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Sir Michael Tippett's Shires Suite
Some recollections of rehearsals and performances by the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra 
by John Whitmore, June 1999

From the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, Sir Michael Tippett had a close relationship with the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, regularly conducting them in the UK and on tour in Europe and generally supporting the state-funded musical education programme which had produced an orchestra of such high standards. He conducted the LSSO almost exclusively in twentieth-century music - from Holst's The Planets to Charles Ives's Three Places in New England, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, Hindemith's Symphonic Metamorphoses and many new works by English composers. Under Tippett, the LSSO, an orchestra of ordinary secondary school children aged 14 to 18, regularly performed on BBC radio and TV, made commercial gramophone records and established new standards for music-making in an educational context. Many leading British performers had their first experience of orchestral music in the LSSO under Tippett. 

Sir Michael first became involved with the Leicestershire County School of Music in 1965 when he became patron of the Schools Music Festival and conducted two concerts at the De Montfort Hall, Leicester. The logistical problems in actually rehearsing for this festival were overcome by the orchestra travelling down to Corsham, close to Sir Michael's home, and taking up residence in a local school for a full week during the Easter holidays. This enabled Michael to work with the orchestra after his usual day's schedule. In this way, his composing routine was not disrupted but perhaps more importantly, from an LSSO perspective, there was substantial rehearsal time for the players and Michael to get to know each other. In the mid 1960s ABC Television ran an Arts programme called Tempo and the week's events at Corsham were filmed for an edition entitled Overture with Beginners. Sir Michael proved to be great fun and a rapport was immediately established.
 
The 1965 festival included a specially commissioned symphony by Alan Ridout, Elgar’s Cockaigne, Holst’sPlanets, Michael's own Concerto for Double String Orchestra and A Child of Our Time. He also composed two new pieces for the occasion: Prologue and Epilogue. These were performed to open and close the festival.
 
The Prologue is a setting of Soomer is i-coomen in:
Soomer is i-coomen in,
Loode sing cuckoo
Groweth sayd and bloweth mayd and springth the wood-e new.
Sing cuc-koo
A-we blay-teth after lamb.
Lowth after calve coo
Bullock stair-teth book-e-vair-teth.
Mirry sing cuckoo,
Cuc-koo, cuc-koo,
Well sing-es thoo, cuckoo,
Nay sweek thoo nay-ver noo.  
The Epilogue has real significance for the LSSO because it is a setting of Non Nobis Domine by William Byrdand Michael heard this performed a capella by the orchestra during the visit to Corsham. 
Non nobis, Domine, non nobis,
Sed nomini tuo, da gloriam.
 
(This used to be sung in the state schools of Leicestershire as a Grace.)  

The Prologue and Epilogue would eventually become the opening and closing movements of a new suite that was written for the LSSO between 1965 and 1970. On its completion, this became known as theShires Suite.
 
After the 1965 festival, Sir Michael's appearances with the orchestra included a wonderful Enigma Variations televised live in Brussels (1966), a second Schools Festival (1967) and a gramophone recording of his Suite in D for the now defunct Pye Golden Guinea label.
 
In 1969 the second phase of the Shires Suite was unveiled at the LSSO Easter residential course in Cirencester. Orchestral parts, in manuscript, for Interlude II turned up at sectional rehearsals one morning. The first full orchestral rehearsals for Interlude II were directed by Norman Del Mar. Sir Michael joined us later in the week and a BBC television crew also arrived to film him conducting Interlude II and Ives' Putnam's Camp for a BBC-2 programme called Music Now. The television recording was somewhat disrupted by the Red Arrows flying above the school but a personal telephone call from Michael to the Red Arrows H.Q. soon put a stop to the noise. I am reliably informed that this was the first time in history that the Red Arrows had been 'grounded' in such a manner. Looking back, the rehearsals for Interlude II were absolutely riotous mainly due to the scruffy handwritten orchestral parts and the novel inclusion of an electric guitar. The purely orchestral Interlude II is based on the music which introduces the characters Dov and Mel at their entry in Act I of Tippett's opera, The Knot Garden, which was written at the same time (1966-69) as this Suite. Interlude II also incorporates the canon 'Great Tom is Cast' which appears three times, scored first for three trumpets and finally trumpets and trombones in octaves.
 
The new trilogy of Prologue, Interlude II and Epilogue received its first public performance at the Bath Festival on 21st June 1969 where the LSSO was conducted by Sir Michael. In a press review of the concert, one eminent critic '...failed to detect the promised part for electric guitar...' The guitar part, played by David Abbott, was nigh on deafening from where I was sitting in the second fiddles. That's critics for you, I suppose.
 
Overall, 1969 was a great year for the orchestra. Michael and the LSSO played a memorable concert in the Philharmonie, Berlin which included Prologue, Interlude II and Epilogue, Ives' Putnam's Camp, Copland'sQuiet City and Brigg Fair by Delius. Richard Rodney Bennett was the soloist in Rhapsody in Blue. We also spent some time with Sir John Barbirolli who attended the afternoon rehearsals of Brigg Fair. The night after our concert he was performing Tchaikovsky’s 4th with the Berlin Philharmonic. The LSSO were hailed as Britain's best cultural export but most of us also had the feeling that our programme was rather alien to a German public weaned on Brahms and Beethoven. The sounds of Charles Ives must have been a shock, let alone Interlude II.

