Web-only article: Psychology and the music of Michael Tippett -a song of innocence and experience

In a special web-only article inspired by the centenary celebrations, Eugene Sadler-Smith discusses how the composer was influenced by psychology. Note: This is part of a continued attempt to integrate our print and web coverage and to offer something extra to members. Web-only material is not peer-reviewed, allowing us to deal more effectively with time-sensitive issues. The website can also host longer articles than we have room for in print, particularly at a time when submission rates and advertising levels remain high. If you are interested in writing a web-only article, e-mail the Editor on [email protected]
The late Sir Michael Tippett is widely acknowledged as being foremost amongst English composers of the mid- to late 20th century. He was born on 4 January 1905 and died on 8 January 1998, a few days after his 93rd birthday. In many ways a centenary somehow seems inappropriate for a composer who was a vibrant presence in the international musical scene up until less than a decade ago. Quite simply, it feels too soon. Nonetheless, the centenary of any artist’s birth is traditionally a time at which their contribution is re-evaluated. Not surprisingly there have been many tributes, re-appraisals and critiques of Tippett’s contribution to English musical life. Like other peculiarly ‘English’ artistic figures with whom he has often been compared, such as the poet and painter William Blake (who wrote and illustrated the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience), Tippett’s personality, style and contribution were utterly unique. From the point of view of psychology he may be singled out as significant amongst composers for the way in which the science and practice of psychology, and especially psychoanalysis, informed and influenced not only his creative output but his personal transformation as a creative artist and human being. Indeed there are few if any other composers who have acknowledged the role of psychology in their creative endeavour as consciously and overtly as Tippett did both in his life and in his legacy.

The late Sir Michael Tippett is widely acknowledged as being foremost amongst English composers of the mid- to late 20th century. He was born on 4 January 1905 and died on 8 January 1998, a few days after his 93rd birthday. In many ways a centenary somehow seems inappropriate for a composer who was a vibrant presence in the international musical scene up until less than a decade ago. Quite simply, it feels too soon. Nonetheless, the centenary of any artist’s birth is traditionally a time at which their contribution is re-evaluated. Not surprisingly there have been many tributes, re-appraisals and critiques of Tippett’s contribution to English musical life. Like other peculiarly ‘English’ artistic figures with whom he has often been compared, such as the poet and painter William Blake (who wrote and illustrated the Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience), Tippett’s personality, style and contribution were utterly unique. From the point of view of psychology he may be singled out as significant amongst composers for the way in which the science and practice of psychology, and especially psychoanalysis, informed and influenced not only his creative output but his personal transformation as a creative artist and human being. Indeed there are few if any other composers who have acknowledged the role of psychology in their creative endeavour as consciously and overtly as Tippett did both in his life and in his legacy.


Sir Michael Tippett (Photo credit: Schott and co.)

 

Tippett embraced the modern age wholeheartedly. He was fascinated by the 20th century’s science, history and politics (Tippet was a pacifist and conscientious objector in World War 2; the pogrom of the Jews in the ‘crystal night’ of 9 November 1938 in Paris inspired his oratorio A Child of our Time; Jacob Bronowski’s highly acclaimed TV series The Ascent of Man influenced his large-scale concert work The Mask of Time), literature (he received literary advice from TS Eliot on writing the libretto for A Child of our Time – Eliot urged him to write the words for himself in order that the words and the music might not ‘compete for attention’) and popular culture (the blues and jazz figure in his 3rd Symphony and other works, he was by all accounts an avid watcher of television, and science fiction informed the story of New Year the last of his five operas).The musicologist David Clarke argued that Tippett was concerned with nothing less than the ‘social, epistemological and psychological conditions of Western modernity’ (2001, p.2). Moreover, psychology was absolutely central to the Tippett oeuvre. For example, one of the main characters in his third opera The Knot Garden is Mangus, a psychoanalyst (indeed the action beings with Mangus lying on his ‘couch’). He was familiar with Freud, but could not abide entirely in Freud’s ‘therapeutic examination of the collective primitive in us’ (Tippett, 1995, p.238). Tippett craved a deeper analysis residing in what he termed the ‘labyrinthine paths’ of the collective unconscious. As Jones (2003) has observed Jung’s analytical psychology is a product of modernity, it is perhaps unsurprising therefore that Jung was the 20th century thinker who had the most personal and professional significance for Tippett.

