On the 7 th of November 1938, a seventeen-year-old German-Jewish refugee of Polish descent named Herschel Grynszpan went to the German embassy in Paris and shot the Third Secretary, Ernst vom Rath. His desperate act was a hopeless response to the ever-increasing constriction of Jewish existence by the Nazis. In late October, all Jews in Germany holding Polish citizenship had been ordered deported to Poland, which refused to accept them; the deportees were held in camps in the no-man's land that straddled the border. Grynszpan's family, which had lived in Hanover since 1911, was among the 17,000 people who had been rounded up. He had gone to the embassy in a fruitless effort to procure papers that would allow his family to escape to France.
Vom Rath died after two days. On the night of the 9th-10th, a nationwide pogrom erupted throughout Germany. 101 synagogues were destroyed, almost 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses were wrecked, thousands of Jews were beaten and 91 killed, and 26,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps. This was Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. It marked a decisive turn from an already calamitous persecution of Jews toward the disciplined genocide that became known as the Shoah - the Holocaust - the quintessential example of mass killing in a century for which genocide became a defining characteristic.
The Nazis claimed that righteous indignation throughout Germany against the murder of vom Rath was the cause of the pogroms. The Jewish community was held responsible and fined a total of 1.6 billion marks for the damage and for vom Rath's assassination. In fact, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Propaganda, had already been seeking a pretext for such a thoroughgoing pogrom. He seized on the events in Paris with enthusiasm, whipping up compliant mobs through incendiary newspaper headlines and mass rallies; the atrocities of the 9th and 10th were choreographed, not random. Grynszpan, who in the end disappeared into the French penal system and from there - following the Nazi conquest - into oblivion, became a footnote to history, his moment of violent action less a cause of the destruction to follow than a coincidence.
In England, Michael Tippett read of these events in the local press. In common with many intellectuals of his generation, Tippett's experience of the Great Depression had impelled him toward political activism, in sympathy with the great mass of the underclass. He spent time working with unemployed miners in the North of England; later, he assembled and conducted an orchestra of London theatre and cinema musicians who had been made "redundant" by the talking pictures. He became involved with Labour party politics and briefly joined the Communist Party, which he left when it became apparent that he would be unable to convert the party to his Trotskyite views.
A committed pacifist, Tippett was troubled by Grynszpan's seemingly senseless, individual vengeance, even though a weak individual facing unspeakable, implacable state cruelty may have had no other recourse. Yet he was far more horrified by the violence of the Nazi mob, and felt compelled to confront the question of where the boundary of acceptable violence lies. His response came via the enduring medium of art rather than through more transitory political action.
Tippett had already been seeking a subject for a large-scale work, with a central, Christ-like victim who would embody the composer's identification with the downtrodden. His initial idea was for an opera based on the failed Easter Rebellion of 1916 in Ireland, but by the mid-'30s a considerable body of metaphoric literature based on those events had emerged. Tippett put the project aside until a new subject might present itself. The destructive events of November 1938 became a stimulus to creation: Tippett completed A Child of Our Time in 1941, premiering it in London in March 1944 - after the tide of the war had turned, but before the unmasking of the "Final Solution".
The composer sketched a scenario and showed it to his friend and intellectual mentor T.S. Eliot, hoping the eminent poet would consent to writing the libretto. But Eliot advised him to do so himself, a practice Tippett then followed for the remainder of his life. His libretto's most evident stylistic sources are biblical modes of expression, Walt Whitman, and ancient sagas as filtered through the librettos of Richard Wagner. The text is packed with literary allusion, echoing Eliot's manner in The Wasteland and Four Quartets.
Tippett was also an avid reader of Carl Jung, and imbued his oratorio with the language of an insistent Jungian dialectic: winter/spring, darkness/light, evil/good, reason/pity, dreams/reality, desert/garden, loneliness/fellowship, the other self, his dark brother, the man of destiny/the child of our time. For Tippett, the soul of man is rooted in patience and pity, to be found within oneself through loneliness. Knowledge leads the divided self to wholeness, the goal of existence.
The music of A Child of Our Time, too, is allusive, characteristic of so much twentieth-century art in its self-conscious dialogue with its own past. Tippett deliberately based the structure of his oratorio on Baroque models. He derived its tripartite form from Handel in general, and from Messiah in particular. The first part serves as a general introduction, the second proceeds into specific narrative, and the final part speaks of deliverance and redemption. From Bach's Passions Tippett drew the multi-dimensional activities of soloists and chorus: the soloists take several roles each, and the chorus at times comments on the action and at others enters into it. In Bach the central narrative function is borne by a tenor Evangelist; in Tippett that role passes mainly to the bass (joined occasionally by the alto), who moderates between action and commentary.
The abrupt juxtaposition of archaic and modern language found throughout the verbal text also fills the musical one. Tippett's reliance on his Baroque models extends to announcing narrative recitations with first-inversion triads, whose bass notes are the third scale degree of the chord. A number of movements end on the dominant rather than the tonic chord, following frequent Baroque practice. Motivic ideas tend to be simple, elemental gestures such as the first sound we hear: a stark E-minor triad played by the trumpets, a motive that becomes a referential signpost throughout the oratorio, calling us back to the story's fundamental tragedy. That triad, however, is answered immediately by a descending chromatic scale in the bass, beginning on C-sharp, a naked dissonance that reminds us that we are in an industrial age, not the eighteenth century. And Tippett may be the first composer to have set a tenor's impassioned central aria ("I have no money for my bread") as a tango. The enthusiastic counterpoint, though derived from Baroque style, leaves traditional concepts of voice-leading far behind; often literal rather than adjusting themselves to fit the key of the moment, Tippett's many canons extend the potential directions of harmonic motion without ever abandoning a basic sense of tonality, albeit an expanded one.
