Tippett - A Child of Our Time

Out of the choral comfort zone with Tippett’s ‘A Child of Our Time’

Tippett composed 'A Child of Our Time' in response to events which marked a catastrophic upheaval in my parents' lives, and without which I would not exist - which makes singing it an unusual and unsettling experience for me.  Much of the choral repertoire - requiems, passions, masses and all - is rooted in Christian belief and scripture, which can make a Jewish atheist like me pause to think. Many of the people singing around me might have lost or discarded the faith they grew up with, but most of them were at least brought up to see the Christian story as their own.  I, on the other hand, will often catch myself in choir rehearsals thinking 'It's not my story, but the musical satisfactions make it all worthwhile.'  Or 'Why does God get all the best tunes?' or even 'Why can't some of the repertoire have more to do with my own story?'  But now that we've started rehearsing 'A Child of Our Time' (the first time I've sung in it) I'm beginning to think I should be careful what I wish for.

Tippett read the news about the 17-year-old Jewish boy, Herschel Grynszpan, who shot and killed a German diplomat in Paris in November 1938, and about Kristallnacht, the vicious pogrom the Nazis launched against Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues in response.  For Tippett, these events provided a focus for ideas that had been taking shape in his mind, for an oratorio about oppression and man's inhumanity to man.

At 17, Herschel Grynszpan was close to my mother in age, and the two had far more in common: both born and educated in Germany, with parents who had immigrated from Poland and still had Polish nationality.  He fired his bullets in protest at the treatment of his parents and some fifty thousand other Jews who had been deported from Germany to Poland that year.  They included my mother and her family, kicked out of their homes in Leipzig and dumped in no-mans-land at the Polish border.  "We cannot have them in our Empire, They shall not work nor draw a dole, Let them starve in No-Man's-Land" as Tippett's libretto puts it.  When the Nazis' Empire spread east into Poland in 1941, my mother's entire family of 46 people were among those murdered.  My mother and one sister who had found a way to get out to Britain were the only survivors.  "We are as seed before the wind. We are carried to a great slaughter."

Meanwhile in Munich, my father, a few years older than Grynszpan, was one of thousands of young men arrested and briefly imprisoned to frighten them immediately after Kristallnacht.  "Away with them!  Curse them! Kill them! They infect the state," was the message, and it got through.  As soon as he was released my father fled across the Alps to Italy, from where he managed to get to London on the last civilian train through France before war broke out.

'A Child of Our Time' was consciously modelled on Handel's Messiah and the great St John and St Matthew Passions by Bach.  Despite Tippett's harsh dissonances, the echoes of Handel and Bach are sometimes obvious, not least in the fugal writing of some of the choruses.  What I like most about the piece is Tippett's use of African-American spirituals in place of Bach's chorales, to punctuate the narrative and provide pauses for reflection.  He chose these to make the point that oppression echoes through human history and reflects the same 'dark side' of human nature, whoever the perpetrators and the victims might be.

Tippett's do-it-yourself libretto has been much criticised.  His friend and mentor T. S. Eliot famously turned down Tippett's request to write the words, leaving him to do it himself.  As an outspoken anti-Semite, T. S. Eliot would seem an odd choice for this job, so I can't help thinking the piece is better off without him, despite his superior poetic powers.  I wonder whether anti-Semitism could have been Eliot's real motive for refusing the work.

In the penultimate chorus, the choir sings of "an abiding hope, The moving waters renew the earth, It is spring" and I am struck by how jarringly optimistic these words seem in the context.  It is worth remembering that 'A Child of Our Time' was written between 1939 and 1941, when the Nazi regime's murderous intentions had become clear but nobody knew the horrific scale of methodical slaughter that was to follow.  It is hard to imagine this or any other oratorio being composed in 1945 after the liberation of Auschwitz and Belsen.

I am glad that there is a great piece in the choral repertoire that commemorates this history and is regularly performed, and for me it is a rare exception in relating so closely to my own family background.  But that makes it uncomfortable.  When Bach calls for his chorus to be an angry mob baying for Christ's blood, I can do my best to get into character and deliver.  But when Tippett has us sing "Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads! Break them in pieces on the wheel", that's a challenge I haven't met before as a choral singer, because this is a drama of events within living memory, and "them" is my own parents.

