A Child of Our Time is a secular oratorio by the British composer Michael Tippett (1905–98), who also wrote the libretto. Composed between 1939 and 1941, it was first performed at the Adelphi Theatre, London, on 19 March 1944. The work was inspired by events that affected Tippett profoundly: the assassination in 1938 of a German diplomat by a young Jewish refugee, and the Nazi government’s reaction in the form of a violent pogrom against its Jewish population—called Kristallnacht. Tippett’s oratorio deals with these incidents in the context of the experiences of oppressed people generally, and carries a strongly pacifist message of ultimate understanding and reconciliation. The text’s recurrent themes of shadow and light reflect the Jungian psychoanalysis which Tippett underwent in the years immediately before writing the work.
The oratorio uses a traditional three-part format based on that of Handel’s Messiah, and is structured in the manner of Bach’s Passions. The work’s most original feature is Tippett’s use of African-American spirituals, which carry out the role allocated by Bach to chorales. Tippett justified this innovation on the grounds that these songs of oppression possess a universality absent from traditional hymns. A Child of Our Time was well received on its first performance, and has since been performed all over the world in many languages. A number of recorded versions are available, including one conducted by Tippett when he was 86 years old.
Synopsis and structure
According to Tippett’s description, “Part I of the work deals with the general state of oppression in our time. Part II presents the particular story of a young man’s attempt to seek justice by violence and the catastrophic consequences; and Part III considers the moral to be drawn, if any.”the later extended his summary to the following:
- Part I: The general state of affairs in the world today as it affects all individuals, minorities, classes or races that are felt to be outside the ruling conventions. Man at odds with his Shadow (i.e. the dark side of personality).
- Part II: The “Child of Our Time” appears, enmeshed in the drama of his personal fate and the elemental social forces of our day. The drama is because the forces which drive the young man prove stronger than the good advice of his uncle and aunt, as it always was and always will be.
- Part III: The significance of this drama and the possible healing that would come from Man’s acceptance of his Shadow in relation to his Light
1. Chorus: “The world turns on its dark side”
2. The Argument (alto solo): “Man has measured the heavens”, followed by an orchestral Interludium
3. Scena (chorus and alto solo): “Is evil then good?”
4. The Narrator (bass solo): “Now in each nation there were some cast out”
5. Chorus of the Oppressed: “When shall the usurer’s city cease?”
6. Tenor solo: “I have no money for my bread”
7. Soprano solo: “How can I cherish my man?”
8. A Spiritual (chorus and soli): “Steal Away”
9. Chorus: “A star rises in midwinter”
10. The Narrator (bass solo): “And a time came”
11. Double Chorus of Persecutors and Persecuted: “Away with them!”
12. The Narrator (bass solo): “Where they could, they fled”
13. Chorus of the Self-righteous: “We cannot have them in our Empire”
14. The Narrator (bass solo): “And the boy’s mother wrote”
15. Scena: The Mother (soprano), the Uncle and Aunt (bass and alto), and the Boy (tenor): “O my son!”
16. A Spiritual (chorus and soli): “Nobody knows the trouble I see”
17. Scena: Duet (bass and alto): “The boy becomes desperate”
18. The Narrator (bass solo): “They took a terrible vengeance”
19. Chorus: The Terror: “Burn down their houses!”
20. The Narrator (bass solo): “Men were ashamed”
21. A Spiritual of Anger (chorus and bass solo): “Go down, Moses”
22. The Boy Sings in his Prison (tenor solo): “My dreams are all shattered”
23. The Mother (soprano solo): “What have I done to you, my son?”
24. Alto solo: “The dark forces rise”
25. A Spiritual (chorus and soprano solo): “O by and by”
26. Chorus: “The cold deepens”
27. Alto solo: “The soul of man”
28. Scena (bass solo and chorus): “The words of wisdom”
29. General Ensemble (chorus and soli): “I would know my shadow and my light”
30. A Spiritual (chorus and soli): “Deep river”
the world turns on its dark side
It is winter
How can i cherish my man in such days,
or become a mother in a world of destruction?
How shall I feed my children on so small a wage?
How can I comfort them when i am dead?