Saturday, October 24, 2009

Tippett Week 3

It begins with a stab of sorrow: an accented, e-minor chord played by three trumpets, leading off a diminishing phrase whose latter end is covered up by the entrance of a hesitant violin theme. By some strange alchemy, the seemingly arbitrary motion of the harmonic parts leads to a B-Major chord in bar 16. Deep breath. The e-minor chord returns, trumpets muted this time, and the harmony takes a different turn, leading to the chorus's staggered entry on the text "The world turns on its dark side." The stabbing chords, each at the peak of a slow crescendo-diminuendo, always coincide with the word "dark." Then, in an emphatically repeated gesture of falling minor-sixths, the chorus informs us that "It is winter."

One senses that we're not just talking about the passage of seasons, the world inexorably revolving around the sun so that its hither axis gets pointed thither. From an astronomically distant remove, where one can judge what is happening but change it not, we will struggle to view what is about to happen with emotional poise. How this can be done without judging the actors is a mystery only Michael Tippett can answer. For the music of the spheres described above comes from the first number of his 1939 oratorio A Child of Our Time, performed last night by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Chorus, and In Unison Singers at Powell Hall.

No. 2 is an alto solo titled "The Argument." With cellos and violas fighting against the beat, mezzo Kate Lindsey announces: "Man has measured the heavens with a telescope, driven the Gods from their thrones. But the soul watching the chaotic mirror, knows that the Gods return. Truly the living God consumes within, and turns the flesh into cancer!" There is a hint of triumphalism in the music at the words "knows that the Gods return," and a moment of tender pathos at "and turns the flesh." It's as if the "soul of the world" is warning us that when God returns, He may be welcomed coldly by a world unprepared to face judgment.

Two solo flutes and a solo viola, over a pedal B in the bass, play a gentle but exquisitely melancholic "Interludium" that after only 20 bars accelerates to the "Scena" of No. 3, in which the chorus hysterically asks: "Is evil then good? Is reason untrue?" The alto soloist assures us that "Reason is true to itself. But pity breaks open the heart." The interlude comes back, only to accelerate in the same manner to a chorus of "We are lost, we are lost, lost, lost." Ironically, this is one of the parts where it's easy for the chorus to become really lost. The rhythm of the "lost, lost" bit paints the text as it changes from a 3/4 pulse to 6/8 for two measures. Then a fiendish instrumental bridge introduces a choral fugato on the words "We are as seed before the wind," where the word "wind" dissolves into tiny, scattered, staccato notes. "We are carried to a great slaughter," the chorus sings, first a voice at a time, then in a great unison melisma that cuts across the meter of the conductor's gesture and ends with a vicious statement by the full orchestra in octaves.

From the midst of the war he described, Tippett penned the words of No. 4, "The Narrator," sung by the bass soloist. Here the orchestra and Jubilant Sykes imiated the sound of a recitative from Handel's Messiah.

Which reminds me of what I never got to tell the SLSO "virgin" parked next to me in Row 6 of 8 of the chorus, who just before the final tuning of the orchestra had made some remark about how we could make Messiah go quicker (when we sing it December 11-13) by giving short shrift to the recitatives. Had there been time to gab, I would have told him that such an error would be like cutting all the dialogue out of Star Trek: The Motion Picture and playing only a "highlights reel" of the special effects.

Some people do listen to opera, oratorio, and stage musical "highlights" albums, and endure the whole shows primarily to enjoy the big musical numbers. But other people, like me for example, enjoy the dramatics and the story even more than the pretty songs. I have even known one man, a musician and music lover himself, who expressed disgust at the musical film Chicago because he hadn't expected there to be so many songs in it. Such people get impatient when too many musical diversions slow down the progress of the story or dissipate its dramatic energy.

I realized I was such a person when I listened to a reconstruction of Bach's St. Mark Passion some years ago. The libretto was extant, but the score was not. Nothing daunted, musical scholars reasoned that since Bach had cannibalized his own cantatas for the arias and choruses in St. Mark, they could do the same and arrive at a reasonable facsimile of Bach's original, within a certain margin for error. The only trouble was the recitative, the parts taken directly from Mark's Gospel, text whose musical setting would have represented Bach's unique dramatization of the story and formed the context in which each interpretive aria and hymn-based chorus made sense as parts of a structural whole. The makers of the recording had no choice but to combine some original music of their own with fragments of St. Mark Passions by inferior composers contemporary to Bach.

