A Child of Our Time
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, cymbals, strings, chorus, and soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, and bass soloists. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 23, 1978, with soprano Carmen Balthrop, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Jones, tenor Michael Best, bass Marvin Hayes, and the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Interdenominational Choirs, Sir Michael Tippett conducting.
"The morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy."
-- Job, 38:7
"…the darkness declares the glory of light."
-- T. S. Eliot, from Murder in the Cathedral, quoted on the title page of Tippett’s A Child of Our Time
Social activism is not the first thing that comes to mind when one recalls details of great composers’ lives. Of course, the story of Beethoven furiously erasing his Eroica Symphony’s dedication to Napoleon is legend. Unhappy with the marauding Emperor for abandoning the principles that the French Revolution -- and Napoleon -- had stood for until 1804, Beethoven decided enough was enough. Not terribly heroic stuff, really, but noteworthy for a composer.
Sir Michael Tippett, on the other hand, was a man who took risks in the name of political and social causes throughout his career. He held steadfastly to messages of universal understanding and brotherhood in his music, in his writings, and in his personal life. A famous example from Tippett’s life was his arrest and subsequent jailing in the early 1940s as a conscientious objector.
His opera librettos and vocal texts also often contend with social issues and topics such as Jungian psychoanalysis, racial tension, and homosexuality, among others. His The Knot Garden (1966-69) is the first opera to portray an openly gay couple; the plot of The Ice Break (1973-76) encompasses conflicts of race and intergenerational issues. His last opera, New Year (1985-88), features two orphans, one white and one black, whose foster mother is a psychologist and a bit of a social misfit. Not exactly your typical operatic characters.
A Child of Our Time, an oratorio which acknowledges and draws from the tradition of both George Frideric Handel and J.S. Bach, is perhaps Tippett’s most famous work. He began writing the oratorio at the very beginning of World War II in response to his outrage at the world’s apathy to the plight of Jewish refugees. The story is based on headlines ripped from the newspapers of the day. Tippett had read about Henschel Grynsban, a young Polish Jew who had fled to France to escape the Nazi pogrom. Grynsban’s mother and father, left behind, were apparently suffering at the hands of the Nazi persecutors. The young man snapped and killed a minor Nazi official in Paris; the Nazi retribution was severe and vigorous (his parents were executed and the young Grynsban disappeared). The story affected Tippett deeply and inspired this oratorio, a work which Newsweek magazine de-scribed (nearly 30 years later) as "something Handel might have written had he lived in the age of Auschwitz."
This composition exemplifies Tippett’s typical musical style, a style born of his practical knowledge as choir director at Morley College, where his focus was on amateur and unemployed professional musicians. He created his own libretto, a practice which he would pursue in all of his subsequent operas. He was also drawn to popular and folk music; in the case of this work he grounded the composition in the African American spiritual, using well-known works as the chorale interludes for the choir, much as Bach used Lutheran chorales -- which everyone in the congregation knew -- as moments of reflection on action that has just taken place. Tippett also drew inspiration from the spiritual melodies for his own composition, both his text and his setting.
He reveled in traditional musical techniques in this work. All through A Child of Our Time, one can hear traditional counterpoint and imitative vocal writing, triadic harmonies, and repetition. He also makes use of time-honored oratorio and opera devices, including the recitatives (a style in which the vocalist, in this case almost always the bass who also serves as the narrator, "recites" the story and moves the action along), the aria (songs in which individual vocal soloists are featured), ensembles including duets and trios, as well as the continuous presence of the orchestra in the entire work.
A Child of Our Time is divided into three parts, each part corresponding to a particular section of the newspaper story which spawned the oratorio. Tippett used both Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Passions as a foundation: he substituted Negro spirituals for what would have been the traditional Lutheran chorales in a Bach work, for example. According to Tippett himself, these spirituals (which Tippett altered to be more harmonically static than the original spirituals) serve as moments of repose and reflection between other sections in the oratorio.
According to Tippett, he borrowed the three-part macro-structure of Messiah as a model for his oratorio: "Part I deals with the general state of oppression in our time; Part II presents… the story of a young man’s attempt to seek justice… and the catastrophic consequences; while Part III considers the moral to be drawn, if any."
Indeed, the first part prepares the scene, as the "darkness" is revealed. Evil has gripped the land ("pogroms in the East, lynchings in the West," among the many calamities), and the tenor soloist (who represents the Jewish boy) is despondent: "how can I grow to a man’s stature?" The first section ends with the spiritual "Steal Away to Jesus." (This spiritual is also a reference to stealing away, as in escaping from captivity.)
The persecutors and persecuted are caught in a whirlpool of hate, into which the second section of the oratorio plunges headlong. The scapegoat -- the child of our time -- is identified. By using the African American as his source for the music, and the European Jew as his inspiration for the libretto, Tippett has indeed encapsulated "scapegoatism" in two of its most heinous manifestations in recent history.
After reaching the breaking point, the young boy (the tenor) snaps and kills his "dark brother": "his other self rises in him, demonic and destructive. He shoots the official…" The second section ends with the chorus recalling the story of the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt ("Go Down, Moses"), a hymn which symbolized the similar fate of African Americans.
In the final section, Tippett attempts to make sense of the events that have transpired -- in this case, the egregious violence, the suffering, and the deprivation that has just occurred. The composer’s message is clear: recrimination and vengeance are not the answer. According to Tippett, we must first seek compassion for our fellow humans and find a way to embrace even the darkness that lies in wait within us all.
The text for A Child of Our Time was prepared by Tippett himself, though he had originally asked poet T. S. Eliot to write it. Eliot said that he would, but needed Tippett to "do his homework for him" and outline what he had in mind, how many songs, which would feature soloists, which chorus, etc. Tippett’s sketches for Eliot were so complete, and in such direct and elegantly simple language, that Eliot felt that his contribution would be at odds with Tippett’s text. Eliot suggested that Tippett complete the text himself, which he did.
Perhaps because of its universal themes, straightforward language, and often traditional musical materials, A Child of Our Time has endured and become Tippett’s most recorded and performed work; the gospel chorale interludes have even been excerpted for performance separate from the oratorio.
It may well be that the work’s universal, truly premonitory quality, has also kept this oratorio in the repertoire. Tippett addressed this issue himself, writing 35 years later in Music of the Angels (from 1980 -- a few years after the Pol Pot regime’s massacres in Cambodia and several years before Slobadon Milosevic’s rampages in Bosnia and Kosovo): "When I wrote the work, I was so engulfed in the actions of the period, I never considered its prophetic quality. But it seems that the growing violence springing out of divisions of nation, race, religion, status, color, or even just rich and poor is possibly the deepest present threat to the social fabric of all human society."
A Child of Our Time was premiered on March 19, 1944 by the London Civil Defense and Morley College Choirs with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by Walter Goehr, at the Royal Adelphi Theatre in London. Peter Pears was the tenor soloist; Joan Cross [the creator of the role of Ellen Orford in Britten’s Peter Grimes] was the soprano.
Composer Dave Kopplin, who holds a Ph.D. from UCLA, is a writer and program editor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Hollywood Bowl. He also is a lecturer in music at Loyola Marymount University.