CLASSICAL MUSIC / Writing with a Passion: Fifty years after its first performance, Bayan Northcott considers the survival of Tippett's 'modern oratorio', A Child of Our Time

In the autumn of 1940, after a particularly alarming air raid over his spartan Oxted bungalow, 35-year-old Michael Tippett wrote to a close friend indicating where scores of the few pieces he had completed to his own satisfaction might be found if the worst happened. Of his oratorio-in-progress, only half the numbers had been copied, but he thought these, too, might be worth preserving, if only for their attempt at a new way with English recitative. What is curious is that he should have singled out so apparently modest and purely aesthetic a concern. For the work in question was A Child of Our Time and Tippett had started composing it in dire urgency on the day after war was declared.

In urgency - but not without a prolonged period of preparation. Tippett was never exactly a spontaneous artist. Unlike his younger contemporary, Benjamin Britten, who poured out pieces from early childhood, so that there was never any doubt as to what he would be, Tippett seems to have taken a conscious decision to become a composer in his early teens, without much obvious flair or idea of how to go about it. Simply acquiring an adequate technique, let alone discovering a personal voice, was to take him most of his twenties. When he embarked on the oratorio, he had still only completed three works he would ultimately keep in his catalogue - though one of them was the already vibrant and masterly Concerto for Double String Orchestra.

What evidently complicated his progress was a continuing internal debate as to the kind of artist he ought to be. And not only internal - for shocked, liked so many of his contemporaries, by the social deprivation of the Depression, and fearful of the darkening situation in Europe, he threw much of his energy in the 1930s into left-wing socio-cultural activities, even for a time becoming a Trotskyist. Despite involvement in such socialist jamborees as the first 'International Workers' Music Olympiad' in Strasbourg in 1935, he never seems to have subscribed to the belief of such agitprop composers as Hanns Eisler in the efficacy of music as direct action. But, at the very least, it was surely the duty of the artist to bear witness? For Tippett, the moment to put this to the test came in November 1938.

That month in Paris, a young Jew called Herschel Grynspan, fearful for the fate of his family, walked into the German embassy and shot the third secretary. Two days later the Nazis launched their infamous Kristallnacht pogrom. To have attempted to evoke anything so terrible with an expressionistic directness could at best only have demonstrated music's impotence in the face of such reality; at worst, it would have been an act of vilest opportunism. And here Tippett's very lack of spontaneity - his need, if sometimes laboriously, to study, consult and think things through - may well have been his salvation.

If anything positive, no matter how tentative - anything conducive to the collective good - were to be made of the horror, he seems to have concluded, it could only be through the containing of the material within a formalistic scheme which would serve at the same time to inhibit any egotistic indulgence by its composer.

The traditional scheme for such collective material was, of course, Baroque oratorio. And Tippett had long been fascinated by the tripartite design of Handel's Messiah, with its prophetic first part, its central narrative of Christ, and its final drawing of spiritual conclusions. His own 'Modern Oratorio', as he provisionally called it, would therefore open with an ominous evocation of the nations on the brink of war and substitute for Christ the figure of Grynspan, objectified as the universal scapegoat.

For a spiritual resolution in a world without god, admittedly, the best he could come up with was a Jungian injunction to acknowledge and reconcile the light and dark sides of the psyche. But taken together with the work's underlying movement from winter to spring, this could at least provide some sense of renewal - and the music would do the rest. All he needed now to draw his audience in was a contemporary equivalent to the function that chorales had served in the Passion music of Bach, and soon he felt he had found it in the form of five, strategically placed, spirituals.

At this point, Tippett asked T S Eliot, his informal mentor, if he would write the text. Eliot, appraising the simple lines and quaintly biblical images of the summary draft, declared that Tippett had more or less done the job himself. The actual composition of the 65-minute score took some 18 months, often under the most fraught conditions. During the raid that prompted the 1940 letter, Tippett had actually been drafting the central number of the whole work: a precipitate, minute-long chorus that evokes the pogrom all the more implacably for being cast in strict invertible counterpoint. Around the same time he was appointed director of music at Morley College in Lambeth - a development that served to focus all his political impulses back on to the running of a generous and innovatory musical community, only briefly interrupted by his three-month prison sentence in 1943 as a staunch pacifist.

On 19 March 1944, and partly at the instigation of Britten, A Child of Our Time at last received its first performance, in the Adelphi Theatre, by a distinguished line- up including Joan Cross and Peter Pears, a choral contingent from Morley and the London Philharmonic under Walter Goehr. By now, its original subject matter had been overtaken by five years of even more appalling events, but it made a deep impression - and, reportedly, still deeper in Continental performances soon after the war. Meanwhile, following a few further Morley years, Tippett was to withdraw into a more personal visionary world. In the 1950s, this was to yield a sequence of surpassingly lyrical masterpieces. Later he would seek to re-engage in more angst-ridden issues of the times. But never again would he involve himself politically or musically so closely in the concerns of a community.

This Tuesday on Radio 3, Simon Rattle conducts a 50th anniversary performance. Those who approach the work for the first time from the standpoint of Tippett's later work, let alone from what these days glossily passes for conviction music, may find A Child of Our Time disconcerting. The words are plain, sometimes nave; the structure is terse to the point of short- windedness; the musical idiom less than fully personal or integrated - ranging from a post-Parry English choralism, by way of popular allusions, to an uneasy 'modernist' chromaticism and proving particularly tricky to bring off in those bleakly innovatory recitatives. Despite patches of contained passion and touches of Tippett's inimitable rhythmic verve, the overall effect is of a sobriety that can (dare it be said?) make even Britten's doubtlessly 'greater' War Requiem sound a mite theatrical - that other, belated English pacifist protest which, in pitching its action in the First World War, also arguably evaded the more complex moral challenge of the Second.

Yet the austerity, the fallibility even, of Tippett's oratorio are precisely what defy its sensationalisation. To hear him doggedly putting word together with word, and note against note, towards a hopeful communicability - and then, at the end, abandoning his home-made text for a hard-earned surge of purely musical exultation - is to be reminded not only of the modest function art can decently serve in extreme times, but of a more altruistic musical world - before considerations of a composer's image demanded that he should project 'attitude', and compassion became a mere commodity in the sales campaigns of record companies.

Simon Rattle conducts 'A Child of Our Time', Tuesday 7.30pm BBC Radio 3

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen