary pauses. Although not part of the 19th century style, interludes were far from an original concept within opera.
It is quite possible that Tippett took direct inspiration from Britten’s Peter Grimes for the interludes, as they both share a near identical purpose. Instead of pushing the operatic genre forward using original techniques, he is instead using new techniques devised by other composers, thus giving these styles a greater foundation in the world of British opera. Due to this, it can be argued at this stage that although Tippett himself in his early operas did not push the boundaries, he did help establish newly emerging forms and styles.