40th Anniversary Concert:
A Child of Our Time
Date: March 4, 2017
Time: 8 PM
Venue: Tsai Performance Center at Boston University
Melospiza melodia (2017) WORLD PREMIERE
Vertige d’Eros (1945)
A Child of Our Time (1939-41)
….Sarah Pelletier, soprano;
….Krista River, mezzo-soprano;
….Charles Blandy, tenor;
….Sumner Thompson, bass
….Chorus pro Musica,
………Jamie Kirsch, Director
On ‘A Child of Our Time’
“We cannot have them in our empire. They shall not work nor draw a dole. Let them starve in No-Man’s-Land! Away with them! Curse them! They infect the state!” Familiar words?
More than 75 years after its composition, A Child of Our Time is unfortunately all too relevant to audiences of our time. Though rooted in the ideas and politics of the era of the World Wars and the rise of Nazi Germany, the oratorio was written as a broader meditation on man’s inhumanity to man. It is a call for unity; the frustration at its core reflects that of its composer, who was appalled by Nazi atrocities yet also an uncompromising pacifist who was jailed for his beliefs.
Michael Tippett (1905–1998) was one of the great British composers of the twentieth century. He was born into a well-to-do and progressive family, his father a successful lawyer and mother a social activist and suffragist. True to that background, Tippett annoyed his teachers by advocating atheism and rejecting any kind of military service. He was drawn to music early, but took some time to find his own voice—it was not until 1935, at age 30, that he permitted any of his works to be published. Tippett’s musical associations were close to the people: he conducted an amateur choir in the village of Oxted, performing a variety of madrigals, oratorios, and, with a local theater group, folk-inflected operas. He also led a London orchestra composed of unemployed musicians, and in 1940 he became music director at Morley College, an adult education institute in London.
Tippett had been searching for a topic for a major work when, in October 1938, Hitler’s government decided to solve an “immigrant problem” by expelling 17,000 Polish Jews who had been living in Germany. The Polish government refused to accept them, and many were placed in a refugee camp on the border. Among the refugees was the family of Zindel Grynszpan, whose 17-year-old son, Herschel, had been sent to live with relatives in Paris. Herschel, distraught at his family’s suffering, went to the German embassy in Paris, where he shot the Third Secretary, Ernst vom Rath, who died two days later. The Nazis capitalized on the affair by orchestrating massive “spontaneous” demonstrations which quickly turned into the looting and destruction of Jewish businesses throughout Germany, a pogrom that was called Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass.”
Tippett took the incident as the core of an oratorio. His model was Handel’s masterwork, Messiah, which is divided into three parts, characterized by Tippett as “prophecy and preparation”; “history from the birth of Christ to the Last Judgment”; and “meditation.” In Tippett’s oratorio, the parts are: (1) “the general state of oppression” (the suffering of the people); (2) “a young man’s attempt to seek justice and the catastrophic consequences;” and (3) a search for a meaning or moral. The music has the form of a J. S. Bach Passion, with a narrator, dramatic choruses and contemplative arias, and, importantly, chorales, or “congregational hymns.” Tippett’s choices for those “hymns” give A Child of Our Time its most distinctive feature.
Tippett wanted chorales that could unite the concert audience in a “congregation of the faithful,” but felt that Christian liturgical hymns could not speak to agnostics or Jews. Deeply moved by a radio broadcast of “Steal Away,” he realized that “the Negro spiritual presented no expressional barriers anywhere in Europe. Nor maybe anywhere in the world.” He obtained a book of spirituals and selected five for crucial points in the oratorio.
The spirituals affected the harmonic structure of the whole work: Much of the composition is based on the interval of the minor third, and Tippett, for example, adapted the minor third–fifth–dominant seventh pattern spelled out in “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” into a sliding chromatic fugue for the “Chorus of the Oppressed;” a Kurt Weill-like tango in “I have no money for my bread;” and a dance-like accompaniment to “The Soul of Man.” Tippett gave the spirituals themselves simple, unsentimental settings, making them “a place of rest.”
There are thirty movements in A Child of Our Time, each is intentionally short and precise, a style Tippet called “lapidaric.” He was strongly influenced by two poets: Wilfred Owen, whose words formed the basis of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (and whose poem, “The Seed,” inspired the oratorio’s opening) and T. S. Eliot, whom Tippett called his “spiritual father.” He asked Eliot to write the libretto; but after seeing the extensive work he had already done, Eliot advised him to simply finish what he had started.
The text draws heavily on concepts from the psychologist Carl Jung, who saw enduring patterns in human thought and behavior and who attributed conflict to the separation in the modern world of different aspects of the self—dark vs. light, evil vs. good. A Child of Our Time argues that injustice and ultimately war result from people projecting their own inner darkness onto others—creating scapegoats for their suffering and resorting to violence against them. The violence simply begets more violence, solving nothing. The only solution is a painful reconciliation of opposites; from the cold winter of the opening we must go still deeper, “into the icy waters, where lies the jewel of great price”—which, for Jung, was the reunification of the divided self, the “gift of our forefathers.” Both the dark and the light have essential roles; Tippett takes as an epigram a quotation from T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral: “the darkness declares the glory of light.”
“Behold the man! The scapegoat! The child of our time!” For Tippett, the demonization of the “other” was the deepest evil of his day. Has anything changed? A Child of Our Time directly addresses that evil by exposing its futility, and by encouraging compassion, tolerance, and the absolute refusal of any stereotype of division that prevents the expression of our total humanity. While the oratorio can’t change human nature, it does give us the power of insight, and, with that, hope.
—Peter Pulsifer (February 2017)
Group Sales Concert Tickets – Make it a party!
For groups of 10 or more we have a special price of $30 per ticket, that’s a $10 discount on each ticket purchased. Simply use code ‘HereWeCome’ upon checkout (valid for reservations of 10 or more, subject to availability.)