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'A Child of Our Time' Indeed

Washington Chorus Celebrates Michael Tippett's 1940s Oratorio

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005; Page C04

When one considers all the first-rate authors England, Scotland and Wales have given the world, it is discouraging to try to tally a similarly distinguished list of British classical composers. To be sure, there were Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell in the 17th century and Arthur Sullivan in the 19th (although Sullivan seemed to need the words of his creative partner, the playwright W.S. Gilbert, to lift him above the mundane, and that worked only some of the time). In the 20th century, a good deal of admirable and expressive music was created by Edward Elgar, Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Benjamin Britten, but even their most ardent champions would find it difficult to claim that theirs was on a level with the best work produced in Germany, France, Russia or Finland.

What about Michael Tippett (1905-98), whose oratorio "A Child of Our Time" will be presented by the Washington Chorus, under the direction of Robert Shafer, Sunday afternoon at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall? This is Tippett's centennial -- a point when the stocks of neglected composers inevitably rise and scores are dusted off and reevaluated -- and several revivals of his music are planned in London and New York. He was always a maverick: One of his pieces ends with the recorded sound of a human breath, another with what has been described as a "frog plop."

In Michael Tippett's centennial, his works are being revived in London and New York as well as Washington. (Mike Ward)

Critical opinion of Tippett's later works remains mixed; the very week of his 100th birthday he was attacked in the London newspaper the Independent as one of history's most overrated artists. Still, "A Child of Our Time" has never really gone away: It was the work that brought Tippett fame and it has ensured his continuing importance.

Tippett was a most arresting figure -- a gay, Jungian, passionately anti-Stalinist British Marxist with a profound interest in American music, especially jazz and blues. He was inspired to write "A Child of Our Time" after the shooting of a German official by a 17-year-old Polish Jewish activist named Herschel Grynspan in 1938 -- a shooting that the Nazis used as a pretext for the brutal Central European pogrom known as Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") later that year. At the suggestion of his friend T.S. Eliot, Tippett fashioned his own libretto for the oratorio, on which he worked from 1939 to 1941. It was first performed in March 1944 and was immediately hailed as one of the most significant compositions to have come out of World War II.

Still, as Shafer said last week, "A Child of Our Time" has universal significance. "It is more than a concert; it's also a strong social statement of paramount importance, especially in this post-9/11 age," he said. "Though on the surface the piece's historical setting is Nazi Europe during World War II, the message extends to all times and places where human beings persecute and oppress one another.

"I find Tippett's powerful contemporary oratorio to be a reminder always to remember mankind's darkest days to ensure that such days never happen again," Shafer continued. "We can take heart because all is not bleak."

One of several stylistic innovations in "A Child of Our Time" was Tippett's decision to intersperse American spirituals in the music, much as Bach punctuated his great Passions with chorales. Gordon Hawkins, who will sing the bass part on Sunday, believes that these choral segments echo "the continuing psychic struggle between persecutor and persecuted."

"While Antonin Dvorak embraced the American Negro spiritual as his muse for writing the 'New World Symphony,' " he said, "Tippett endeavors to express an even more powerful duality of meaning, the spiritual as a balm for healing the embattled human spirit and also as the language of mediation for connecting individuals of opposing societies."

Some critics have found "A Child of Our Time" an uneven work, so shot through with Tippett's stylistic eclecticism that it seems patchy. Much of the choral writing is indeed chunky and conservative. And yet, somehow, the composer's emotional intensity comes through. From the opening measures, we are transported back to the dark days that ushered in the most destructive conflict in human history -- and it is all but impossible to listen unmoved.

Tippett always felt that he knew the secret of "A Child of Our Time." "It is direct," he said in one of his last interviews. "It touches people. I always wanted it to go beyond the problems in Germany, and prophetically it has. It has entered the repertory of choirs all over the world and has become my most successful piece of music because it is a direct communication."

"A Child of Our Time" will feature a 200-voice choir, a full symphony orchestra and four soloists -- soprano Laquita Mitchell (a recent Grand Prize winner of the Metropolitan Opera's 2004 National Council Auditions), mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop, tenor Don Frazure and Hawkins. It will be presented in English with supertitles. At 1:30 there will be a pre-concert discussion in the Kennedy Center Atrium featuring Sally Groves, director of the London branch of Tippett's lifelong publisher; Dennis Marks, a British-based broadcaster and filmmaker who commissioned a documentary on Tippett for BBC; Bret Werb, musicologist at the Holocaust Memorial Museum; and discussion host Murray Horwitz, cultural commentator on NPR and director of the AFI's Silver Theatre.

Tickets are $19-$53; information: 202-467-4600.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company