Utah Symphony program: A cry against violence

Posted April 16, 2011

Special to The Tribune

First published Apr 14 2011 08:49PM
Updated Apr 15, 2011 04:51PM
The final concerts of Keith Lockhart’s contract as the Utah Symphony’s music director emeritus are next weekend. That prompted him to program a large choral-orchestral work he always wanted to perform in Utah, but hasn’t — and to bring back a soloist who has shared several of his best evenings with the Utah Symphony.

The oratorio “A Child of Our Time,” by English composer Michael Tippett (1905-1998), is performed often in the U.K., but is less familiar to audiences in the United States. Its melodic material is drawn from the uniquely American source of African-American spirituals.

It’s an intriguing compositional choice on Tippett’s part, given the European setting of the work’s subject matter, which was ripped from the headlines during the lead-up to World War II. Tippett, a lifelong pacifist, was deeply troubled by the story of Herschel Grynszpan, a young Polish Jew who shot a German official in 1938 as a passionate response to Jewish persecution.

The Fascist response to Grynszpan’s headstrong act was to step up propaganda and violence against Jews, culminating in the Kristallnacht ransacking of thousands of Jewish homes and businesses in Germany and Austria on Nov. 9, 1938.

Tippett began writing his oratorio in 1939, telling his story in three large sections, following Handel’s structure for his “Messiah” oratorio. Tippett also paid tribute to Bach’s Passions by interspersing original composition with well-known tunes that comment on the story action.

While Bach made use of Lutheran chorales for these interludes, Tippett instead chose spirituals: “Steal Away to Jesus,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See,” and “Go Down, Moses.” “The work is very unique and very courageous,” Lockhart said. “It’s written by a very young composer at the outbreak of World War II, and it led to Tippett’s success and pre-eminence in British music circles.”

Tippett wrote his own libretto for the work, basing it on theories of Carl Jung and his own deeply held belief that violence begets more violence. Not long after its debut, he served jail time as a conscientious objector when Britain entered the war.

The central themes of “A Child of Our Time” remain current.

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