For their Christmas concert this year, the Choral Society of Durham, under the direction of the intrepid Rodney Wynkoop chose to perform Sir Michael Tippett‘s brilliant and moving oratorio A Child of Our Time. At first look it may seem an unsuitable choice for the Christmas season. The child mentioned in the title is not the child Jesus but is based on a seventeen-year-old Jewish boy who in his frustration and rage at being denied documents to get his parents out of Poland shot and killed a German embassy officer in Paris in 1938. This event was the rationale used for Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken glass – when Jewish shops, homes and synagogues throughout Nazi-occupied Europe had their windows smashed and their property ransacked. A Child of Our Time was written in response to this severe and terrible pogrom, not as a description of specific events but as “an impassioned protest against the conditions that make persecution possible.” It is a powerful and deeply moving indictment of man’s inhumanity to man and, in broad terms, an anti-war statement. Thus, even though we like to associate joy with the coming of the Prince of Peace, whose message was justice, forgiveness, and love, it is an entirely fitting and proper time to ponder the realities Tippett addressed in this masterpiece.

One of the ingenious strategies Tippet employed in this work is the inclusion of five carefully chosen and arranged African-American spirituals as moments of reflection on the events described in the oratorio. So Wynkoop, with his broad knowledge of choral literature chose seven additional African-American spirituals and the Jewish anthem “Ani Ma’amin” (I believe) to flesh out the Christmas concert and to balance the spirituals Tippett used in his oratorio.

Tippett asked T.S. Eliot to prepare the libretto for A Child of Our Time, but after reading the composer’s carefully prepared sketches, Eliot declined, recognizing the unique quality in Tippett’s own unsophisticated poetry. Tippett, by the way, went on to write the libretti for five operas and a handful of oratorios himself.

A Child of Our Time is in three movements, modeled expressly after Handel’s Messiah. The five African-American Spirituals are employed in the manner in which Bach employed familiar Lutheran chorales in his cantatas and large choral works.

Part I begins with the phrase “The world turns on its dark side. It is winter.” The music is quiet but foreboding. Tippett describes this section as dealing with the general tumultuous state of affairs in the world as they affect individuals, minorities, classes or races; man at odds with his “Shadow.” The spiritual, “Steal Away,” with a soprano descant that sends chills up your spine, concludes Part I.

Part II begins with the chorus singing “A star rises in mid-winter. Behold the man! The scapegoat! The child of our time.” This section focuses on the child enmeshed in a drama in which the forces that drive the young man prove more than he is able to handle. It also becomes clear that it is not just about this one incident or this one person but is universal in scope. This segment contains three spirituals: first, “Nobody knows the trouble I see,” and then, after the brutal pogroms, “Go down, Moses,” which Tippett specifies as a spiritual of anger. The middle part of the oratorio ends with “By and by, I’m gonna lay down my heavy load.”

Part III begins with the choral phrase, “The cold deepens. The world descends into the icy waters where lies the jewel of great price.” Things get darker for a moment and then, beginning with “I would know my shadow and my light, so shall I as last be whole,” things begin to stack up on the side of hope and spring blossoms in a wonderfully evocative passage, “The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring.” This is one of those transcendent moments in music that expresses what can be expressed and understood in no other way. What the composer/librettist is saying here is not a naïve rose-colored hope but that light and shadow, good and evil abide in each of us. It serves no purpose to affix blame and seek revenge. Hope is in accepting both elements as part of the individual and universal struggle. Only understanding and forgiveness bring peace. The oratorio ends with an awesome arrangement of “Deep River.”

There are many, many things at work in this piece: the story of the boy and the pogrom of Kristallnacht, the influence of Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s passions, the composer’s fascination with Renaissance polyphony, elements of the personal problems from which Tippett was emerging, the influence of Jungian psychotherapy and its emphasis on reconciliation of extreme opposites as the way to healing, snippets of quotations from a number of well-known and some not so well-known musical works, and more. Wynkoop gave an overview of some of this before the concert began, preparing the audience for some of the intricacies of this remarkable work.

With the gentle opening and the first choral entrance it was apparent that this was going to be something special, and it was. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat. Every note seemed focused on its purpose. Phrases melded together and slide by seamlessly. Intonation was dead- on. The ends of phrases were as crisp and clear as were the attacks. The orchestra and the chorus and the soloists were finely balanced, none dominating. The soloists – soprano Meredith Hansen, alto Jami Rhodes, ever-reliable local tenor Wade Henderson, and bass John Kramar – were all outstanding and notable for matching the emotional and expressive level of the piece. Diction was clear, well-focused and, most importantly, the text was understandable.

This was a performance that will, I believe, be remembered far into the future as an ideal, as an inspired musical experience that had the power to change us, to make us better persons, more aware, more empathetic, more caring.

After intermission, the Choral Society of Durham, its conductor and its accompanist, Jane Lynch, gave a flat-out world class clinic on the singing of the concert-arranged African-American Spirituals of the Christmas season: “Go Tell It on de Mountains,” “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” “Wasn’t That a Mighty Day?” “‘Round the Glory Manger,” “Mary had a Baby,” “Rockin’ Jerusalem,” “Glory, Glory, Glory to the Newborn King,” and the Jewish anthem sung by many as they marched to their certain death, “I believe, with complete faith.” All of these expressing emotions from simple quiet faith to glorious celebration sung by this mighty chorus, several with outstanding solos from talented voices within the chorus.

This program will be repeated at 4:00 p.m. Sunday, December 15, in Duke Chapel. For details, see the sidebar. Don’t miss it!

Editor’s Note: This oratorio is rarely-heard, and it’s just a coincidence that this was the second performance of it in the Triangle this fall. For a review of the earlier one, check here.