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.
A-we blay-teth after lamb.
Lowth after calve coo
Bullock stair-teth book-e-vair-teth.
Mirry sing cuckoo,
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
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
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.
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