As a result, the main text of the Passion was incarnated in flat, pale, harmless music. The work degenerated into a loose collection of pretty musical numbers that shared a general theme, but were not knit together as parts of a living body. The drama was lost. The story, plopped matter-of-factly into the spaces between the larger numbers, was a necessary evil to be endured until the next vocal spectacular. It sounded like a "Best of Bach's Cantatas" highlights album. It bored the hell out of me. And that's when the penny dropped: the key to a work of musical drama is the setting of its story. Everything else is just ditties. Without rich, emotionally gripping recitative, an opera or oratorio is so much hot air and vanity. We may like to listen to a handful of numbers, but don't make us sit through the whole thing unless the story brings it alive. And, ironically, it's the "in-between" music of the recitatives that does this.

So, as I was saying, the Narrator (No. 4) tells us, "Now in each nation there were some cast out by authority and tormented, made to suffer for the gen'ral wrong. Pogroms in the east, lynching in the west: Europe brooding on a war of starvation. And a great cry went up from the people." Notice what Tippett very pointedly isn't saying here. He isn't saying that the villains wore swastikas. Some of them, quite clearly, wore white hoods. Europe as a whole, brooding on its war of starvation, bears blame. The evil Tippett exposes is not merely the evils of Nazi Germany, but an evil that pervades humanity: the evil of hatred, violence, the destruction of innocents, the oppression of any people-group. The moral equivalency of "pogroms in the east" and "lynching in the west" foreshadows the use of five African-American spirituals within a narrative context inspired by (but not explicitly about) the anguish of European Jews, which led to and exponentially increased after the Grynszpan-vom Rath incident in Paris, 1938.

No. 5, "Chorus of the Oppressed," is a choral fugue asking a superficially biblical-sounding question: "When shall the usurer's city cease and famine depart from the fruitful land?" One thing I got out of David Robertson's pre-concert chat on Thursday night was the insight that, among other things, Tippett was a utopian socialist who left the British Communist Party because his idealistic conscience did not approve of Stalin. It doesn't really matter if the "usurer's city" is Berlin, St. Petersburg, or London in 1939. It isn't about Nazi brutality, or Communist brutality for that matter. It's about the "war of starvation" mentioned in the previous number. It's one of those "O Lord, how long?" cries for justice in an economic world where the privileged elite lived in cities and dined on the produce of what was basically slave labor, while the people who grew their food starved in the midst of a fruitful land. Or, where the engines of war crushed beneath its wheels the men who built them, kept them running, and served leaders who remained out of harm's way.

Grynszpan himself speaks in No. 6, "Tenor solo," which begins and ends in almost chaotic agitation. The heart of it, however, is a slow tango over which Paul Groves laments: "I have no money for my bread, I have no gift for my love." Well, if it's true that Grynszpan was never tried because the Nazis feared the embarrassment of his defense - namely, that he and vom Rath had been lovers - well, maybe the gift for his love turned out to be a bullet. "I am caught between my desires and their frustration," he cries, "as betwen the hammer and the anvil. How can I grow to a man's stature?"

If you heard a little Brahms creeping into No. 5, you won't be surprised to hear a touch of Dvořák in No. 7's "Soprano Solo." Measha Brueggergosman complains: "How shall I cherish my man in such days, or become a mother in a world of destruction? How shall I feed my children on so small a wage? How can I comfort them when I am dead? Ah!" This is Grynszpan's mother speaking, but I suppose a lot of women could say the same thing even today. Is it responsible to bring children into such a despicable world? Who will help them survive, when you can't even help yourself?

Momma Grynszpan's lament dovetails into the first spiritual, "Steal away, steal away to Jesus, steal away home, I ain't got long to stay here." This piece concludes the first of three main parts of the oratorio, inviting comparisons both to Handel's Messiah (which also has three parts serving a similar narrative pattern) and Bach's Passions (in which Lutheran chorales serve the same purpose as these spirituals). Tippett had heard a spiritual for the very first time in 1938, the year before he wrote this piece, sung by a wretched radio choir that, for all its unmusicality, could not prevent the irreducible power of the spiritual from shining through. "My Lord, He calls me, He calls me by the thunder," sings the tenor soloist. The choir joins in with: "The trumpet sounds within-a my soul." Then there's another refrain, another verse different from the first only by one line ("Green trees a-bending, poor sinner stands a-trembling"). The women of the chorus split into five parts, imitating the trumpet described by the men. The soprano soloist gets into the act during the refrains. The solution to the problems laid out in Part I seems to be: "Life isn't all that long, after all. When you die, you can rest from your troubles."

