There is, in part, a trait of cowardice that haunts some of the artists, composers and poets who were working just before the Second World War. Some of W. H. Auden’s most powerful poems, such as Epitaph to a Tyrant and 1st September 1939, would barely precede him emigrating to the United States, which would lead to accusations of him avoiding military service. And the long gestation of Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time, if not a direct cause of his pacifism, was completed in 1941 just a few months after he had finalised his decision to become a conscientious objector. Anthony Blunt, the distinguished art historian, who knew Auden well, and Tippett only fleetingly, would turn to an entirely different kind of pacificism.
This ‘cowardice’ is perhaps subjective for some, for others so clearcut it isn’t. In the context of a figure like the poet, and great-grandson of Darwin, John Cornford, a Cambridge undergraduate and communist, romanticised in the way that Rupert Brooke was, and who would die aged 21 in the Spanish Civil War fighting Franco’s fascists, the question could never arise. Entirely the opposite of Cornforth was Herschel Grynszpan. A Polish-Jewish expatriate, intelligent but sensitive to antisemitism, but otherwise with little in the way of ambition or high social class, he would become the human catalyst for Tippett’s oratorio, A Child of Our Time. It was his assassination of the German diplomat Ernst von Rath in Paris in November 1938 which would become the pretext for the Nazi’s notorious Kristallnacht over 9th and 10th November 1938. Kristallnacht itself would bring Grynszpan international notoriety – in some quarters he was seen as a hero; in others blamed for bringing the wrath of the Nazi’s down onto every Jew throughout Germany and Austria. Rather than being embraced he was shunned; rumours of his implied homosexuality damaged him. Ironically, it would be the assassination of this minor political figure in 1938 which would be more historically significant than that of a much more important one, Reinhard Heydrich, in 1942 which would also be the cause of another terrible Nazi retribution: the murderous destructions of Lidice and Ležáky.
Despite being muddied by Tippett’s Jungian philosophy, of the dialectic of opposites – although this is nowhere near as badly or opaquely done as it is in his opera, The Midsummer Marriage – his wartime oratorio is a work of universal reference, interpretation and reflection. Individuals are really ‘everyman’ characters – Grynszpan simply becomes ‘the boy’ and von Rath ‘the officer’, for example. Even the city in which the assassination took place is now unnamed. A Child of Our Time is about a single event but it is a tragedy that stands for the oppressed and oppression everywhere. Tippett had sought a more literary libretto, originally from T S Eliot whose antisemitism either escaped or was dismissed by the composer; in the event, he embraced Negro spirituals, original, and for its time, controversial (pointedly, of course, underlining less than implicitly the discrimination and racism of the free world). The work’s structure is decidedly of the Handel model, however: the Messiah, with its prophetic, narrative and judgment structure.
A Child of Our Time can, in live performances, seem an unusually beautiful work rather than a deeply profound one – a ‘profound sense of beauty’ usually being a poor middle outcome. This is partly because the work never quite feels it strikes a balance between the philosophical and the artistic – and conductors of this oratorio are partly at the mercy of their own convictions. Edward Gardner has been passionate about the work for decades; however, that does not mean this necessarily translated into a performance that felt especially passionate or profound. It felt more like a statement of universal indictment; of power, and sometimes of rage. Although he conducts to generate a sound of beauty from his orchestra rarely had it sounded quite so dark and full of despair. It’s probably the least sentimental performance of the work – and a Child of Our Time easily falls into sentimentality – I have ever heard.
It goes without saying these days that the London Philharmonic played with exquisite refinement; it’s something which only made Tippett’s music more radiant when it needed to be. It was this orchestra which premiered the work (under Walter Goehr) in August 1944. Orchestras do, I think, attach a sense of importance in performances to the premieres they have given and it was evident here.
If there is one advantage this work has over its 70-minute span it’s the relative conciseness of its libretto and the shortness of each solo. The quartet of singers are tested, but it is not a question of them singing in long passages. How well matched the soloists are becomes most important in Part II and here we had an almost ideal blending of voices. It is largely held together by the Narrator, a kind of Bach-like Evangelist. Roderick Williams had already in Part I sounded full of desperation and foreboding in his narration of the events of Kristallnacht. In Part II narrators can be dry in their delivery; Williams brought some soul to his singing, giving us a sense that this is a narrative borne out of and destined to be entirely tragic. The role of the boy is never an easy one and perhaps the tenor Kenneth Tarver felt just a touch unsure of himself. Did he feel hunted or defiant? Hard to tell. Only by the time he sung “No! I must save her” did we have an inkling it might be defiance but it was short on being a declaration that would be universal.
Sopranos are invariably well cast in this work; and that was the case here. Nadine Benjamin shone brightly with a soprano that made much of the spiritual side of the work. You can remain within the boundaries of the secular but be meltingly moving at the same time. In ‘Steal away’ where the voice can be occluded among the chorus and the other soloists she managed to combine the illumination of universal suffering with personal grief in a quite moving way. It would reach its apotheosis in “O by and by”, almost shatteringly dramatic, and “Deep River”. Sarah Connolly, the superb alto, was magnificent in her great “Soul of man” aria. Both the London Philharmonic Choir and the London Adventist Chorale were superb as Tippett’s observers and participants; perilous scoring it might be but it was sung with precision.
Performances of A Child of Our Time are relatively rare these days, in part because Tippett remains an unfashionable composer. The oratorio asked a very particular question when it was premiered in 1944 and it is not one that has particularly changed today. Tippett talks of good and evil. But if A Child of Our Time was composed with the events of Kristallnacht in mind there have been other ‘Nights of Broken Glass’ in almost every decade since the work was written. Perhaps the scarcity of performances has little to do with the composer being unfashionable but rather a sense of it being uncomfortable to confront the evil that men do.
A good performance – as this one was – very much made clear that almost eight decades later there are still children of our time.
The performance is available on BBC Radio 3 until 2nd January 2023.
Sir Michael Tippett, A Child of Our Time
Nadine Benjamin (soprano), Sarah Connolly (alto), Kenneth Tarver (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), London Philharmonic Choir, London Adventist Chorale, London Philharmonic Orchestra, Edward Gardner (conductor)
Royal Festival Hall, London; Saturday 26th November 2022.