Michael Tippett’s Wartime Morley

Writer and author of Michael Tippett: The Biography, Oliver Soden, reflects on the wartime work of composer and former Director of Music at Morley, Michael Tippett 

On the evening of 15 October 1940, just a month into the Blitz, a high-explosive demolition bomb hit Morley College. 

The force of the explosion was such that bricks and concrete were thrown so high in the air they demolished houses in the nearby streets. 

Three-quarters of the college site was destroyed. Every piece of paper inside was lost, as were many of the college’s murals, but the large proscenium arch of the concert hall was left standing. If you looked through it the next morning you could see, like a stage set, a black tangle of blasted trees. 

The college had recently become the home of a small school for non-evacuated children, and the gym and refectory had been turned into a dormitory for Lambeth residents who had nothing but rubble to call a home. And so there were nearly 200 people sheltering from the Blitz the night the bomb struck. Many had fled to the basement, and as the wreckage of rubble and glass was slowly cleared away in the following days, the injured, the dying, and the dead were found crushed. It took three weeks to recover the 57 bodies. 

Michael Tippett eventually became one of the country’s most famous composers, but at the outbreak of war he was a jobbing musician, earning his living as a teacher and conductor. He had been using Morley College as a professional base since the 1930s, and had become friends with its visionary leader, Eva Hubback. When the college’s director of music, Arnold Foster, was evacuated with Westminster School, where he also taught, Hubback turned to Tippett for a suitable replacement. 

Tippett started his new job at Morley College just days after the bomb blast, while the bodies were still being recovered. He was given the use of the college’s modern extension, which had stayed standing, though even this had to be vacated for temporary use as a mortuary when, in January 1941, a nearby hostel collapsed and the 71 dead were laid out in the Gustav Holst music room. Eventually, in March, the college formally reopened in the modern extension block, and the Holst Room was designated as a concert venue for the tiny 9-person orchestra and 8-person choir. 

He proceeded to do something extraordinary. From the depths of wartime, Tippett turned Morley’s music department into one of the most important musical institutions in the country. He trebled membership of the choir within a year, and insisted against some adversity that the college employ a number of distinguished European musicians who, in ordinary circumstances, would have been pursuing prominent careers, but who had escaped the Nazis and took what jobs they could. Among them were the Hungarian composer Mátyás Seiber; the German conductor Walter Goehr; and the recorder player Walter Bergmann, originally a lawyer who had defended Jewish clients, been arrested by the Gestapo, and escaped to Britain only to be held on the Isle of Man as an enemy alien. 

With the help of these and other musicians, Tippett soon fashioned from Morley College’s music department one of London’s most distinguished and critically praised concert seasons. Audiences picked their way to Morley through the rubble and blackout, attracted most of all by the repertoire on offer. Tippett programmed not only madrigals and anthems by Tudor composers, but works by key figures of the Renaissance and the Baroque, such as Monteverdi, Purcell, Bach, and Handel. Such music was heard very little in the first decades of the century, and Morley was one of the first institutions to spearhead its revival. Also featured were pieces by pre-eminent contemporary composers such as Bartók, Stravinsky, and Hindemith, many of whom were living in exile. 

The performances left a little to be desired, technically speaking, and the concerts had to fight with the rattle and clank of the trams along the Westminster Bridge Road. But audiences and critics alike fell for the passion and sincerity of the music-making. Distinguished musicians, not least Benjamin Britten and his partner Peter Pears, were lured to perform at the college. After a chance hearing in Canterbury of the countertenor Alfred Deller, Tippett brought him to Morley, thus reintroducing such a voice to the world; the concert was described as the first time ‘the sound of a real countertenor was heard in Purcell’s music for the first time in many generations’. 

In 1944, the Morley choir took part in the premiere of Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, which would become his most famous work. The oratorio was partly an expression of Tippett’s pacifism. He registered as a conscientious objector, and had been ordered to leave Morley and do agricultural work in Bedfordshire, but his refusal to comply with the terms of exemption from military service led to his two-month imprisonment at Wormwood Scrubs. Under oath, he argued that his work at Morley was his best and most vital contribution to the war effort. 

After the war, Tippett stayed on at Morley for another seven years, and the music department went from strength to strength. Many of the concerts, led either by Tippett or Goehr, were of historic importance. Works by Stravinsky were given their British premieres with Morley forces and, on 14 May 1946, the choir and orchestra gave the first ever performance in Britain of Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610. Two years later Tippett directed a performance of Monteverdi’s opera The Coronation of Poppea that pushed the work back into public consciousness after centuries of neglect. With the Morley choir, he made the first ever recording of Thomas Tallis’s great forty-part motet Spem in Alium

Michael Tippett’s work at Morley College made a vital contribution to the musical life of this country, permanently extending the repertoire we hear today in concert halls and on the radio, and returning to us several important masterpieces. His welcome at Morley to refugees fleeing fascism, and his belief in the power of music to bring together communities blighted by war, should not be forgotten. 

This piece was commissioned for and originally published in the Morley Community Magazine, September 2019.