Stephen Engelhard, Bass 2

(Brighton Festival Chorus is preparing Tippett’s ‘A Child of Our Time’ for the closing concert of the 2019 Brighton Festival on May 26th).

Posted on 28th February 2019


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San Nicola 2017

In May 2017 my husband and I participated in a Pilgrimage to Bari, in Puglia, Italy, which culminated in a magnificent three day festival including a concert in the Basilica San Nicola: ‘The Story of St Nicholas’, portrayed through piano, tenor and narrator (in Italian of course, so I needed to be familiar with the story!) The next evening saw a street procession bearing the icon of St Nicholas. This included trapeze ‘fairies’ supported by helium balloons. The next morning a further procession bore the icon from the Basilica to the harbour (see image above) where there was a firework display in broad daylight, along with a Mass and Blessing of the Sea. The fish market added another colourful ingredient! That evening a further procession bore the icon onto a boat in the harbour. Further fireworks made for a stunning display along with an aerial display in a flyover above Bari.

On the third day, the festival concluded with the Mass of the Holy Manna in the Basilica San Nicola during which there was an extraction the “Manna” from the sealed box containing the relics in the crypt. It is said that the production of this liquid remains a mystery. A further display of fireworks brought the festival to a close.

So you see, the Saint for whom Britten found fit to compose, is truly revered in Bari to this day.

Many legends grew up around him, often featuring the number three, e.g. he was believed to have rescued three girls from prostitution by his gift of three bags of gold for their marriage dowries; to have restored three boys to life after they had been murdered in a brine tub by a butcher; to have rescued three sailors from drowning; and to have saved three men unjustly condemned to death.

The text in our scores brings to life the rescuing nature of Saint Nicolas!

Kate Belfield, Alto 1

Tickets for our concert

Posted on 8th February 2019


Brittenís War Requiem: a message of hope

One hundred years on from the end of the war it portrays, Benjamin Britten’s greatest choral work remains as poignant as ever, says Emma Gregg

Benjamin Britten’s astounding War Requiem is both a roar of protest against the horror of human conflict, and a heartfelt plea for peace. It was commissioned at a time when memories of both World Wars were still raw, and the words Britten chose – some drawn from the Latin Missa Pro Defunctis, others from the First World War poetry of Wilfred Owen – are drenched in anguish. There are moments of spitting anger, in which the soloists express fury at the betrayal of an entire generation. Chillingly, at times, you can hear bugle calls in the orchestra, and the sickening thud of artillery. When at last, in the closing movement, serenity comes, you’re left drained by the emotional impact of what has gone before.


I can still remember the half-terrifying, half-thrilling feeling of leaving my choral score behind in the dressing room, ready to perform this richly challenging work by heart


Today, Armistice Day, Brighton Festival Chorus is preparing for its second performance of this monumental work in 2018, the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War and the choir’s own 50th anniversary year.

At the Brighton Festival in May, we joined forces with Dutch conductor Arie van Beek, the Britten Sinfonia and the Orchestre de Picardie, which is based on the River Somme in Amiens, for a concert in which we sang the entire War Requiem from memory.

I can still remember the half-terrifying, half-thrilling feeling of leaving my choral score behind in the dressing room, ready to perform this richly challenging work by heart. A score can be many things – a prompt, a prop, even a shield to hide behind. But after hours of painstaking study and rehearsal under our musical director James Morgan, I was ready.

Winston Churchill visits the ruins of Coventry Cathedral in September 1941, ten months after the Coventry Blitz

Our forthcoming concert is set to be every bit as powerful. This time, we’ll be performing in the space for which the War Requiem was commissioned in the early 1960s, Coventry Cathedral, together with the Coventry Cathedral Chorus and Choristers and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The date of our concert, Wednesday 14 November, is profoundly significant. It was on the night of 14-15 November 1940 that much of Coventry city centre, including its Gothic cathedral, was ruined by devastating bombing raids.


