About this work
Tippett constructed his Concerto for Double String Orchestra with the eighteenth-century concept of the ripieno concerto in mind. In this format (examples are the Handel and Vivaldi concerti grossi) there is no soloist; rather, instrumental groups of contrasting size and timbre emerge to create variety and musical drama. The work's first performance, given in 1940 by the South London Orchestra, was an important event in Tippett's career and established his name among the foremost composers of the time. Many consider it his first major work.
Tippett's early fascination with Beethoven is clear throughout the Concerto for Double String Orchestra. The divisions of sonata form are evident in the outer movements, while the central movement is directly modeled on a Beethoven's work; melodically and contrapuntally, however, it owes more to the Elizabethan madrigal. Also, additive rhythms, in which lines accumulate unpredictable accents, abound in the concerto.
The vivacious opening of the first movement, Allegro con brio, provides an excellent example of one of the salient features of Tippett's style -- rhythmic counterpoint. Each of the two orchestras presents a line with thick doubling. While the line of the first orchestra remains in one meter for extended stretches, that of the second orchestra changes meter often. Furthermore, the first line, with its recurring trills, contains accents and ties in places that obscure the bar lines. Upon repetition, the themes switch from one orchestra to another, making them equal partners in the ensuing argument. Individual beats are often divided in different ways in simultaneously sounding lines, making it difficult to sense a pulse. Tippett's intricate rhythmic and melodic counterpoint derives in part from his study of sixteenth-century music and its seemingly free rhythm, while the accents and crescendos are clearly influenced by jazz. The divisions of sonata form are evident in the announcement of the first movement's principal themes and their subsequent development and recapitulation. All of this is achieved in the midst of a seamless contrapuntal texture and a constant atmosphere of spontaneity.
Beethoven again rears his head in the second movement, Adagio cantabile, the longest of the three movements. Directly modeled on the slow movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, the Adagio begins with a sweeping, songlike melody for solo violin that paraphrases the folk song "Ca' the yowes." Occasionally, harsh dissonance occurs between the melody and its accompaniment. As in the Beethoven example, the central section of this ternary movement is a fugal episode, the intensity of which diminishes as the opening section returns.
Marked Allegro molto, the finale bounces along with the same rhythmic energy we hear in the first movement. Snappy Scottish rhythms dominate in the noisy central section, which gives way to a soaring song for the cellos. Yet another tune, in the violins, enters to reinvigorate the musical proceedings and return to the opening mood. Tippett closes the work by introducing a new theme in the coda.