Jung and Tippett

The 20th Century was the culmination of an Enlightenment in which pre-eminence was bestowed upon rational and conscious forms of knowing. However, within the rationalist Modern age Jung (1865-1971) surfaced a number of crucial dialectics for Modern man. He arguably is most famous for three things: his theories of the collective unconscious, his postulation of the existence of archetypes and his descriptions of the ‘individuation’ process. Jung argued that greater significance should be accorded to the seemingly a-rational material that sometimes bursts forth from the unconscious with great emotional intensity, and most often in the form of dreams. The Jungian unconscious has both personal and collective elements and expresses itself in symbolic mode (‘the unconscious is the unwritten history of mankind from time unrecorded’, Jung, 1986, p.27). Introspection was important in Jung’s phenomenological analytical method of reflection upon his own experiences and insights. He observed that the period during which he pursued his own ‘inner images’ were the most important in his life and that their contents were the prima materia for his lifetime’s work (Jung, 1967, p.225). In a Jungian analysis dreams are often interpreted as containing archetypal material (for example, in dreams across different cultures similar myths are present and equivalent archetypes arise) and universal symbols (such as the mandala, from the Sanskrit meaning ‘circle’, and standing for unity and wholeness) whose pervasiveness cannot be explained by cultural spreading. According to the Jungian viewpoint they are common to everyone and everywhere.
From a developmental and therapeutic perspective the archetypal images that arise in dreams (which may occur repeatedly over months or years) may be thought of as elements in a total dream life in which this a priori knowledge provides ‘signposts’ on a journey of personal growth and transformation. The central concept of Jungian intrapersonal psychology is the process of individuation in which an overall meandering pattern in the dreams of an individual is actually part of a bigger picture of their psychic growth. In this psychic growth, the ego (consciousness) is pervaded by the self (the totality of the whole psyche) and the individual is progressively directed towards ‘wholeness’. Myths are generally important in Jung’s work, but also are especially significant in the process of individuation. For example, the universal motif of ‘the old king who falls ill’ is interpreted as the first stage in the process of individuation (Jung, 1967, p.167). Myths by and large were significant for Tippett because through them an artist may give expression to the archetypes of the collective unconscious and ‘speak with the tongues of millions’ (Tippett, 1995, p.239). The myth of the old king and his death figures prominently in the plot of Tippett’s first opera The Midsummer Marriage (see below).
Elements of Jung’s work have been the subject of trenchant criticisms; for example Raffay argued that his treatment patients was seen by some as ‘impersonal’ (the archetype in the analysis came to distract from personal case histories), there was an idealisation of introversion and some of his writings read not like the words of a psychoanalyst but of a ‘missionary theologian of redemption’ (2000, p.574). Bidwell (2000), whilst acknowledging the weaknesses in Jung’s work, argues that it stands out as an important illustration of the content and method in, amongst other things, the psychology of religion. Indeed psychologists are now more widely acknowledging the role of the unconscious mind in our thoughts and actions (albeit from a cognitive perspective) and the concepts of individuation and of psychological type are still significant in a number of applied areas (see below).
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is based upon the Jungian notions of two bi-polar ‘feeling-thinking’ and ‘sensing-intuiting’ functions. The combination of these two dimensions with the ‘judging-perceiving’ and ‘extraversion-introversion’ functions enables 16 distinct personality types to be identified. The MBTI was first published in 1975, is highly successful in consulting practice and continues to be one of the most widely-used personality inventories. The influence of Jung may be felt in other areas also. For example in management training and development the central tenet of Kolb’s experiential learning model (ELM) is that ‘knowledge is created through the transformation of experience’ (Kolb, 1984, p.38). The ELM is based, at least in part, upon opposing modes of prehension (‘concrete experience’ versus ‘abstract conceptualisation’) and transformation (‘reflective observation’ versus ‘active experimentation’). An individual’s preferences for the respective poles of each of these dimensions may be assessed using the Learning Styles Inventory (LSI). The cycle of learning and personal development in Kolb’s model shares some of the features of individuation although the route to the development of the ‘whole person’ in Kolb’s approach is not through the analysis of dreams but through introspection and reflection. The MBTI and Kolb’s LSI have applications in a number of fields, including counselling and personal development and represent scientifically-based methods for the development of self-awareness and transformation which are grounded in theories drawn from Jung’s psychology.
Jung’s conceptualisation of myth and individuation are highly significant in any consideration of Tippett; firstly because a reading of Jung was instrumental in the personal transformation in the 1930’s which may be seen as helping to unleash his creative powers; secondly because many of his works, most notably the plot of his first opera The Midsummer Marriage, make extensive use of Jung’s theories; and finally because Tippett offers us, via his art of musical composition, a complementary means to those offered by the methods of psychology for insights into the nature of the self.

