Radical Music: 'A Child of Our Time'

IssueOctober - November 2023
Comment by Penny Stone

Last month, I sang Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time as part of the Edinburgh Festival Chorus. It is a large choral and orchestral work that was sparked by Tippett’s reaction to the Nazi pogrom of 1938 called Kristallnacht, and which he described ‘as an impassioned protest against the conditions that make persecution possible’. It was informed by Tippett’s complex personal history, exploring deeply at different times Communism, Socialism and pacifism.

One of Tippett’s more unusual early musical and social projects involved writing and directing small ballad operas for unemployed miners in the North of England during the depression of the 1930s. 

Among others, Tippett wrote the story of Robin Hood, trying to bring a hopeful parable to people battered by the capitalist excesses that drive whole communities into poverty.

Having initially supported a theoretical ideology of violent uprising to bring about positive social change, Tippett later became a pacifist. By 1940, he had joined the Peace Pledge Union, which he supported for the rest of his life. 

Tippett was imprisoned as a conscientious objector in 1943 (turning pages for a concert led by Benjamin Britten while serving his time in Wormwood Scrubs). He was later instrumental in the campaign to make a memorial to conscientious objectors all over the world – the rock which many of us are so familiar with in Tavistock Square in Central London. 

In 1944, Peace News published a pamphlet that Tippett wrote, called Abundance of Creation, in which he spoke of the conscientious objector’s need to be driven ‘out of war into something more generous… we are only able to contract out of war into peace.’ This, I think, clarifies an important thread running throughout his life as a composer to make something better, more beautiful (if complex) and more human.

One of the wonders of this piece is that Tippett wrote A Child of Our Time while the Second World War was still raging. He wrote to the sound of bombs falling on his home town (at that time) of London. And his sense of narrative arc has to have been significantly affected by this, by the fact that no-one knew how it would end.

And I think this is one of the reasons it’s so affecting for us now as well – we are always living through history of some sort, and we never really know how it’s going to end.

I have rarely found singing a large-scale work of western-classical music so deeply resonant of the times we are currently living through. There are always broadly human themes, of course, and the size of these sorts of works move me and others performing and listening to them in complex and present ways. 

But in recent months, I have been increasingly talking with friends, as I’m sure many of you have, about the parallels we are seeing around us to the rise of fascism in the 1930s. And I sometimes feel utterly terrified by the reality of it. 

When we started rehearsing A Child of Our Time late last year, I walked home in tears after the first two rehearsals because it felt so pertinent. It felt like he was writing about us, now.

The chorus sing different characters through the piece, and there are moments when we sing (as the chorus of the oppressed): ‘When shall the usurer’s city cease?’ And (as the chorus of the self-righteous): ‘We cannot have them in our empire. They shall not work, nor draw a dole.’ 

And here we are, in 2023, involved in a campaign (‘Lift the Ban’) to win the right to work for people who are seeking asylum while they wait (often for years) for their claims to be processed by a deliberately hostile UK government. 

One singer said that they found singing this line ‘almost physically painful, knowing that that is the welcome some receive in our country.’

One of the most beautiful elements of this piece is the thread of African-American spirituals that punctuate the narrative. 

These were included very deliberately during a time when not only the Jewish people were being persecuted and killed in Germany, but there were also frequent lynchings of black people in the United States of America, and while the Nazis banned ‘black music’ altogether. (What an impoverished cultural situation that would leave us all in!)

My understanding of the complexities of cultural appropriation and appreciation have significantly shifted in the years since I last sang this piece and I was initially anxious that singing arrangements of African-American spirituals as part of a mostly white, western-classical chorus based in Scotland would feel uncomfortable. 

I was relieved to know that one of the soloists would be an African-American singer, and another soloist a black South African singer. This element gave me confidence that we were part of uplifting the right voices.

And the more I learned about Michael Tippett, who I have long admired, the more I felt that his use of these songs in this work were shared with the right spirit – the spirit of one seeking social justice for everyone. 

A Child of Our Time is an overtly anti-racist piece of music. One of the soloists sings about the ‘pogroms in the East and lynchings in the west’. Acknowledging both of these truths was pretty radical for a white Englishman living in 1945. And I’m pretty sure that, if Michael Tippett was around today, he would be supporting Black Lives Matter protests, either in person or in musical support of some kind.

I was so affected by singing this piece, that I wanted to find out how other singers had experienced singing the piece at this time, so I did a short survey of singers in my choir and three other choirs who have performed the piece in the UK over the last 12 months. 

Many people responded with a similar heightened sense of immediacy when singing the piece in the 2022 – 2023 seasons. Lots of singers had a similar thread of caution about singing the spirituals, but almost all singers surveyed landed in a similar place to me – that these songs are shared appropriately to their original context, and with the aim of uplifting the voices and experiences of oppressed people in an environment where those voices are not often enough heard. 

“A Child of Our Time is an overtly anti-racist piece of music”

Singers mostly felt that we were communicating something that more people needed to hear in 1945, and still need to hear now – that we must be more alert to the ways in which society can enable some of us to oppress those around us.

Lots of singers felt the resonance with the treatment of people who are seeking asylum on our shores just now, naming many different countries as well as our own. 

People also found resonance with issues of racism, colonialism, fascism, the growing poverty gap in the UK and the US, and the climate crisis. 

Many people talked in general terms about our collective treatment of ‘the Other’ and, when asked if they felt moved to more action on any of these issues, more than half of the singers said that singing the piece had given them a little nudge of extra motivation to be more active on some of these issues. And I’m sure that many of the audience members also felt this gentle nudge.

I asked singers about how optimistic they felt by the end of the piece, as I find that the piece ends with some ambiguity (as in life!) and I was surprised to read so many people, nearly two-thirds, coming away with some sense of hopefulness – whether that was from the writing of piece itself, through the act of singing together with other voices, or the act of sharing this piece with an audience. 

Many people felt that the telling of the story and the questions it brings, however difficult at times, brought with it something hopeful, and part of this is about community – the community of friends and neighbours, the community of a choir, or the community that is coming together in a concert hall and sharing something, just for a couple of hours. 

All of these ‘coming together’ moments are part of what can spark hopefulness, are part of what can spark us into action. 

Even though we are all witnessing the (re)turning of a global cycle back towards fascism, which is bound to bring a heavy feeling of pessimism with it, the more voices that talk and sing about what is happening in more diverse environments, the more we are connected in our work against oppression and the ‘othering’ that enables it.

Often when we are talking about radical music, we are talking about smaller forms – singing in the streets, singing in folk clubs, even a samba band on the streets is in some sense ‘smaller’ than a full-blown concert oratorio for orchestra, chorus and soloists. 

But if we want to make positive social change, as Tippett said with such clarity, we have to build something better to help people choose peace over war, to choose justice over oppression. And that means we have to build it everywhere. 

We have to ask everyone the sorts of questions that drive us towards positive action, and we have to make beautiful art and music in all possible spheres so that people can choose to support a better life for us all. 

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