Tippett has always been a figure of controversy. As long ago as 1943, his pacifism led him to be jailed for refusing to fight in the Second World War. Just one year later, and some three months before even the Normandy landings, he premiered the deeply pacifist work, A Child of Our Time, in the heart of London - a work which also included Negro spirituals.
The criticism of Tippett is still around today, though its focus has now moved from the man to his music. Take, for example, the renowned music journalist Norman Lebrecht. He wrote an article in December 2004 entitled “Tippett – A Composer to Forget”, concluding the following:
“Highly trained German musicians, exiled in Britain, were aghast at the sloppiness of his structure…I cannot begin to assess the damage to British music that will ensue from the coming year's purblind promotion of a composer who failed so insistently to observe the rules of his craft…Here is a classic instance of local patriotism and personal affection running riot at public expense…Since his death in January 1998, Tippett has scarcely been played at all. Once the next year is over, oblivion will mercifully resume”.
Although this makes “good print”, Lebrecht’s response is both partial and extreme. Is he really suggesting that a conductor as prominent as Sir Simon Rattle acted out of local patriotism, when he performed A Child of Our Time not just in three concerts in 1991, but also a further three concerts in 1995, including on a prestigious tour to Vienna? And if German musicians are aghast at the sloppiness of Tippett’s music, or if Tippett is only performed by parochial British people, then how did a 1992 recording win a prestigious German Record Critics' Award? And why did the great Sir Georg Solti conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the European premiere of Tippett’s Fourth Symphony?
There is perhaps a moral to this story. Allow yourself to be the judge of music and be careful of critical opinion.
My view of this work, an oratorio, is that it has moments of exquisite beauty. I would pay repeatedly to hear Faye Robinson sing the simple word “how” in the opening soprano solo (1’56”)(7) and though there has been some derision about the mainly self-penned lyrics, the moving “let my people go” (0’00”)(21) chorus will have a timeless significance. Towards the end of the work, it can easily bring about a welled-up eye. Or as the Washington Post said last year, “it is all but impossible to listen unmoved”. This is a work that I hope will not disappoint.
Orchestra: City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra; Conductor: Sir Michael Tippett; Label: Naxos; ASIN: B0007ACVJG
Please note all music has been taken from copyright material belonging to the record label above, in accordance with the copyright notice on our homepage. All your listening must be in accordance with the conditions as laid out on our homepage.
 2005 being Tippett’s 100th anniversary
Recommended if you enjoy:
If you like the structure and sounds of most oratorios, for example, Handel’s Messiah or Bach’s St Matthew Passion, then Tippett’s A Child of Our Time is a clear place to start.
Also, if you are a fan of Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, the spiritual sung at England rugby games, then you may well enjoy the five spirituals included in this piece.
If you like this work, then try listening to some of the other anti-war music out there. Britten’s War Requiem, is the most obvious place to start and was written by a fellow conscientious objector. If you are ready to move onto something more tonally extreme, then consider listening to Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.