A Child of our Time – May 2019

Hexham Abbey May 11 2019

A Revelatory Performance

A Child of Our Time is not meant to be comfortable music and it was remarkably bold of Mark Edwards and the Hexham Orpheus Choir to take it on. Their boldness was justified. One of the many exhilarating aspects of this concert was that the faith Edwards put in his choir was so triumphantly realised. I doubt I will ever see a better performance of Tippett’s great work.

In March 1945 Picture Post, a British magazine that then sold around 1.5 million copies a week, ran a three-page article on the third performance of A Child of Our Time, in the Royal Albert Hall.  “What is there in A Child of Our Time”, asked the writer (Maurice Edelman, who was soon to be elected a Labour MP for Coventry) “which received such an instant and vibrating answer in the feelings of the ordinary man and woman?”  The answer, he suggests, is that the work “speaks the inexpressible thoughts of us all, children of our time, brothers and sisters in the modern agony.”

It is difficult to imagine today, seventy years later, “ordinary man and woman” (or MPs) having any interest in Michael Tippett’s music at all and even more difficult to name a contemporary composer writing music that so engages with our “modern agony”. Tippett is still routinely described alongside Benjamin Britten as the leading British composer of the twentieth century but his music is not routinely programmed by either orchestras or chamber groups. Tippett lacked Britten’s fluency and self-confidence. He found it difficult to write music; perhaps not surprisingly audiences have found it difficult to listen to. Certainly, when I’ve heard A Child of Our Time on record or radio I’ve always found it rather lumpen, while the spirituals studded through it seem an odd kind of musical appendage, drawing attention to the rest of the work’s lack of tunes and easy optimism.

I suspect that a number of people in the audience and, for that matter, in the Hexham Orpheus Choir itself had similar misgivings. This would certainly explain why this performance was so obviously such a moving revelation for choir and audience alike.  A Child of Our Time is a work that has to be heard live to understand the genius with which Tippett integrates his harmonic choices with unexpected, but emotionally effective, instrumental and vocal textures.  In this oratorio there is no sense of the singers being accompanied by an orchestra.  Rather, the libretto is voiced by the singers as instrumentalists and by the instrumentalists as singers. What on record often sounds rhythmically lifeless, in live performance has a remarkably subtle dynamic, a kind of woven conversational interplay. 

Such effects depend, of course, on outstanding performers. The orchestra (made up of distinguished professionals) started the evening with a swaggering account of the overture to Verdi’s The Force of Destiny as if to lay out their stall: you want great playing? We’ve got it. The soloists, Rachel Dyson, Valerie Reid, Austin Gunn and Graeme Danby, had as one might expect from their reputations the requisite power and musical command. The Hexham Orpheus Choir, adeptly using additional singers from Voices of Hope, was equally magnificent, totally belying the usual connotations of being ‘amateur’. And for this concert, performed in the transept with the light slowly fading from the great windows above the performers, the Abbey was the perfect setting, giving Tippett’s sound designs a hovering resonance, a kind of haunting echo that stalked his story with a deeply effective, lingering pathos. 

In this kind of musical setting the words are, deliberately, not easily audible (only Graeme Danby’s narrator is given sonic clarity). Reading the libretto is thus a necessary part of audience engagement. This is not music to sink into, but to be confronted by, and it was both startling and depressing to realise how many of Tippett’s concerns are still ours: “Is evil then good?  Is reason untrue?” The excitement with which the choir sang “A star rises in mid-winter. Behold the man! The scapegoat”, and the glee of the chorus of the self-righteous, “We cannot have them in our Empire.  They shall not work, nor draw a dole. Let them starve in No-Man’s-Land!”, were a chilling reminder of what hasn’t changed in Europe since the 1930s.   

What became clear to me here, especially as in live performance, the spirituals sound much odder and more disturbing that they do on record, is that if A Child of Our Time is not an easy listen it is because Tippett was uneasy about music (and particularly religious music) being used as a comfort in times of trouble and thus another form of human self-deception. One doesn’t leave a concert like this feeling delusionally better about the state of the world. But one does leave with a clear sense that music-making is one of the most rewarding things that humans can do. 

Simon Frith