Thursday, November 19, 2015

A Year's Music: Michael Tippett's "A Child of Our Time"

News of terrorism in Paris, debates concerning international help for Syrian refugees, and concerns about justice for African Americans in this country, reminded me recently of the oratorio A Child of Our Time, composed by the British composer Michael Tippett (1905-1998). I haven't listened to it for several years and wanted to again.

Tippett wrote the piece in 1939-1941 in response to Kristallnacht, the anniversary of which was earlier this month. Tippett was a pacifist who went to prison during World War II, and some of his message of non-violence and reconciliation are part of this work, which also expresses solidarity with oppressed and homeless peoples of the world.

The title, which Tippett borrowed from a novel Ein Kind unserer Zeit, refers to the refugee boy Hershel Grynszpan, whose shooting of a German diplomat precipitated Kristallnacht, that 1938 Nazi persecution and destruction of Jewish communities. In the oratorio, the boy symbolizes Grynszpan as well as victims of inhumanity generally. Interestingly, Tippett uses American spirituals in sections where a composer like Bach or Handel would have used chorales. The spirituals further convey the themes of oppression and liberation. Tippett, who wrote the libretto as well as the music, also incorporated Jungian themes of shadow and light into the piece, notably in the third section where conclusions are explored; the other two sections had dealt with the sad state of the world and the plight of persecuted peoples, and the attempts at achieving justice. The final piece is a spiritual, looking to a final redemption:

Deep river, my home is over Jordan,
I want to cross over into camp-ground, Lord!

The Wikipedia page, from which I found much of this information, details the oratorio's composition and performance histories, as well as providing a list of the individual numbers.

I've been listening to the recording (on the Chandos label) by Richard Hickox conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, with black soloists. There are classic recordings by Sir Colin Davis as well. Here is a performance by the BBC Choral Society on YouTube:

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