Today, tenor Mark Padmore and pianist Jonathan Biss perform a Gardner Museum recital that includes Michael Tippett’s cantata “Boyhood’s End.” It was composed for a pair of friends, tenor Peter Pears and his partner, composer Benjamin Britten, who premiered it the spring of 1943. A month later, Tippett was in prison, having refused the non-combatant duty expected of conscientious objectors. Tippett took his jailing as a confirmation of his principles: “It was really as if I had come home,” he later said. Tippett’s music and life was full of such hard-won idealistic confidence.
By the time of “Boyhood’s End,” Tippett was nearing 40 — ten years older than the already-famous Britten — with only a handful of works to his credit. He had withdrawn most of his early efforts, finding them wanting. He had filled a variety of jobs, most recently rebuilding the music department of London’s Morley College after its near-destruction by German bombs. He had also weathered psychological crisis: having tentatively accepted his homosexuality, the collapse of his first serious relationship threw Tippett into self-doubt, and a bout of Jungian psychoanalysis. It was a long and unorthodox apprenticeship. But with “Boyhood’s End,” the apprenticeship is over.
The text, by British naturalist W. H. Hudson — born and raised in Argentina — recalls that exotic childhood in unusually evocative language. Tippett turned the memory into florid immediacy, precipitating Hudson’s images out of Jung’s collective unconscious, perhaps, and into the present. Modeled after the style of Henry Purcell, a touchstone of Tippett’s, “Boyhood’s End” reinvents Baroque extravagance: the piano gallops, the voice dances, cross-rhythms urge the music forward. The piece is treacherously virtuosic; even one sympathetic contemporary critic called it “insanely impractical.”
Tippett eventually attained fame nearing that of Britten (who remained a lifelong friend); he was often seen as the carefree, mystical yin to Britten’s efficient, accomplished yang. But blitheness masked a fierce work ethic: forever curious, Tippett never stopped evolving. Since his death in 1998, Tippett’s music has grown rarer on programs. It was always provocative. The psychedelic symbolism of his breakthrough, “The Midsummer Marriage”; the fools-rush-in, surreal stylization of political and racial conflict in “The Ice Break”; the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink ambition of “The Mask of Time” (commissioned for the Boston Symphony’s centennial): Tippett’s kaleidoscopic earnestness had and has a tendency to embarrass listeners who might prefer a more decorous distance. But, as in “Boyhood’s End,” the music is driven toward an indispensable constant: ecstasy.
Mark Padmore and Jonathan Biss perform music of Schumann, Tippett, and Fauré, Sunday at 1:30 p.m. at the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum’s Calderwood Hall (tickets $27; seniors $24; members $17; students and children $12; 617-278-5156;