The North Carolina Master Chorale, joined by the Wake County High School Honors Choir and a symphony orchestra, under the direction of Alfred E. Sturgis, performed one of the most remarkable choral masterpieces of the twentieth century: Sir Michael Tippett‘s A Child of Our Time. The soloists were Lora Fabio, soprano. Monifa Harris, mezzo-soprano, Jason Karn, tenor, and John Kramar, bass.

The concert opened with a sterling performance of Mozart’s popular offertory motet, Misericordias Domini in aeternum cantabo, K.222. This contrapuntal exercise, written for liturgical use in Munich, provided a challenge for the Wake County High School Honors Choir that the students met with crisp and precise singing under Sturgis’ leadership. Including students from Broughton, Wake Forest, East Wake, and Rolesville High Schools, trained by Christine Conley, Ramona Jenner, Amy Parker, and Emily Turner, respectively, these young singers proved themselves worthy of having been chosen for this special recognition and opportunity.

A Child of Our Time is in three movements, modeled expressly after Handel’s Messiah. It employs five African-American Spirituals in the manner in which Bach used familiar Lutheran chorales in his cantatas and large choral works. The libretto was prepared by Tippett himself after T.S. Elliot declined his request after seeing the composer’s scenario. (Tippett went on to write the librettos for his five operas as well.) The creation of A Child of Our Time took place during a period of world turmoil and crisis and, for Tippett, a time of recovery after personal difficulty.

In August of 1938, an acrimonious break-up of his intense relationship with the young artist Wilfred Franks threw Tippett into self-doubt and confusion both personally and artistically. It was through a course of Jungian psychotherapy that Tippett learned to interpret dream material and came to understand the concepts of “shadow” and “light” in the individual and the need to accept this divided nature and profit from its conflicting demands.

As his therapy proceeded and he began to regain confidence, Tippett was searching for a theme for a major work; an opera or an oratorio that could reflect both the contemporary turmoil in the world and his own recent catharsis. A brief article in a newspaper caught his attention and became the stimulus for his creativity. The article told of a 17-year-old Jewish boy in Paris who, out of his frustration in trying to get his parents out of Poland so they could join him in Paris, shot a German diplomat. The event was used as an excuse for the horrible pogrom known as Kristallnacht, a brutal attack on Jews and their property throughout Nazi Germany.

The title for the oratorio comes from Ein Kind unserer Zeit, a contemporary protest novel by the Austro-Hungarian writer Ödön von Horváth.

All of these elements – Jungian psychotherapy, the turmoil of the time, Tippett’s growing pacifist sentiments, the spiritual impact of the African-American Spirituals – flowed into the creative process. A Child of Our Time was finished in 1941 but, because of all of the disruptions caused by the war, it was not performed until March of 1944. It was well received by critics and the public and is still Tippett’s most frequently performed work.

Part I begins with the phrase, “The world turns on its dark side. It is winter.” Tippett describes this section as dealing with the general tumultuous state of affairs in the world as they affect individuals, minorities, classes or races, and man at odds with his “Shadow.” The spiritual “Steal Away,” with a soprano descant that sends chills up the 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 of our time enmeshed in a drama in which the forces that drive the young man prove to be more than he is able to handle. It also becomes clear that the oratorio is not just about one incident or one person but is universal in scope. This segment contains three spirituals: “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.” The last four solo statements, ending with the text “The moving waters renew the earth, It is spring,” provides a transcendent moment of hope that rings true. This is one of those places where music expresses what can be expressed and understood in no other way. Tippett draws attention to the opposites that need to be reconciled: “I would know my shadow and my light, so shall I at last be whole…; It is spring.” A Child of Our Time ends with an overwhelming arrangement of the spiritual “Deep River,” which the slaves who created it intended as an anthem of escape and freedom, both physically and spiritually.

Some may have difficulty dealing with Tippett’s sometimes cryptic language. It is not easy but deserves repeated examination to comprehend its allusions. What the composer/librettist is saying here is not a naïve rose-colored hope but the concept 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 singing and orchestral playing were superb throughout the performance. The four soloists brought magnificent and knowing artistry to their roles. Sturgis led a brilliant interpretation of the emotionally-charged work, drawing on the full potential of the capable forces at his command. With more than 80 high school honor singers joining the 200 Master Chorale voices in the singing of the five Spirituals, the impact of the universal message of Tippett’s powerful art was underscored mightily. This was one of the most moving performances I have experienced in recent years.

Due to a serendipitous coincidence, another performance of A Child of Our Time is scheduled by a major Triangle choral group this season, in December. Check our calendar in late November for details. You really should not miss hearing this Tippett masterwork.