The 1970 Easter course was held at Oxford. Yet another week of sleeping on camp beds in a school and being rehearsed by Sir Arthur Bliss, Bryan Kelly, Herbert Chappell and Sir Michael.The preparations this time were focused on rehearsing for an appearance at the Cheltenham Festival in July and a new gramophone record for Argo, which would include the Introduction and Allegro by Bliss, conducted by the composer and Tippett conducting his own Interlude II and Epilogue. During this week at Oxford, Michael introduced the final two movements of the Shires Suite - Interlude I andCantata.
 
The slow, purely orchestral Interlude I is a kind of chorale prelude, based on the canon 'The Silver Swan'. The three melodic lines of the canon are presented at different speeds: Trumpet and trombone (normal speed), strings (decorated and much transformed, twice as slow) and bells and woodwind (clusters, one-a-half times as slow).
 
The Cantata is a setting of three canons, before each of which the choir sings, 'Come let us sing you a song in canon.'
 
First comes a hunting canon by William Byrd:
 
Hey, ho, to the Greenwood
Now let us go,
Sing heave and ho
And there shall we find
Both buck and doe
Sing heave and ho
The hart and hind
And the little pretty doe
Sing heave and ho
 
Second, a drinking catch by Purcell to the words:
 
'Fie, nay prithee, John
Do not quarrel man,
Let us be merry and drink about.'
 
'You're a rogue, you cheated me,
I'll prove before this company,
I caren't a farthing, Sir, for all you are so stout.'
 
'Sir, you lie, I scorn your word,
Or any man that wears a sword,
For all your huff, who cares a fig or who cares for you?'
 
Third, a canon by Alexander Goehr to an epigram of William Blake, presented to the composer as a 60th birthday present. The words are:
 
The sword sung on the barren heath,
The sickle on the fruitful field:
The sword he sang a song of death,
But could not make the sickle yield.  
By 1970, Michael had made some close friendships at the County School of Music and he kept in regular contact by telephone. On one famous occasion he was chatting to the orchestra’s PR manager, Jack Richards about the problems he was having with the percussion scoring in the Cantata of the Shires Suite. Jack's minuscule office was situated next door to the school canteen and as the conversation progressed a careless dinner lady dropped a tray of cutlery. This sparked the composer's imagination and Jack spent the next quarter of an hour or so dropping various combinations of forks and spoons onto the floor from different heights until the correct sound was achieved to the satisfaction of the composer. Who suggested the title given to the completed work? Jack Richards.
 
The Cheltenham Festival concert took place in the Town Hall on July 8th and the podium was shared by Sir Arthur Bliss, who conducted his own Piano Concerto with Frank Wibaut as soloist and Sir Michael, who directed Ives' riotous Circus Band a rather scrappy Rhapsody in Blue and the first public performance of the Shires Suite. It must be mentioned that in the early hours of July 8th, Michael was involved, as a passenger, in a serious road traffic accident whilst he was travelling from the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Despite this he continued his journey to Cheltenham, took a three hour rehearsal in the afternoon and then directed the concert in the evening. Even thirty years after the event I can still vividly recall the electric atmosphere at this concert, which received wide critical acclaim from the national press. Sir Arthur referred to the concert as the best one of the 1970 festival. Later that evening Jack Richards appeared on the orchestra's coach after the concert wearing a huge grin and clutching a reel-to-reel tape of the Shires Suite.
 
Interlude II and Epilogue were recorded by Sir Michael and the LSSO on 31st August 1970 for Argo Records. The session took place in Decca Studio No.3, West Hampstead and the disc was released in April 1971. The sound quality and performance, however, were something of a let-down compared to the concert at Cheltenham. 
 
In April 1980, some 10 years after its first complete performance at Cheltenham, the LSSO with the Leicestershire Chorale recorded the suite for Unicorn Records at De Montfort Hall under the direction of Eric Pinkett’s successor, Peter Fletcher. The suite was coupled with a performance of Virages - Region One by Douglas Young, conducted by the composer with the solo cello part played by Rohan de Saram.
 
In September 1998, during a project to fully update some personal archives relating to the Leicestershire Schools Symphony Orchestra, the mystery tape from Cheltenham finally resurfaced in an attic 28 years after the event. It had been recorded in stereophonic sound of excellent quality. I simply couldn't believe my luck. This recording has now been shared with some colleagues and friends who played in the concert. The sound is little short of amazing and the performance is also highly accomplished - a world premier beautifully captured as it took place that night in Cheltenham Town Hall and a permanent reminder of the special relationship between the Leicestershire County School of Music and Sir Michael Tippett.
 
Footnote
Further information about Eric Pinkett and the orchestra, including a comprehensive recording archive, photographs, video links and press articles can be found on the LSSO memorabilia website and Eric Pinkett's book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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