Tippett’s personal transformation

In his autobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues (1991), Tippett described how a reading of Jung’s works (including the Psychological Types of 1921) led to a fascination with interpreting dreams through self-analysis. This process lasted over a period of nine months during 1939. Tippett was drawn to Jung because he saw in Jung a means for a potential solution to what he referred to as a ‘kind of personal crisis’ which he was experiencing at that time. He employed a form of self-analysis of his dreams as a therapy for what he perceived as problems relating to his sexuality (Channel 4, 1995: 8).
Tippett documented his dreams and over time his self-confidence in the value of the analysis grew until the culmination of this self-analysis in a dream, or nightmare, attributed to Thursday 31 August, 1939. In the dream three men ‘began to strangle me with their hands. I realised with relief that it was a dream – then the strangling became more realistic. A bell began to ring – an alarm clock out of which I was to awake’ (1991, p.111-112). The conclusion of the dream therapy was that the ‘quarrel’ within himself was resolved, fear had died, the time had come for him to ‘wake up’ and that the process of individuation had led to the acceptance that he would not be married (although some part of him had wanted that) and he was ‘thus ejected out into the world as a loner’ (Tippett, 1991, p.112).
Over and above this personal realisation there were two outcomes of the process for Tippett as a composer: firstly, he realised the imaginative power of his dream life; and secondly the tension that had existed within him was resolved and could not therefore interfere any further with his creativity. This may be seen as the beginning of a prolifically creative period for the composer. Prior to 1939 there were only three published works (a string quartet, piano sonata and a concerto grosso for a double string orchestra) (see: Bowen, 1997, p.284-304, for a chronology of works). After 1939 there came a highly productive lyrical period which included the composition of two more string quartets, his first symphony, a number of song cycles and culminated in the first of his operas, The Midsummer Marriage (1946-1952).

Individuation and The Midsummer Marriage

The premiere of The Midsummer Marriage (an opera in three acts with scenery and costumes designed by the sculptor Barbara Hepworth) in 1955 at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden was attended by controversy. The headline in The Daily Express ran ‘This opera baffles us too, say singers: bewilderment at Covent Garden’. These perceptions were perhaps exacerbated by Tippett’s terse response that ‘it means what it says’. The Daily Telegraph ran in similar if more muted vein: ‘Opera marred by obscurity’. With 50 years of hindsight we can speculate as to why the opera was received in this way. At a superficial level one of the difficulties has been attributed to the staging and in particular the costumes – modern dress at Covent Garden was perhaps not de rigueur for opera audiences in 1950s Britain. Others criticised the libretto (it was ‘the worst in the 300 year history of opera’ wrote one critic). But at a deeper level the other issue was the perceived complexity of the plot, not least because of the Jungian themes which underpinned it. The story overall (main plot and attendant sub-plots) is undoubtedly complicated, but at its heart the opera uses various ancient rites as symbols of counselling, therapy and self-development and is essentially simple. For our purposes we may focus upon the story of the two young lovers Mark and Jenifer and their relationship to Jenifer’s father the old king (‘King Fisher’). It is Mark and Jenifer who are the vehicles for the ‘individuation’ element of the plot. The various sub-plots which are a necessary part of the opera serve to complexify and even obfuscate this simple psychological drama.As far as the creative process of writing an opera was concerned Tippett’s general view was that the more collective (i.e. archetypal) an artistic imaginary experience is going to be, the more the discovery of suitable material is involuntary (in much the same way that Stravinsky was of the view the he was the ‘vessel’ through which the music for his ballet The Rite of Spring passed from a deeper and more universal level of consciousness). In this respect the main element of the plot for the opera came to Tippett via an ‘illumination’ or an insight (such visual experiences are not uncommon in the creative arts) in which he saw a picture of:
‘a wooded hilltop with a temple where a soft young man was being rebuffed by a cold hard young woman…to such an degree that the collective magical archetypes take charge – Jung’s anima [‘the woman within’, i.e. the female personification of the unconscious in man] and animus [‘the man within’, i.e. the male personification of the unconscious in woman]’ (Tippett, 1995: 201)
The plot and the various sub plots are heavily laden with myth. At the end of Act 1 the woman (Jenifer) ascends into an upper realm in a flight from the material world in order to ‘find the beast’ and reconcile both sides of her personality; the man (Mark) descends into a cave (a lower realm) in his personal search. Jenifer and Mark go upwards (Jenifer climbs a staircase) and downwards (Mark enters the cave) halfway through Act 1, they return, ecstatic from their experiences, and then they have to go the opposite way to complete their individuation (Jenifer enters the hillside to seek Mark’s new knowledge and Mark climbs the staircase to seek Jenifer’s) and that is where Act 1 leaves them – with the old king (King Fisher) very angry with their disregard of him (‘Now is this nonsense at its noon. But I’ll be even with it yet.’). King Fisher is a ‘business man’ who embodies the modern rational world and the pre-eminence of the conscious mind and as noted above he is also Jenifer’s father. In common with such myths in the plot of the opera King Fisher is killed, but in this case not by a conscious act of violence; he dies as the result of a psychological revelation which is part of the renewal and rebirth of Mark and Jenifer (in Act 3 he ‘clutches his heart, trembles and falls to the ground’).
The interplay of the Jungian concepts of the anima and animus are also manifest in the various animal symbols that figure in the various ecstatic dance sequences of the second act (female: hound, otter and hawk; male: hare, fish and bird). The over-arching theme is that of the ‘royal couple’ (Mark and Jenifer) each going through a journey from innocence to an enlightened innocence via experience (Lloyd-Davies, 1985). In fact for most of the duration of the opera’s dream-like world Mark and Jenifer are largely absent, they do not appear at all in Act 2 and only re-appear in the climax of Act 3 wherein they embody (symbolically) a synthesis of both sides of their, and our, personalities (light and dark, anima and animus, sensing and intuitive, thinking and feeling). At the conclusion of the opera Mark and Jenifer appear on stage radiantly transfigured and seated in a hieratic (priestly) posture of mutual contemplation within in a lotus flower and with King Fisher dead beneath them and with this individuation is complete. The Midsummer Marriage does indeed ‘mean what it says’, namely: ‘I would know my shadow and my light, so shall I at last be whole’ (from the libretto of Tippett’s 1939-1941 oratorio A Child of Our Time).