The superficially anachronistic contiguity that attracts the most notice, however, is Tippett's inclusion of five Negro spirituals to round off sections of the oratorio. In an analogy to the most famous of Passion settings, Tippett intersperses his narrative with vernacular, communal songs, through which (at least in theory) the audience or congregation can become an active participant in the ritual of performance rather than an assembly of passive onlookers. Where Bach used chorale melodies, part of every German Lutheran's world, Tippett employed what were for him their modern equivalents: spirituals, the artistic product of African-Americans, whose experience is sometimes perceived as mirroring that of the Jews. For Tippett, Herschel Grynszpan was the "Child of Our Time", assuming the burden of all who suffer persecution, are made to be scapegoats and who fruitlessly attempt to combat the majoritarian juggernaut that tends inevitably toward intolerance. The oratorio is a Passion, not of a god-man but of Everyman. The eponymous child is punished but never condemned; the composer weeps with him in his helpless confusion. But there is no forgiveness to be had for evil, no love for thine enemy. Through the spirituals A Child of Our Time becomes a universal statement of protest and solidarity against oppression, a call to attention for a world that even today continues to look the other way in response to genocide.
Like Tippett, Ludwig van Beethoven was a fighter for justice and for the brotherhood of mankind; like Tippett, too, Beethoven built substantial edifices from the simplest - often the most trivial - musical materials. The subject of Goethe's tragic drama Egmont, for which Beethoven composed an overture and incidental music in 1809, is similar to that of Tippett's oratorio: an ill-fated, historical uprising against tyranny (in this case by Flemish Protestants against their Spanish Catholic overlords during the sixteenth century). In A Child of Our Time the only victory is a moral one; In Egmont, although the hero dies on the scaffold, his people's eventual triumph is made manifest in sound.
In contrast to other well-known Beethoven overtures such as Leonore No. 3, the overture to Egmont is an independent musical work rather than a pastiche of tunes from the work it introduces. Yet its unfolding offers an unmistakable digest of Goethe's play. Unlike Tippett in A Child of Our Time, Beethoven underscores his drama's fundamental dualities through elemental musical methods. He exploits the inherent nature of sonata form - the opposition of two tonalities and the juxtaposition of assertive and lyrical thematic material that often accompanies it for emphasis - to reflect the battle between Spaniards and Flemings.
The overture's introduction, marked "sustained, but not too much," immediately introduces a blunt contrast between the heavy tread, in the strings, of an ominous and insistent Sarabande - a dance of Spanish origin, patently symbolizing the Iberian overlords - and a plaintive motif in the (presumably Flemish) woodwinds. That opposition continues in the main Allegro that emerges so subtly from the introduction, its primary theme nervously unsure on which beat of the measure its stresses should fall, poetically portraying the brutal violence of the conflict. The Sarabande rhythm, now transformed into an elegant court dance (the aristocratic generals perhaps enjoying their distance from dour, ascetic King Philip II), is still answered by the same beseeching woodwinds, finally silenced in a musical coup de théâtre that graphically depicts the trapdoor's drop. But from the depths of that defeat the overture's coda offers the fanfares of future triumph.
Outwardly, Beethoven is, as he always was, championing the Rights of Man - the freedom to think, to speak, to live without fear of repression. But what the smugly dancing gesture that evolves from his Sarabande implicitly suggests also is, in Hannah Arendt's words, the "banality of evil:" the dehumanization of opponents, the willful blindness to others' fates (which are in fact tied to our own), the blithe disregard of the consequences of inaction that lead, on one hand, to an Eichmann dutifully shipping people in cattle cars to Auschwitz, and on the other, to our sitting by enjoying our supposed security while thousands are left to die in Darfur.
The Elegischer Gesang and Opferlied are both superb yet little-known examples of Beethoven's late style, related to the slow movements of his final string quartets. Beethoven composed the Elegiac Song in memory of the wife of a close friend, Baron Johann von Pasqualati, Empress Maria Theresia's personal physician and one of the more sympathetic of the composer's many landlords. Eleonore von Pasqualati had died in childbirth in 1811; the Elegiac Song was a gift to the Baron on the third anniversary of her death. Its main melody recalls the Egmont overture's Sarabande rhythmic cell, now gentle and consoling. But as a lament for the loss of one man's loved one, it suggests, with music's characteristic ability to generalize, the pain of all loss, which is most agonizing when it is senseless.
The theme of the Opferlied (Song of Sacrifice) is one that preoccupied Beethoven throughout his life; this 1824 setting of the text by Friedrich von Matthisson is the last of five that the composer is known to have prepared over a span of more than 25 years. To Beethoven the words of the poem seem always to have had the sense of a prayer. The freedom extolled by the poet is the same sentiment as that contained in the ode Beethoven used in the finale of his Ninth Symphony; Schiller had originally written Freiheit (freedom) rather than Freude (joy), until forced by the censor to revise his text. In both works the freedom - and joy - that Beethoven praises is, above all, freedom from hatred and from the fears that generate it.
Is Beethoven, in conveying the same essential message as Tippett does, remonstrating with a world that wasn't - and still isn't - listening?
- Jerome Hoberman -