Born in London of English and Cornish stock, he was educated at Marlborough and the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Vaughan Williams and conducting with Adrian Boult. In the 1920s, living simply in Surrey, he plunged himself into musical life, conducting amateur choirs and local operas. Unlike his contemporaries Walton and Britten, Tippett was a late developer as a composer and was severely critical of his early compositions. At the age of thirty he scrapped all he had written so far and studied counterpoint and fugue with R. O. Morris[?]. His first mature compositions show a fascination with these devices.
Tippett was never a prolific composer, and his works, completed slowly over the following sixty years, comprised five string quartets, four concertos, four symphonies, five operas and a number of vocal works. His music is often divided into four distinct periods of composition.
The first period, from 1935 to 1947, includes the first two quartets, the Corelli Fantasia, the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, the oratorio A Child of Our Time (to his own libretto) and the First Symphony, and is characterised by strenuous contrapuntal energy and deeply lyrical slow movements. the second, up to the late fifties, includes the Opera The Midsummer Marriage, the Piano Concerto, and the Second Symphony and features rich textures and overflowing melodic writing. The third period, up to 1970 is in stark contrast and is characterised by abrupt statements and simplicity of texture, as in the opera King Priam, the Concerto for Orchestra and the Second Piano Sonata. The fourth period is a rich mixture of all these styles, using many devices such as quotation (from Beethoven and Mussorgsky among others). The main works of this period were the Third Symphony, the operas The Ice Break and New Year, and the large-scale choral work The Mask of Time.
Tippett was regarded by many as an outsider figure in British music. His pacifist beliefs led to a prison sentence in World War II, and for many years his music was considered ungratefully written for voices and instruments and difficult to play. An intense intellectual, he maintained a much wider knowledge and interest in the literature and philosophy of other countries (Africa, Europe) than was common among British musicians. His (sometimes quirky) libretti for his operas and other works reflect his passionate interest in the dilemmas of human society and the enduring strength of the human spirit.