Lisa Traiger has been writing about theater and dance since 1985. Currently she contributes a weekly dance column to The Washington Post Weekend section. Her pieces on the cultural and performing arts appear regularly in the Washington Jewish Week and DanceViewTimes.com. She has also written for Moment magazine, Stagebill, Sondheim Review, Asian Week, the Boston Jewish Advocate, the Atlanta Jewish Times, Intermission and the Washington Review. A recipient of two Simon Rockower Awards for Excellence in Arts Criticism from the American Jewish Press Association, she recently earned an M.F.A. in choreography from the University of Maryland, College Park. In 2003, Ms. Traiger was a New York Times Fellow in the Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival, Durham, N.C. e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org
A known pacifist, an agnostic and a humanist, Sir Michael Tippett in 1938 composed one of the most deeply moving -- and spiritually uplifting -- contemporary choral works of the 20th century.
The London-based composer and conductor, who died in 1998, had worked with unemployed miners during the Depression in the early 1930s. As he watched Nazism and fascism spread throughout Europe as the decade progressed, he sought answers in political activism, even briefly joining the Communist Party.
But in 1938, on the eve of World War II, Tippett understood that the way he could best respond to the escalating events was through musical composition. A Child of Our Time, Tippett's first major artistic work, became the voice through which this renowned British composer spoke.
On Sunday ,The Washington Chorus, under the direction of Maestro Robert Shafer, marked the 2005 Holocaust Days of Remembrance -- May 1-8 -- as well as the centenary of Tippett's birth with a performance of his 75-minute oratorio.
"It's a very, very dramatic piece with the soloists and the orchestra," Shafer said last week. "It's like a small opera, especially the second act, depicting the events leading up to Kristallnacht," the two-night, government-sanctioned destruction of Jewish property and arrest of Jews that took place in November 1938 throughout Germany and Austria.
Tippett wrote A Child of Our Time -- the title drawn from an anti-Nazi novel by German writer Odon von Horvath -- as a pacifist's reply to the heartbreaking events that the Nazis used to place blame on Jews for causing Kristallnacht. That complex, compelling snippet of history became the foundation for Tippett's work.
Shafer recaps the history: "A series of events in Paris culminated in a 17-year-old Jewish boy -- Herschel Grynszpan -- assassinating a German general because his aunt and uncle, Polish nationals, had been sent back to Poland.
"They were living in Germany at the time. And Hitler had expelled all the Polish Jews living in Germany. They went through a horrible ordeal: Of course, Poland wouldn't let them back in the country. So, in retribution, this boy shot an official. And in retribution for that event, the Nazis decided to go on this absolute reign of terror in Germany, smashing store windows and more in that first night, Kristallnacht."
Tippett retells that series of events through a dramatic contemporary song cycle. Using as his model Bach's "Passions" and Handel's "Messiah" -- both deeply religious works -- Tippett crafted a three-part oratorio that features a standard baroque formula including recitative for narration, plus moving arias and ensemble singing.
But Tippett sought a contemporary means to represent the ingrained moral universality he wanted explicitly expressed. He found traditional liturgical music too stifling and turned instead to traditional Negro spirituals.
Gordon Hawkins, a Phoenix-based soloist who has sung with the Metropolitan and the Washington National operas, will fly in from a Miami engagement with the Florida Grand Opera, to sing with the chorus on Sunday.
He considers Tippett's use of Negro spirituals a curative: "I think he uses spirituals not only as commentary, but as a healing. There's a difference between those who persecute and those who are persecuted. If [the Negro spirituals] were just for the persecuted, there would be a psalm that said, 'Don't worry, things will be better for you in another lifetime, in another place.' "
But, when Hawkins sings the spiritual, "Go Down Moses," it is used not as a palliative, but as a means of igniting the passion to fight back, to challenge what took place in Nazi Germany.
"The whole thrust of the piece," he said, "of course, has to be in the context of World War II. While everything happening in the United States [during that period] was in the context of the races, Tippett did not just make a Negro spiritual oratorio. That's not the point.
"The point," Hawkins continued, "is the universality: There's a component of the Negro spiritual that contains something in common that we can all simply relate to."
Echoing Hawkins, Shafer noted, "Many of these spirituals are very familiar to American audiences -- 'Deep River,' 'Go Down Moses' and others -- so there's an American impact and contribution to the piece. Negro spirituals came out of another time of great oppression with slavery during the 19th century and before."
Tippett heard a relationship between this music of oppression and what he saw taking place in Europe, that made him feel comfortable incorporating Negro spirituals into a work detailing a European experience of oppression.
"You would think it wouldn't work," Shafer allowed, "but it works beautifully."
Ultimately, Shafer, who conducted The Washington Chorus in the D.C. premiere, A Child of Our Time, in 1989 hears the profound moral voice in Tippett's work.
"Music," he said, "can hint at the moral message in a special way. Of course, all great composers are gifted at translating the human experience in day-to-day life through notes and words. Tippett was able to translate the experience of the horror of the Holocaust into music."
Listening, one feels the many emotional channels of the piece. In Shafer's words, "Stark terror, fear, loving warmth of the mother, and a sense of hope at the end. It's a pretty bleak story, but the hope that Tippett comes to is that we all have a capacity for darkness and we all have a capacity for light. If we accept both sides of ourselves, we can come to some sort of resolution and hope that will make us whole."
A Child of Our Time with The Washington Chorus at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall. A preconcert discussion, by Murray Horwitz, NPR commentator and director of the American Film Institute's Silver Theatre. The panel features Sally Groves, composer Tippett's publisher; Dennis Marks, a broadcaster who commissioned a film on Tippett; and Bret Werb, musicologist at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The Michael Tippett Centre
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