 

 

Photo credit: Lebrecht


At a general level an overlooked aspect of Tippett’s legacy provided by both his life and his work is the insight that it is possible for psychology and the creative arts to inform each other reciprocally and reveal shared insights into the creative process and human consciousness. Tippett’s work offers a unique synthesis of psychology and music in this regard. As he argued in his 1959 book Moving into Aquarius the ‘corrections’ that the conscious mind often applies to our perceptions of the world to make them rational may need to be frustrated and refused by the artist in order to make way for the peripheral ‘confused’ attention of the unconscious mind, from whence come ‘the riches of our plastic sensibilities’ (1959, p.89). Tippett has shown us that psychologists, musicologists and creative artists may have much to learn from each other (for example, music which draws upon psychological theory may be a useful pedagogical tool for psychologists; the theory and methods of psychology may provide practical tools for the development of creative thinking; students’ aesthetic sensibilities may be developed by exposure to and scholarly analysis of great art). The Midsummer Marriage exemplifies this: not since Mozart’s The Magic Flute has the psychological processes of the development of the self been expressed with such clarity, intensity and lyrical beauty. It could be argued that Tippett’s approach to psychology is characterised by an innocence and an exuberance, but ironically in doing so the vision of The Midsummer Marriage transcends the limitations of Jungian psychoanalysis and communicates Tippett’s experience of the human condition through the universal language of music.

- Eugene Sadler-Smith is Professor of Management Development and Organisational Behaviour, School of Management, University of Surrey. E-mail: [email protected].

Acknowledgements: the author is particularly grateful to Sally Groves, Head of Contemporary Music at Tippett’s publishers Schott & Co. Ltd. London for her helpful and constructive comments on the text, and also to Marisol Gonzales of Schott & Co. Ltd. London for invaluable help in sourcing the images.

Note: Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage is being staged at the Royal Opera House, Coven Garden between 31st October and the 18th November, 2005 as part of the Tippett centenary celebrations. For more information on Tippett see: http://www.tippett-100.com.


References

Bidwell, DR. (2000). Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections: a critique informed by post-modernism. Pastoral Psychology, 49, 13–20.
Bowen, M. (1997). Michael Tippett. London: Robson.
Channel 4. (1995). Tippett’s Time. London: Channel 4 Television.
Clarke, D. (2001). The Music and Thought of Michael Tippett: modern times and metaphysics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Jones, R.A. (2003). Between the analytical and the critical: implications for theorizing the self, Journal of Analytical Psychology, 48, 355-370.
Jung, C.G. (1967). Memories, Dreams, Reflections. London: Fontana Press.
Jung, CG. (1986). Psychological Reflections: an anthology of his writings 1905-1961. London: Ark.
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall.
Lloyd-Davies, J. (1985). A visionary night. In The Operas of Michael Tippett: Opera Guides 29. English National Opera and the Royal Opera. London: John Calder.
von Raffay, A. (2000). Why it is difficult to see the anima as a helpful object: critique and clinical relevance of the theory of archetypes. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 45, 541-560.
Tippett, M. (1959). Moving into Aquarius. St. Albans: Paladin.
Tippett, M. (1991). Those Twentieth Century Blues: an autobiography. London: Hutchinson.
Tippett, M. (1995). Tippett on Music. Oxford: Oxford

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