Making Sense of A Child of Our Time

During the Thursday night opening performance of Sir Michael Tippett’s modern oratorio A Child of Our Time, I started to understand the piece a little better. I had been struggling to interpret the libretto in light of the circumstances of its composition—specifically, as a response to the tragic story of Herschel Grynszpan, the young Polish Jew whose assault of a Nazi official gave the Nazis the excuse for the Kristallnacht pogrom. And certain aspects of the libretto make sense in this context, particularly the action of the second part of the oratorio. This, the story of the Boy who, frustrated by continual persecution, shoots the official and is imprisoned after a violent retaliation, appears as close to a retelling of Grynszpan’s tragedy as possible.

But this section is surrounded by meditative passages on the nature of good and evil and the duplicity in men’s hearts, of the love of parents for their children and of winter and oppression. Most puzzling of all is the identification of the slain official as the Boy’s “dark brother” and the ultimate rejection of the Boy—“He, too, is outcast, his manhood broken in the clash of powers.” What is Tippett getting at?

After last night’s performance, I think the key is in the mysterious introduction to section III:

The cold deepens.
The world descends into the icy waters
Where lies the jewel of great price.

These lines from the chorus, coming on the heels of the Boy’s imprisonment, suggest a continual worsening of the situation actually brings about something valuable. What is the jewel of great price? Judging from the penultimate chorus, “I would know my shadow and my light, so shall I at last be whole,” Tippett’s drama is aiming not at social justice but at self knowledge and a deeper understanding of mankind. The Boy’s fate, his lack of redemption, suggests that Tippett condemns him for descending in his despair to murder, and believes that only through embracing his shadow, his dark brother, can he reach the “garden” that “lies beyond the desert”; only through rapprochement can he be healed.

As a response to Kristallnacht, this seems an inadequate, if not astoundingly naïve perspective. Indeed, Tippett in later years commented that while this sort of reconciliation may be possible among individuals, it appears to be impossible among nations. But separated from this specific conflict as a statement for the growth of a man and of mankind, it is a powerful message.

Ultimately the tension between the dramatic exigencies of the Boy’s story and the reflective, meditative lesson that Tippett attempts to draw in the final sections is responsible for the work’s philosophical incoherence. But it is a fascinating, if doomed, struggle between light and dark that forces the listener to ask how else one could respond to events of such horror. And today, as we all engage in our individual assessments of the horrors, wars, persecutions, and failures of humanity of the years since the oratorio premiered in 1944 and in the last five years in particular, it reminds us, just as does the story of Rosa Parks, that the individual’s response to this darkness is the most important thing of all.