Michael Tippett - Child of our Time

Shadow and light in war and peace: Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time

Oliver Soden discusses the historical context and inspiration behind Michael Tippett’s famous ‘modern oratorio’ A Child of our Time.

A premiere against the odds

It was an unusually cold March in 1944, and the West End theatres were barely heated. Concertgoers, many in army uniform, picked their way across the rubble and sandbags and craters of the Strand to the Adelphi Theatre, in order to hear a new work, for choir, orchestra, and four soloists, by a young composer called Michael Tippett. He had made headlines the previous year for being sent to gaol as a hardline conscientious objector.

Letter from Michael Tippett to Evelyn Maude (1943)

Michael Tippett's letter to Evelyn Maude, MS Mus. 1757/5

Tippett wrote this letter in 1943 during his imprisonment as a conscientious objector for refusing to undertake military service during the Second World War.

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Usage terms Reproductions of Michael Tippett’s writings are included by kind permission of the Trustees of the Sir Michael Tippett Will Trust. Except as otherwise permitted under your national copyright law this material may not be copied or distributed further.
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Flyers did little to elucidate the title: A Child of Our Time. Orchestras had been evacuated from London, and concert halls were mounds of rubble; hence the decision to premiere the work in a theatre. But somehow, in that world of paper rationing and army calls-up, sheet music had been printed and performers drummed up. Billboards outside advertised the play then having a popular run at the Adelphi: Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years. The country-wide blackout had made obtaining black cloth for use in theatres all but impossible, and nothing could be done to cover up the set.

So the performers, led by star soloists Joan Cross and Peter Pears, took their places in front of an ornately painted backdrop depicting a Victorian conservatory. It was the midst of Operation Steinbock, known as the ‘Baby Blitz’, but on the day of the premiere, 19 March 1944, German bombers left London alone, turning their attention to the north of England. Theatre auditoriums during the war were hung with signs that would light up during an air-raid, in case the wail of the siren outside were drowned by the performance. But the premiere of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time went without a hitch, and the next morning The Times hailed, in the tiny wartime newsprint that saved paper, ‘the choral work for which we have been waiting since the outbreak of this war’.

Nearly eight decades on, A Child of Our Time remains Tippett’s most famous piece, and its scheme is well known: a three-part structure woven around the story of the Jewish teenager Herschel Grynszpan, whose assassination of a Nazi official in November 1938 led to, or was at least the pretext for, the Nazis’ vengeful pogrom against the Jews called Kristallnacht (the night of broken glass). Tippett, an ardent pacifist, saw in Grynszpan a ‘child of his time’, a young man driven to desperation as the century darkened, a figure through whom the oratorio could call for peace from the depths of the war.

Inspired by the chance hearing of a radio broadcast, he decided to punctuate the music with arrangements of five African-American spirituals, universalised expressions of suffering and hope that serve as contemporary equivalents to the Lutheran chorales in Bach’s Passions. He wrote the libretto himself over 1939, and began the music on 3 September, the day Britain declared war on Germany. A slow worker, he finished in the Easter of 1941, and the manuscript lay in a drawer for three years before, with the help of the composer Benjamin Britten and the conductor Walter Goehr, the premiere was finally arranged.

False starts

Tippett was the proverbial late-starter as a composer, dismissing as juvenilia the nearly thirty works that preceded his official Opus One, the first string quartet (1935). A Child of Our Time was the result of his urge to create a ‘major work of all that I felt at the state of the world’.

He made several false starts: the first, pondered in 1937, was a tripartite choral work setting a jumble of texts (Blake, Whitman, T S Eliot), to be called Nekyia, after the Ancient Greek rite by which ghosts were called up and questioned about the future. This was superseded by a plan to write an opera on the 1916 Easter rising in Ireland. Ideas came and went through the 1930s, a decade of some turmoil for Tippett, as he worked out how best to respond, as a composer and as a human being, to the fall-out from the Depression and the global threat of war. His politics shot far to the left, though he rejected the Stalinist interpretation of Marxism as exemplified by the Communist Party of Great Britain, whereby communism was to be kept within the one nation of the Soviet Union.

Appalled by news of Stalin’s policies, he settled his views on the side of the exiled Leon Trotsky, who advocated perpetual worldwide revolution. Tippett’s correspondence of the mid-to-late 1930s suddenly glitters with a startling violence, so certain did he become that it was necessary violently to break eggs in order to cook a utopian omelette. Soon the very real prospect of war focussed his mind, and a period of Jungian therapy, following the break-up of an all-consuming love affair, eased his heart. The needful violence of Trotskyism was taken over by the pacifism to which he devoted himself for the rest of his life.

A Child of Our Time was a means of tying together these powerful and disparate strands of his life. In Herschel Grynszpan, whom he accounted the ‘hero’ of the piece, there is something of the Trotskyist revolutionary, the youth who turns a gun on authority. But the work, inviting the listener to conclude that Grynszpan’s actions have brought about nothing but further suffering, is over-archingly pacifist, and filters the story through the philosophy of Carl Jung that Tippett believed had been his own salvation. Jung believed in acknowledging the self’s ‘shadow’: an unconscious repository of memories forgotten or suppressed, and festering in consequence. When the shadow is unassimilated into the psyche, violent projection onto an external figure, as exemplified by Grynszpan’s assassination of the Nazi official, or by one nation declaring war on another, could be the only result.