Among the many people who sprang to the aid of others during the bombardment was a local doctor, less than a decade into his career


Numerous stories of that fateful event survive, but one in particular is very close to my heart. Among the many people who sprang to the aid of others during the bombardment was a local doctor, less than a decade into his career, whose actions that night earned him the George Medal. According to the official report published in the London Gazette, this young man “showed a high degree of courage and resource which contributed to the saving of a number of lives.”

“While fires were raging and bombs falling,” the report continues, “he coolly continued to go, partly on foot and partly by bicycle, from one incident to another, administering morphia to those trapped in the wreckage, and applying first aid under conditions of extreme difficulty, with complete disregard for the intense bombardment and for the very real personal danger entailed.”

The thought of that young man pedalling through the Coventry Blitz with his doctor’s bag on the back of his bike gives me shivers. And it’s his story that I shall be remembering on Wednesday. His name was Henry Norman Gregg, and he was my grandfather. Family folklore has it that his hair turned white overnight.

The ruins of Coventry's Gothic cathedral, a lasting reminder of the 1940 Blitz

Since, for our Coventry performance, we’ll have our scores back in our hands, I’ve been scribbling new notes into mine. Some are suggestions from Britten himself; remarkably, a 1963 recording exists of the composer delivering rehearsal instructions to the Bach Choir in clipped, mid-century tones.

Several conductors have led us on our journey to Coventry, each armed with fresh passion and insight. Back in the spring, James Morgan helped us visualise the Requiem’s harrowing context via a series of wartime photographs, and Arie van Beek brought us his own, distinctively European, perspective.


Try singing mechanically, as if you’re neither awake nor asleep, neither dead nor alive


Last month, our guest conductor Murray Hipkin, assistant conductor of the English National Opera, offered us little snippets of information about the ENO’s new interpretation of Britten's War Requiem, the preview of which will take place at the London Coliseum on the night of our concert. “At this point, our chorus are all lying flat on their backs”, Murray said of the first movement. “Try to imagine that. Try singing mechanically, as if you’re neither awake nor asleep, neither dead nor alive.” This is not the kind of direction we're used to. But we dug deep.

Our last rehearsal on home turf was on 6 November, exactly 100 years and two days after Wilfred Owen’s tragic death on the Western Front. Coventry Cathedral’s musical director Paul Leddington Wright, who will conduct us on Wednesday, paused in the lull before the last passages of poetry. “It’s so evocative, isn’t it?” he said. “You can almost smell the smoke of the battlefield. You can see and feel the devastation.”


"The audience will be able to look over your heads to the floodlit ruins of the old cathedral beyond." In my mind’s eye, we were already there.


Explaining that the War Requiem is as much a cultural artefact of the modern cathedral as its Graham Sutherland tapestry, its John Piper stained glass, its Elisabeth Frink lectern and its Cross of Nails, Paul helped us picture the performance to come.

“We’ll be staging it back to front, if you like. Instead of placing you in front of the altar of the modern cathedral, you’ll be at the west end, so that the audience will be able to look over your heads to the floodlit ruins of the old cathedral beyond.” In my mind’s eye, we were already there.

Britten's War Requiem was commissioned for the consecration of Coventry's new cathedral in 1962

Could Europe ever be drawn into the terror of war once again? As we progressed from movement to movement, the question kept returning. For much of the last seven decades, it’s been unthinkable. Collective memories, kinship and a shared love of music are just a few of the many threads which bind our continent together.

We may be bobbing on a tide of uncertainty, but, like Britten, an ardent pacifist, we must hold on to hope. It’s what my grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s generations, who fought so hard for peace, would have wanted. And it’s what my generation wants, too.

Emma Gregg, Alto 1

Paul Leddington Wright, Kerry Beaumont and Simon Over will conduct the Brighton Festival Chorus, Coventry Cathedral Chorus, Coventry Cathedral Choristers and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in their performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral at 7pm on Wednesday 14 November 2018.

As well as commemorating Armistice Day and the Coventry Blitz, this concert is part of the year-long Plumb Line Festival (plumb-line2018.co.uk) marking 100 years of the Diocese and Cathedral of Coventry.

Posted on 11th November 2018