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Music for the children of our time

Review by Kate McCabe

The performance at the first night of the Proms music festival of Michael Tippett's oratorio A Child of Our Time was partly inspired by the story of Herschel Grynszpan. Grynszpan was a young Jew who, in November 1938, shot a German fascist official, an event which was used by the Nazis to unleash a wave of terror against the Jews.

Tippett, the centenary of whose birth is celebrated this year, wrote that "the work began to come together with the sounds of the shot itself and the shattering of glass in the Kristallnacht".

Conductor Sir Roger Norrington, in a moving statement, dedicated the concert to those killed and maimed in the London bombing and pointed to the coincidentally appropriate programme - not only the Tippett Oratorio but also Elgar's Cockaigne, a romantic love letter to the city of London.

But the whole of the second half was devoted to Tippett's monumental work, which represents the composer's response to the horrors resulting from the capitalist collapse of the 1930s that heralded the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. And as a supporter of Trotsky, he was also aware of the role of Stalinism in betraying the working class in Germany, Spain and China.

It is likely that Tippett had read Trotsky's article For Grynszpan*, where the Russian leader makes a powerfully emotional statement about the blind alley of individual acts of violence, whilst recognizing the despairing heroism of the young man:

"In the moral sense, although not for his mode of action, Grynszpan may serve as an example for every young revolutionist. Our open moral solidarity with Grynszpan gives us an added right to say to all the other would-be Grynszpans, to all those capable of self-sacrifice in the struggle against despotism and bestiality: Seek another road! Not the lone avenger but only a great revolutionary mass movement can free the oppressed, a movement that will leave no remnant of the entire structure of class exploitation, national oppression, and racial persecution. The unprecedented crimes of fascism create a yearning for vengeance that is wholly justifiable. But so monstrous is the scope of their crimes, that this yearning cannot be satisfied by the assassination of isolated fascist bureaucrats. For that it is necessary to set in motion millions, tens and hundreds of millions of the oppressed throughout the whole world and lead them in the assault upon the strongholds of the old society. Only the overthrow of all forms of slavery, only the complete destruction of fascism, only the people sitting in merciless judgment over the contemporary bandits and gangsters can provide real satisfaction to the indignation of the people."

It is the cry of the oppressed that inspired Tippett, who wrote the libretto to A Child of Our Time himself, and it begins with the haunting words

The world turns on its dark side,
It is winter.

This sets the tone for a solo from the bass - on Friday it was the awesome Sir Willard White - who sings:

Now in each nation there were some cast out by authority and tormented,
made to suffer for the general wrong.

Pogroms in the east, lynching in the west;
Europe brooding on a war of starvation,
And a great cry went up from the people.

Whereupon the "Chorus of the oppressed", as Tippett calls them, sings:

When shall the usurers' city cease,
And famine depart from the fruitful land?

…very much the questions being asked by millions just before the London bombings, when G8 leaders of the wealthy countries met and failed, now as then, to give us any answers.

Then the Tenor - on Friday it was the luminous Ian Bostridge - sings a Spanish lament, bringing an echo of the Spanish civil war:

I have no money for my bread; I have no gift for my love.
I am caught between my desires and their frustration
as between the hammer and the anvil.
How can I grow to a man's stature?

Then all join in a setting of the African American spiritual Steal Away, and the Child of our time appears: "Behold the man! The scapegoat! The child of our time."

Tippett's piece ends with a hopeful synthesis, where in the womb of time a better future is developing, and the chorus and soloists sum up this sombre but hopeful note, singing the anti-slavery struggle spiritual Deep River.

And it must be said that the highlight on Friday was the BBC Symphony Chorus' singing of the spirituals - not at all the embarrassing disaster that usually results from bringing classically trained singers to this music. The spirit of Paul Robeson hovered over them as they drove the songs at the audience - heartfelt, powerful and demanding - truly spiritual.

Tippett's text is complex and his music challenging - his interpretation of counterpoint creates a kind of unresolved tension which is quite painful to those used to more traditional forms.

The Oxford Companion to Music describes counterpoint as: "The coherent combination of distinct melodic lines and the quality that best fulfils the aesthetic principle of unity in diversity." And it explains how this holding of two opposites together in the past conformed to the progressions of consonance, dissonance and resolution. But in the confusing and difficult 20th century, there emerged post-tonal music where the resolution remains unachieved.

And this recognition of unresolved contradiction very much reflects Tippett's views on life and on politics too - in that sense he appears to have been a very integrated personality in terms of his personal life, his politics and his musical work.

One can also say of him that he is a musician dedicated to direct communication of the musical idea, unsoftened by show-off moments or playing to the crowd. It has no artificial - or officially-sanctioned - highlights, but rewards attentive, active listening.

It reminds one of Coleridge's Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, who insists that the wedding guest must hear his story, that it is important for his understanding of life that he do so; whilst the wedding guest mourns the fun he is missing but cannot tear himself away.

But on this occasion, on a somber day in London, the dramatic intensity of this piece, and its resonant demand for justice, found an audience more than willing to hear.

18 July 2005

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