Words

Crystallising such complexities into a singable libretto was no easy task, and it was one that Tippett hoped would be undertaken by T S Eliot, whom he had got to know quite well a few years before. Eliot initially agreed and Tippett sent him an outline of the piece, called Sketch for a Modern Oratorio (he would take its eventual title from a novella by the Austro-Hungarian writer Ödön von Horváth). But soon, concerned that his own verbal music would be put into fruitless competition with Tippett’s soundworld, Eliot advised the composer to undertake the writing of the text. Both agreed that words purpose-built for musical setting should be simple, almost deliberately lacking in literary quality.

Draft scenario for Tippett’s A Child of our Time

Michael Tippett: A Child of Our Time draft libretto, Add MS 72034

The draft scenario and later libretto for Tippett’s A Child of our Time was written by the composer himself.

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Tippett’s libretto stems from his wide literary knowledge and his familiarity with Charles Jennens’s text for Handel’s Messiah. The oratorio’s three parts mirror the structure of Messiah: the first part preparatory prophecy and scene-setting; the second ‘telling the story’; the third moving towards redemption. Forged with a careful lack of specificity, the words for A Child of Our Time never mention time, place, or person by name. The result moved the oratorio from journalism to parable, from a narrative of Grynszpan’s story to a scenario that can encompass the turmoil of the decades that followed the Second World War. Subsequent audiences have seen in the title character not only Grynszpan but, say, Jan Palach, the Czech student who set himself alight to protest the end of the Prague Spring, or Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee photographed drowned on a Turkish beach. Contemporary parallels remain inescapable. In Part One, a Chorus of Oppressors sings ‘We cannot have them in our Empire; they shall not work, nor draw a dole.’

Music

Although Tippett was nearly 40 when A Child of Our Time was completed, his score can be heard as a crystallisation of his first mature style, assimilating a typically eclectic number of musical influences, from Henry Purcell and the English madrigalists to Kurt Weill, Beethoven, and contemporary jazz. He had developed a highly original method of counterpoint, and the world’s fragmentation is often depicted in jagged fugue. The numerous musical threads woven into one fabric seem to mirror the work’s aim of bringing together a divided self in one person, and a divided world in one humanity. Studded through the work are the five pools – of repose, anger, hope, reflection – created by the spirituals, the inclusion of which, at a time when the Nazis made the performance of so-called Negermusik illegal, sent a clear political message. 

Tippett’s oratorio A Child of our Time

Michael Tippett: A Child of Our Time, Add MS 61754

Although composed in a relatively short time between 1939 and 1941, Michael Tippett’s ‘modern oratorio’ A Child of Our Time was the fulfilment of an idea to realise his political and social philosophy in musical terms that went back long before that.

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A Child of Our Time ends with an image of purgative waters and a vision of spiritual renewal. The oratorio opens in winter, as ‘the world turns on its dark side’. It ends in the spring. The tenor soloist, often cast as the Grynszpan figure, sings what Tippett later called the ‘only truth’ he would ever say, crystallising the Jungian journey towards psychological and global unity: ‘I would know my shadow and my light / So shall I at last be whole.’ Two rhymes, i and o, are cross-stitched through the line like conflicting entities. Two flutes dance around one another like shadow and light trying to unite in one self. The work concludes with the final spiritual, ‘Deep River’, and a glimpse – but only that – of a ‘land where all is peace’. The bleak interval of a minor third is struck through the three panels of the oratorio like a motif of hopelessness, and it is a minor third, for unaccompanied choir, that is heard last of all.

‘Brothers and sisters in the modern agony…’

The philosophy of A Child of Our Time can inspire scepticism in all but the most Jung-steeped. Can the problems of mankind really be solved by a mastery of the dark unconscious? But its passion, sincerity, and beauty sweep all before it. Reviews of the premiere were, in the main, favourable, and the oratorio quickly became, and remained, a classic. Many of its earliest performances were in the occupied territories of Europe in the post-war years, when Tippett’s music seemed to encapsulate both dismay and renewal.

As Tippett travelled further along the bumpy road to acclaim, eventually to be hailed as one of the country’s greatest composers, he became sceptical about what he deemed the naivety of the work, and disappointed that its popularity eclipsed some of his maturer works. But he was thrilled by the way in which it spoke, as it continues to speak, for the oppressed of the world, and he wept when, during performances in the southern states of America in the sixties and seventies, the audience quietly joined in with the spirituals. ‘What is there in A Child of Our Time’, wrote an early critic, ‘which received such an instant and vibrating answer in the feelings of the ordinary man and woman? Perhaps it is that Tippett’s oratorio – with its pain, its ecstasy and its theme – “The simple-hearted shall exult in the end” – speaks the inexpressible thoughts of us all, children of our time, brothers and sisters in the modern agony.’

  • Oliver Soden
  • Oliver Soden is a writer and broadcaster, and the author of Michael Tippett: The Biography (2019). He is currently working on a new biography, the first in a quarter-century, of Noël Coward. www.oliversoden.co.uk

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