Michael Tippett's "A Child of Our Time" is truly one of the gems of 20th century composition. Baritone and soprano arias segue into choruses based on Negro spirituals as Tippett, a gay man, makes an encompassing comment on oppression: anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia.
At the oratio's center is the historically true story of a 17-year-old Polish Jew, Herschel Gryszpan, avenging his father's death at the hands of fascists by shooting a Nazi officer in Paris. (The Germans reacted violently to this perceived insolence, herding Jews to the gas chambers with special zest following the incident.)
That a doomed but noble adolescent would appear at the center of a pederastic composer's best work is wholly predictable, but Tippett, who wrote both the words and music here, doesn't attempt to develop Herschel as a character. Instead, the boy becomes a symbol for the oppressed throughout history.
The simple words of the arias limn their suffering: "I have no money for my bread. I have no gift for my love." This is sung by a lone soprano and then resolves exquisitely into a choral version of the spiritual "Steal Away," which dreams of an escape from a torturous world. As the choir sings, the soprano voice still streaks the group vocal with mellifluous runs. Sublime. Utterly gorgeous.
This rich work also carries us through seasons. Winter is first along with the cold consequences of Herschel's assasination. By the end, it is spring again, and we are on the bank of a "Deep River" greening back into life. Tippett seems to believe in the human spirit and its power the weather atrocities and be reborn. The British composer stretches his gift for lushness and lyricism to the very end of this Bach-inspired composition. "Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads!" are among the many lines whose melodies are so memorable I could sing them to you now.
This is an Anglo-Saxon sorrow song, a white man's blues.