Michael Tippett was one of the most gifted and most inspiring figures in twentieth-century British musical life. He was born on 2nd January 1905 in London, but grew up in a village in the East Anglian county of Suffolk and at a succession of boarding schools. Because his parents lived most of the time on the Continent, he travelled extensively in Europe, acquiring facility in languages and an unusually international outlook. Childhood piano lessons and concert-going prompted the ambition of becoming a composer, which was furthered by study at the Royal College of Music in London between 1923 and 1928, and later by private lessons with R.O. Morris. During the 1930s Tippett lived in the Surrey countryside south of London, earning a frugal living from teaching, and becoming involved in left-wing politics. He withheld most of his compositions of that period: his earliest published works are his First String Quartet, completed in 1935 (and in fact rewritten eight years later), and the first of his four Piano Sonatas, composed in 1936�38. Early in the Second World War, Tippett was appointed Director of Music at Morley College, an adult education institute in south London; he was to hold the post until 1951, conducting the Morley Choir in numerous concerts of early and new music. A lifelong pacifist, he was imprisoned for three months in 1943 as a conscientious objector, but his stock as a composer rose gradually, through performances and broadcasts of works including his Concerto for Double String Orchestra and A Child of Our Time. These established his individual compositional voice, with traditional forms modelled on those of Beethoven filled out in contrapuntal textures � line against line as opposed to chord after chord � and melodies animated by lithe syncopated or irregular rhythms, suggested equally by Stravinsky, sixteenth-century madrigals and jazz.
After the War Tippett became well known not only as a conductor but also as a broadcaster on musical and cultural topics; meanwhile, he was working for several years on the first of his five operas, The Midsummer Marriage, which eventually reached the stage in 1955. This and two satellite works of the 1950s, the Piano Concerto and the Second Symphony, marked a peak of rich, exuberant invention in his music. In the early 1960s, he adopted more austere textures, complemented by mosaic-like construction, in such works as the opera King Priam, the Concerto for Orchestra and the short oratorio The Vision of St Augustine. Despite turning sixty in 1965, and being knighted the following year, Tippett remained apart from the Establishment, retaining his iconoclastic youthfulness of manner, and delighting in collaborations with young players and performances to young audiences. He became especially popular in the United States: his visits there brought a new swathe of influences, from both American classical music and popular culture, into such works of the 1970s as the operas The Knot Garden and The Ice Break and the Third Symphony; and American commissions or cocommissions in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in his Fourth and last Symphony, his evening-long choral work The Mask of Time, and his last opera New Year. Something of Tippett�s early lyricism returned in his later works, which also include a Triple Concerto, the last of his five String Quartets, and his farewell to composition, The Rose Lake for orchestra. In his autobiography, Those Twentieth Century Blues, Tippett declared with characteristic optimism �My real hope is to see in the new millennium�; but he died in 1998, six days after his 93rd birthday.
Tippett wrote his oratorio A Child of Our Time between 1939 and 1941; its first performance, at the Royal Adelphi Theatre in London in March 1944, was one of the outstanding artistic events in the capital during the War. As later with all his operas, he wrote his own text; at one stage, he asked the great poet T.S. Eliot to write it, but on seeing his draft outline Eliot advised Tippett to complete it himself, as anything he might write would be so overtly poetic as to get in the way of the music. The work was inspired by an incident which took place in Paris in November 1938: a seventeen-yearold Polish Jew, a refugee whose family had been arrested by the Gestapo and stranded with thousands of others at the Polish frontier, and who was himself being sheltered illegally in France by his uncle and aunt, shot and killed a diplomat at the German Legation. He was tried and imprisoned by the French authorities; and the Nazis, by way of reprisal for the killing, launched one of their most savage pogroms in Germany and Austria, the notorious �Kristallnacht�. Tippett�s libretto does not simply narrate these events, but views them at one remove, from the standpoint of a non-believer, a convinced pacifist, and an admirer of the writings of the psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung. Its central theme is the need for each individual to come to terms with his or her own evil side, rather than project it on to an enemy � because the two sides of the personality are complementary, and both necessary, like winter and spring, darkness and light. This is stated most clearly in the unexpectedly hopeful passage in Part Three in which the tenor soloist and then the chorus sing: �I would know my shadow and my light, so shall I at last be whole.�
The music of A Child of Our Time similarly reconciles and integrates apparent opposites. The overall form of the work, the composer himself said, recalls the tripartite arrangement of Handel�s Messiah, in which the first part consists of �great but general prophecies�, the second of narrative, and the third of �commentary and judgment�. Within this framework, there are more specific reminiscences of Handel�s oratorios and of Bach�s Passion settings, in such things as the dual r�les of the soloists as characters in the drama and commentators, the choral �crowd scenes�, among them the double chorus of persecutors and persecuted in Part Two, the frequent use of fugal texture, the constantly varying instrumental colours of successive numbers or sections, and most obviously the familiar first-inversion chords which herald the solo bass�s passages of narrative recitative. But the musical language of the work is by no means pastiche: it is Tippett�s own, recognisably English, especially in its madrigal-like adherence to the natural stresses of the words against the underlying pulse, and coloured by echoes of jazz and popular music such as the tango rhythm of the tenor�s �I have no money for my bread�. These go halfway to meet one of the most striking features of the work, the Negro spirituals which are introduced from time to time to comment on the actions and emotions of the drama, in the same way as the Lutheran chorales in Bach�s Passions. The spirituals are included as the songs of the victims of oppression in another generation and on another continent, and through their very familiarity they emphasize the relevance to us of the events Tippett describes and comments on: more than sixty years later, the anguished boy is still �a child of our time�.