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Absolutely contemporary

DAVID WILKINS was one of two M&V writers at Tippett's 'A Child of Our Time', staged at the London Coliseum on Friday 21 January 2005


In November of 1938 a bewildered young man (a boy, really, just a seventeen year-old boy) of German birth but Polish-Jewish extraction shot and fatally wounded a German diplomat in that country's Paris embassy. The fog of uncertainty and the shoal of potential red-herrings about facts and motives might have kept his act alive in historical imagination as little more than a diverting tease but for the magnitude of the consequences that followed. They were, in their most immediate and horrendous, the excuse the Nazis needed to unleash the verminous attack on the Jewish population, their property and interests, throughout the Reich and the signalling of an intent that could only find its fulfilment in the industrial-scale murders committed in the death camps of eternal infamy.

It is, though, absurd to the point of intellectual and racial insult to describe young Herschel Grynszpan as 'the boy who started World War 2'. The events of Kristallnacht were a cataclysm the Nazis had already well-laid and primed. The shooting of Ernst vom Rath brought a very convenient spark to the touch-paper -- possibly a very cleverly provoked one -- but the fate of European Jewry (and of so many others) would not have been significantly altered without his intervention. The boy became a scapegoat. As such he provoked a bit of short-lived but useful pro-Jewish humanitarian stocktaking in the USA and elsewhere. He made it clear to those potential victims in the Reich still able to flee that their time was short. He inspired a young English composer to ponder the sources of, and relief from, the tug of inhumanity.

Michael Tippett's response to the gunshots in the Rue de Lille and the subsequent atrocities was to fashion an oratorio imbued with his pacifist instincts. He didn't evade the horror or the anger but his primary concern was to find his way towards a purely human reconciliation -- one grounded in psychological honesty rather than hope for transcendence. For all their aptness and emotional power, one could claim that the use of spirituals in A Child of Our Time is a fudging of the issue. The deity they invoke is one he had little personal faith in. But he did have an awareness of what he describes as 'the strange fount of Christian compassion', and goes on to exhort: 'let us try at least to make up for the failure of God's mercy!' (Postscript to Moving into Aquarius)

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Copyright © 25 January 2005 David Wilkins, Eastbourne UK


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