Interestingly, because this chorus mentions the name "Jesus," A Child of Our Time was not performed in Israel until the middle 1980s, when our conductor of the week (David Robertson) heard it under the baton of Tippett himself. Which, I suppose, just goes to show that the door of unreasoning and self-defeating hatred slams both ways.

Part II begins with another chorus (No. 9) commenting on the weather: "A star rises in midwinter." Then, in what must have been a conscious reference to Handel's "Behold the Lamb of God," and perhaps also to Pontius Pilate's futile appeal on behalf of Christ, Tippett adds: "Behold the man! The scapegoat! The child of our time."

No. 10 is a very brief recitative by the bass soloist: "And a time came when in the continual persecution one race stood for all." This is also very significant, I think. In biblical terms, such a statement would imply that the suffering of the Jews under Nazism had an aspect of substitutionary atonement. They were, heh, the sacrificial lambs of a modern state that had brought medieval savagery to a pitch of Darwinian perfection. Or maybe all Tippett means is that it could happen to anybody, it could be about anything that has happened in history up to the present day. Amazingly, Tippett is daring to place what were then "current events" into an historical and even biblical perspective.

While the baritone's voice is still ringing in the hall, strings begin a demonic buzzing, like a swarm of africanized killer bees approaching with murder on their mind. It's the beginning of No. 11, "Double Chorus of Persecutors and Persecuted," and bar none the hardest entrance for the chorus. Unlike his contemporary countryman Britten, Tippett evidently had no interest in keeping things simple for the chorus, such as musical cues to help them find their rhythm and pitch. Nevertheless, we did our best to count the down beats and develop perfect pitch on short notice, so that Chorus I could sing "Away with them!" and Chorus II answer "Where, where?" And (pace Schickele) Chorus I answered them not, saying: "Curse them! Kill them!" to which Chorus II cry, "Why?" This time they get an answer that isn't an answer: "They infect the state."–"How?" No answer at all this time. The persecuted (really the whole chorus) then twice complains, first in heartbreaking appeal, then in the utter numbness of a broken spirit: "We have no refuge."

Without a break, the bass narrator comes in with another line of recitative (No. 12): "Where they could, they fled from the terror. And among them a boy escaped secretly, and was kept in hiding in a great city." If we're talking about Herschel Grynszpan, of course, that city is Paris. Nevertheless it is with an air of stuck-up Britishness that the chorus (No. 13) sings: "We cannot have them in our Empire." Then, more angrily: "They shall not work, nor draw a dole." And finally, with purple-faced, staring-eyed rage: "Let them starve in No-Man's Land!" The historical background of this was the situation where Grynszpan's family found itself, first deported from Country A to Country B, then denied entry to Country B because they weren't its nationals, then denied re-entry into Country A, and finally consigned to a refugee camp surrounded by razor-wire-topped fences and provided just enough food to make their starvation especially slow and painful. "And the boy's mother," the Narrator tells us (No. 14), "wrote a letter, saying:..."

Cue No. 15, a "Scena" in which the entire Solo Quartet takes part. "O my son!" cries the Mother, "In the dread terror, they have brought me near to death." The Boy screams: "Mother! Ah Mother! Though men hunt me like an animal, I will defy the world to reach you." The Aunt (who housed Grynszpan in Paris) tranquilly urges: "Have patience. Throw not your life away in futile sacrifice." The Uncle adds: "You are as one against all. Accept the impotence of your humanity." But the Boy shrieks: "No! I must save her."

