Sir Michael Tippett's Shires Suite
Some recollections of rehearsals and performances by the Leicestershire Schools
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
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.)
ThePrologue 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.
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: http://www.lsso.co.uk/
Eric Pinkett's book. is at http://www.lsso.co.uk/ericsbook.html.