A Child of our Time

Richard and I attended a performance of Michael Tippett's 'A Child of our Time' on Saturday, which was a school performance aided and abetted by 4 professional soloists with local connections and a few professional musicians. Oh - and Jordan was in the chorus. I didn't know the piece at all, and my enjoyment of it was not enhanced by the extreme pain transmitted to my buttocks by the hard chairs. However, despite my amazement that the school managed to pull off a creditable if slightly under-rehearsed performance, I have to say I didn't appreciate the composition itself.

Tippett began writing this oratorio in 1938 in response to events surrounding a political assassination by Hershel Grynszpan, events which triggered widespread persecution of the Jews in the Kristallnacht (night of broken glass); the actions of Grynszpan were used by Nazis to justify their actions. Tippett took this concept of scapegoating together with his staunch pacifist sympathies (he was later imprisoned as a conscientious objector) and a bit of Jungian resonance to form the basis of his libretto.

Now I'm not really an appreciator of classical music. I like classical music; I don't like all of it, not by a long way; and I don't often know why I do or don't like something. I liked bits of this. But what I do have strong feelings about is words. And I didn't like these words. I found them rather naff, to be honest. Interestingly Tippett first took the idea of the libretto to T S Eliot, hoping that the great poet would write it for him. It's reported that Eliot declined on the basis that Tippett's music would provide the emotion, and that there was no need for further poetry. I reckon Eliot was being polite, and secretly didn't want to be saddled with such a restrictive brief ('I want it to be about a specific event, but also the universality of conflict, resolution, suffering and oppression together with a bit of acceptance, all wrapped in a Jungian subtext with a smidge of the Bible thrown in for good measure'). So Tippett wrote it all himself. Here's one of my 'favourite' bits:

MOTHER Oh my son! In the dread terror they have brought me near to death.
BOY Mother, mother! Though men hurt me like an animal, I will defy the world to reach you.
AUNT Have patience. Throw not your life away in futile sacrifice.
UNCLE You are as one against all. Accept the impotence of your humanity.
BOY No! I must save her.

...and so on and so on. OK so this is personal taste. But the thing I really objected to was also the thing this piece is often lauded for; the inclusion of several traditional African -American Spirituals. I understand that Tippett was trying to convey the universality of such persecution and suffering, across the sweep of human history. And they certainly worked well in terms of the music (and the words were a welcome relief too!). But I found it hard to stomach hearing about the persecution of the Jewish people alongside Christian songs such as 'Nobody knows the trouble I see'. 'Go down Moses' worked far better, reflecting the Jewish story as it did. Richard was of the mind that these songs were just as alien to the original faith and culture of the African slaves, so therefore they work well as a cross-cultural reference. But I kept wondering how this odd juxtaposition would sound to someone Jewish.

In these times we are perhaps more careful to respect the differences and celebrate the individuality of races and cultures, rather than to embrace the similarities. I am as much a child of my time as Tippett was of his (albeit Tippett was out of step with the prevailing culture, his counter-cultural stance was still one of 1938). I am not sure that I can lay aside my knee-jerk reactions long enough to really appreciate the thought process behind a work such as this.


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