Three chords of transition then introduce No. 16, the second spiritual: "Nobody knows the trouble I see, Lord." It's not the tune most of us think of when this text comes to mind. It's whispery-soft but light and fleet-footed, with perky accents on the word "Lord" giving it an extra dose of rhythmic vitality. "Nobody knows like Jesus," it says, damning it further in the eyes of the Orthodox Jews who refused to let it play in Israel until 1985; some people just have no sense of irony. The tenor comes in on the verses, echoed on off-beats by the soprano soloist and the chorus: "O brothers, " (or, on the repeat, "O mothers"), "pray for me and help me to drive old Satan away." What does this spiritual mean in the context of A Child of Our Time? I think it may be Tippett's way of depicting Grynszpan's predicament as a parallel to Christ's agony in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The crisis is reached in No. 17, another "Scena" featuring the bass and alto soloists. "The boy becomes desperate in his agony. A curse is born. The dark forces threaten him. He goes to authority. He is met with hositlity." So far it could be compared to the arrest and trial of Christ. But then history takes a different turn: "His other self rises in him, demonic and destructive. He shoots the official. But he shoots only his dark brother. And see... he is dead." The result, according to an extremely brief recitative by the narrator (bass) in No. 18: "They took a terrible vengeance." It is left to the chorus in No. 19, titled "The Terror," to suggest what happened next: "Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads! Break them in pieces on the wheel!" It's a challenging fugue full of hateful energy and, at the end of the subject, an almost hysterical loss of control over its own rhythm. This flows directly into No. 20, where the narrator explains: "Men were ashamed of what was done. There was bitterness and horror." And with No. 21, "A Spiritual of Anger," the oratorio reaches the high point of its dramatic arch.

The spiritual in question is the one you'll have been waiting for, if you had any idea what was coming: "Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt land; tell old Pharaoh to let my people go." For much of this refrain the chorus is in unison (or rather, octaves), executing some of the most powerfully drawn-out crescendos and diminuendos in their repertoire. The bass soloist sings the stanzas overagainst a persistent choral response of "Let my people go:" "When Israel was in Egypt land, oppressed so hard they could not stand, 'Thus spake the Lord,' bold Moses said [Let my people go], 'If not, I'll smite your firstborn dead.'" Under the chorus, the orchestra surges and writhes with passion. It's a devastating piece.

No. 22, "The Boy Sings in his Prison," begins with dense, dissonant four-way dialogue between violins and flutes, floating like birds high in the air - perhaps all that the Boy has to see from his cell window. "My dreams," the tenor sobs, "are all shattered in a ghastly reality. The wild beating of my heart is stilled; day by day, day by day. Earth and sky are not for those in prison." Then, after more tweeting, he sighs: "Mother!"

No. 23, "The Mother," is an aria with some interesting counterpoint between the strings, oboe, and horn - the kind of music, I thought as I listened to it last night, that I would probably write if I had the chance. "What have I done to you, my son?" the soprano soloist grieves. "What will become of us now? The springs of hope are dried up. My heart aches in unending pain."

No. 24 is a short alto solo, "The dark forces rise like a flood. Men's hearts are heavy; they cry for peace." This introduces the spiritual that concludes Part II (No. 25): "By and by, I'm gonna lay down my heavy load." Quick, whisper-soft, deceptively dissonant, and gilded by a soprano solo, the chorus keeps this refrain spinning while the soloist declares: "I know my robe's gonna fit me well, I've tried it on at the gates of hell. Hell is deep and a dark despair, O stop, poor sinner, and don't go there!" Which, apparently, Grynszpan did. Let him be a cautionary example.

Part III, like its opposite number in Messiah, looks ahead to a hoped-for future. "The cold deepens," says the chorus in No. 26. "The world descends into the icy waters, where lies the jewel of great price." The "where lies the jewel" passage and its repeat are the only major a capella passage in the oratorio. It ends with an orchestral meditation that seems to entertain a fragile hope. A hope, evidently, that when things are at their blackest, a miracle of deliverance will come. Is this a realistic hope? What is it based on?

No. 27, an alto solo, loses me even further. "The soul of man," she sings, "is impassioned like a woman." Huh? "She is old as the earth, beyond good and evil, the sensual garments." Excuse me? "Her face will be illumined like the sun. Then is the time of his deliverance." I reckon this is Tippett's best shot at saying that something good in human nature will rise up and save our race from what, in 1939 at least, looked like a headlong rush toward annihilation. I find this "beyond good and evil" bit very disturbing. The rest of it, in my opinion, is simply insupportable. How could someone say this who had witnessed the "War to End All Wars," followed by the agonizing and inevitable build up to yet another war, each of which by itself disabused most rational observers of any notion that there is anything good in human nature? I think we can learn a lot from Tippett from this passage. Excuse me: I meant to say, we can learn a lot about Tippett from this passage. For example, that he was full of it - in a kind, lovable way.

