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Sir Michael Tippett A Child of Our Time

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It is spring, but spring with an ache in it

Sir Michael Tippett

In his oratorio A Child of Our Time, Sir Michael Tippett drew together numerous different musical and spiritual perspectives, linking them by common themes and experiences. In contrast, his Concerto for Orchestra, commissioned 60 years ago by the Edinburgh International Festival and premiered at the Usher Hall in 1963, was more abstract in its treatment of differing perspectives. Tippett built upon the techniques he was developing in his opera King Priam (1962) creating a collage of ideas for his Concerto that suggests the influence of American composer Charles Ives. A fragmented orchestra presents different ‘characters’ that are superimposed and continuously reordered. Tippett creates a commentary on traditional musical forms, exploring the tensions between well-established structures and more episodic approaches, which include overlapping layers and interruptions. Throughout the work, classical and modern musical perspectives clash and interact.

In the first movement, the orchestra is divided into three groups, each of which plays its theme, ranging from dream-like to imposing and animated, before they are jumbled together. The second movement is just for strings, tracing an arc from darkness to light and back again, before Tippett unleashes percussion and brass in the third movement.

In our audio introduction series 'All you need to know', Festival Director Nicola Benedetti explains what Michael Tippett's A Child of our Time means to her, while Tom Service reflects on the historical context of the work and the resonance it has today.

An outspoken pacifist, Tippett composed A Child of Our Time in response to the shooting of a German official by Polish Jewish refugee Herschel Grynzspan in 1938. This assassination quickly became the Nazis’ excuse for Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) in November of the same year. Initially rooted in these tragic events, Tippett takes a broad view of social oppression and the fate of its victims. This theme was close to the composer’s heart as he came to terms with his homosexuality via dream therapy at a time when homosexuality was still illegal.

Tippett was keen to emphasise the universality of the oratorio’s message: it is not ‘about’ a specific figure or moral standpoint but represents 'a common, or folk experience'. He noted that: ‘In A Child of Our Time the tragic events are brought before us just long enough to reproduce the appropriate emotions in the relative tranquillity of recollection so that we may ask of them their message’. Apart from the ‘Chorus of the self-righteous’ and ‘A spiritual of anger’, the work makes ‘no attempt to moralise’. Early critics of the oratorio thought otherwise, assuming that Tippett’s avoidance of overt violence came from his stance as a pacifist. Tippett stood firm in his assertion that the oratorio ‘brings the events before us in recollection, not to judge … that by terror and pity we may be moved to stop equating intellect with spirit, and to “break open the heart”.

A Child of Our Time combines Baroque precedents with English choral tradition and arrangements of African American spirituals, which act as ‘chorales’ in a similar way to Bach’s use of Lutheran chorales in his Passions. The model of Christian Passions was integral to the layout of Tippett’s oratorio. In both, a narrator describes the events as they unfold, while singing a recitative. The chorus then interjects, and the soloists offer a moral commentary. Tippett was inspired by both Bach’s Passions and Handel’s Messiah, particularly by Handel’s tripartite division. In Messiah, the first section deals with prophecy, the second with history and the third with the metaphysical. Tippett emulated this pattern in A Child of Our Time, which he described as follows:

Part I:

The general state of affairs in the world today as it affects all individuals, minorities, classes or races that are felt to be outside the ruling conventions. Man at odds with his Shadow (i.e. the dark side of personality).

Part II:

The ‘Child of Our Time’ appears, enmeshed in the drama of his personal fate and the elemental social forces of our day. The drama is because the forces which drive the young man prove stronger than the good advice of his uncle and aunt, as it always was and always will be.

Part III:

The significance of this drama and the possible healing that would come from Man’s acceptance of his Shadow in relation to his Light.’

Along with the spirituals, there are several pivotal, interconnected moments in the oratorio. This includes the dramatic ‘Scena’ in Part II in which the nameless Child is so affected by the agony of his mother that he resists the pleas of his aunt and uncle and declares: ‘I will defy the world to reach you’. When the four soloists come together again at the end of the work, the focus has shifted to a more ethereal contemplation of these feelings. However, in Part II, they trigger the boy’s act of desperation before he leads the chorus in the spiritual ‘Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord’. Tippett also found musical connections between the syncopations of this spiritual and the dancing, jazz-like elements of ‘The soul of man is impassioned like a woman’ in Part III, infusing the oratorio with the musical vernacular – in keeping with its ‘folk’ ethos.

Towards the end of the work there is a build-up of affirmation: soaring, upbeat music signifying spring after winter. Tippett had written the libretto before the commencement of the Second World War, yet the music was composed as it raged. He chose to end the work with a muted, profound, introverted form of hope embodied in the contemplative certainty of ‘Deep River’, chiming with the political atmosphere of the time. The melancholy opening chorus includes the lines: ‘The world turns on its dark side. / It is winter’. Towards the end of the work, the alto and then chorus sing: ‘The moving waters renew the earth. / It is spring.’ But, Tippett explained, in wartime, ‘Spring, in the poetic sense, was hard to imagine.’ Before ‘Deep River’, the soloists sing over a pedal bass accompanied by the full orchestra. As Tippett put it: ‘It is spring: but spring with an ache in it.’

Where can I buy tickets?

Tippett's A Child of Our Time is at Usher Hall on 20 August 2023.

© Joanna Wyld regularly writes for the Aldeburgh, Salzburg, Oxford Lieder and Cambridge Music festivals, the Southbank Centre, Wigmore Hall and Saffron Hall, and many of the major UK orchestras. She has won awards for her creative writing and wrote the libretto to Robert Hugill’s opera The Gardeners, which was premiered at Conway Hall in London in 2019.

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