The St. Louis Symphony Chorus is preparing a 20th Century masterpiece. With the SLSO and the In Unison Chorus, we will be performing the oratorio A Child of Our Time by English composer Michael Tippett in a few weeks. It's a challenging work, based on Tippett's pacifism (he was jailed as a "conscientious objector" during World War II), and with the composer's own lyrics filled with Jungian psychology and mystical imagery.
The main narrative has to do with the assassination of a German official by a 17-year-old Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan in 1938, an incident the Germans used as a pretext for Kristallnacht and the beginning of their antisemitic "Final Solution." Written when the war was still in progress, A Child of Our Time tells this story in non-judgmental, general terms, using it as an instance of the universal theme of one group oppressing another, and the latter in their flawed humanity lashing out in despair and frustration.
So in a way, the Grynszpan Incident is only a metaphor for something bigger that Tippett wants us to consider. Perhaps his own persecution as a "conchy" is part of this. But his work is so heavily layered with metaphor that, at times, one can spot circular chains of figurative reference.
For example, in one of the five African American spirituals that serve in this work the way Lutheran chorales serve in Bach's St. Matthew Passion, the chorus, soloists, and In Unison Singers are going to take on "Go Down, Moses." Billed as a "spiritual of anger," it draws on the story of the ancient Jews being enslaved and oppressed by the Egyptians. This is, first of all, a metaphor for the enslavement of black Africans in the American South. In turn, the experience of the black slaves functions as a metaphor for the Jews persecuted under Nazi Germany. So the suffering of Jews comes around, by a chain of metaphors, to stand for the suffering of Jews again. It's a circle!