Bach Festival Society presents Sir Michael Tippett’s ‘A Child of Our Time’

Modern classical choral work composed as a response to Nazi atrocities is performed on 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht


7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9; 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10 | Knowles Memorial Chapel, Rollins College, 1000 Holt Ave., Winter Park | 407-646-2182 | | $25-$55

Saturday, Nov. 9, marks the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” when Nazi soldiers and sympathizers across Germany began systematically terrorizing Jews – burning synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses, arresting thousands of Jewish men, and attacking and killing dozens. The events of that night in 1938 made the front pages of newspapers around the world, but tragically little was done to prevent the atrocities that would follow. On Nov. 9 and 10 at Rollins College’s Knowles Memorial Chapel, the Bach Festival Society of Winter Park presents three performances of a choral work that strives to make sense of the injustices of Kristallnacht: Sir Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time.

This will be the Bach Festival’s first-ever performance of the secular oratorio (basically dramatic vocal music without costumes or sets), which Tippett began composing after a young Jewish boy named Herschel Grynszpan assassinated a low-level German diplomat in 1938. The boy’s desperate act was the Nazi propaganda machine’s perfect opportunity to ratchet up anti-Jewish sentiment. For Tippett, it was a tragic yet inevitable moment in the face of oppression, and he used it as the dramatic underpinning of his first major work.

Using Handel’s Messiah as a formal model, A Child of Our Time was written in three parts. In the first, the oppressive, unjust state of the world is described. Tippett makes reference in the libretto to “pogroms in the East, lynching in the West,” and “Europe brooding on a war of starvation.” The second part contains the dramatic action, although Tippett abstracts from the actual events to generalize Grynszpan as “the boy” and Jews as “them.” He describes the boy’s act as futile, saying “he shoots the official, but he shoots only his dark brother.” In the third part, Tippett draws the conclusion in Jungian terms, balancing light and darkness to achieve completion.

The connection to lynching in the first part is especially significant, as Tippett used the texts and melodies of African-American spirituals at key points in the work, the same way that Bach used hymns in his St. Matthew Passion, for example. The spirituals imbue the work with universality, hoping to communicate the pathos not only of Grynszpan and European Jews on the eve of World War II, but also of African-Americans before the Civil Rights era and presumably of Tippett himself, an openly gay man in Britain before the decriminalization of homosexuality, and a pacifist and conscientious objector during the war.

Like Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, A Child of Our Time is written in a highly dramatic yet accessible tonal idiom. The English-language libretto will be reprinted in the concert programs, to maximize understanding of the oratorio. Bach Festival artistic director Dr. John Sinclair says that the message is clear and relevant. “The tragedy of Kristallnacht is that the world watched it unfold and really didn’t do anything.

“You look at things as profound and awful as [what’s happening in] Syria, or as awful as what’s happening in Russia, how they’re treating their gay athletes, and you ask, ‘My gosh, have we learned nothing?’” says Sinclair. A Child of Our Time is meant to move us toward a more thoughtful, compassionate stance. If we wish to live in a more just world, we can’t keep ignoring calls to action, or to contemplation.

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