No. 28 is another "Scena," with bass solo and chorus. Here dwell the lines that I consider Tippett's gravest atrocities against common sense. I would even venture to call them false prophecy: "The words of wisdom are these [sings the bass]: Winter cold means inner warmth, the secret nursery of the seed." Chorus: "How shall we have patience for the consummation of the mystery? Who will comfort us in the going through?" Bass: "Patience is born in the tension of loneliness. The garden lies beyond the desert." Chorus: "Is the man of destiny [Hitler?] master of us all? Shall those cast out be unavenged?" Bass: "The man of destiny is cut off from fellowship. Healing springs from the womb of time [cough, choke]. The simple-hearted shall be exulted in the end [puke!]." Chorus: "What of the boy then? What of him?" Bass: "He, too, is outcast, his manhood broken in the clash of powers. God overpowered him, the child of our time."

Whoa. Wait a minute. In the midst of fatuity, something profound: "God overpowered him." This reminds me of something Franz Delitzsch said about the Servant of God in Isaiah 53:4-6, something about how (at least in the eyes of those who mistook what they saw), the Redeeming Christ was viewed as "smitten by God" in the sense of one who is beaten in combat. Is there something redemptive even about a historical loser like Herschel Grynszpan? Is there a sense in which the wrongs inflicted on him by human evil are also an act of God for the benefit of mankind? Could it be that something as horrible as Reichskristallnacht could also be a gift from the heavens, awakening pity, vigilance, and above all action by the free peoples of the world? "God overpowered him"... So what will man now do?

No. 29 is a "General Ensemble" for all four soloists and the chorus. First there is a "Preludium" in which the instruments give us a hint of the world warming up, buds opening, the sun beginning to shine, etc. Then solo quartet, echoed by the chorus, sing: "I would know my shadow and my light. So shall I at last be whole. Then courage, brother, dare the grave passage. Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope. The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring." I'm not at all sure why this stuff doesn't sound like, well, stuff when set to Tippett's music. Note how "It is spring" literally turns the earlier melody of "It is winter" upside-down. Musically, it's a very moving and compelling statement. Textually, there is something dubious about it. Will confronting the evil in ourselves heal us? From whence comes this hope that is said to exist beyond death? The fact that, in spite of a war that was then in the process of reducing western civilization to rubble, Tippett could derive such hope from the world's axis coming around to face the sun again, is really kind of sad to think about. It's the next-to-last-thing one might say before concluding that the world would be better off if we extinguished ourselves.

After a long buildup in which the solo quartet sings without text, we come to No. 30, the final spiritual: "Deep river, my home is over Jordan. Lord, I want to cross over into campground. Oh, chillun! Oh, don't you want to go to that gospel feast, that promised land, that land where all is peace? Walk into heaven, and take my seat, and cast my crown at Jesus' feet. Lord, I want to cross over into campground." This piece was challenging mostly because of the infinitely flexible tempo, decelerating to a close that could be interpreted either as desolate or as restful, with a slow, soft, unison slur from E to C-sharp on the word "Lord." You can't take Tippett's references to Jesus literally. He was no Christian. But he uses this spiritual, like the others, to comment on what has gone before. And this one seems to say, "Death doesn't look so bad from here."

Let us all pause to reflect, with sorrow, that there are such times when one can honestly say, even from an atheistic point of view, that death would be preferable to the way things are going in the world. I think this is a sign that the forces of death have broken the spirit of the living. But in the absence of a real hope of eternal life, what can you do? This is the tragedy that makes A Child of Our Time inexpressibly sad for me. In living memory (for a holocaust survivor was in our audience on Thursday night), mankind's spirit has been thus broken. It could happen again. And a conflict between spiritual forces is heating up right now. What if God overpowers a child of our time? How will we respond then?

IMAGES: All of Herschel Grynszpan, except the color one (Paul Groves, the tenor who portrayed Grynszpan last night) and the last photo (Ernst vom Rath, the consular official Grynszpan shot dead in 1938).

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