15 Mar 2011

Tippett – A Child of Our Time

Written by Jeff Counts

THE COMPOSER – MICHAEL TIPPET – For British composer Michael Tippett, the war years were a time of moral outrage and strained convictions. He was not alone. As an avowed pacifist and adamant conscientious objector, he had a worldview that earned him three months of incarceration in 1943. Tippett returned to work immediately upon release and was finally able to mount a production of his oratorio A Child of Our Time in 1944.

THE MUSIC – The piece was composed between 1938 and 1941 and inspired by a particularly tragic set of pre-war events. On November 7, 1938 a young Polish Jew named Herschel Grynspan walked into the German Embassy in Paris and asked to speak to a German official. He was shown to the office of Ernst vom Rath and there Grynspan promptly shot the German diplomat in the name of 12,000 persecuted Jews. The anti-Semitic pogrom known as Kristallnacht would follow just days later, claiming Grynspan’s act as a pretext. Tippett was horrified by the Nazi reprisal and frustrated with the general lack of urgency he saw from the World regarding the treatment of the Jews. This indignation would yield his first major work, A Child of Our Time. The title comes from an anti-Nazi novel by Oden von Horvath and the libretto was written by Tippett himself (T.S. Eliot was asked but declined). Though he drew also on historical events for source material, the composer was careful not to reference anything too directly. He hoped to create a timeless emotional experience rather than a politically date-stamped litany and so chose to focus on Jungian themes and the universality of human oppression. Tippett studied and emulated the large scale works of Handel and Bach and constructed his piece in a Messiah-like three sections, employing the familiar use of alternating narrative recitatives, choral set pieces and arias. A highly effective variation on the old form is the use of African American spirituals for many of the choruses – Tippett’s acknowledgement of the racial tensions that so often precipitate the suffering we humans visit on one another.

THE WORLD – 1944 was a critical year in WWII. It was the year of D-Day and the beginning of the end for the Axis powers in Europe. Back home, congress created the G.I. Bill of Rights, a set of important opportunities and benefits for our returning servicemen.

THE CONNECTION – These performances represent the Utah Symphony premiere of A Child of Our Time.