A post about classical music

09 August 2005

This morning probably 5 - 6 million people in the UK heard the opening of Michael Tippett's A Child of Our Time. Of those people, I wonder how many knew what the work they were listening to was? I would conservatively guess at between 0.5 - 0.7 percent. This extract of Tippett's greatest achievement, and in my opinion one of the British masterpieces of the 20th Century, was heard on the BBC Breakfast News. It was not just a snippet either, but a full two or three minutes of the opening movement. It accompanied interviews with British soldiers talking about their experiences as prisoners in Japanese war camps during the Second World War. It was strikingly appropriate, not just due to the fact that it is the centenary year of Tippett's death, but because of the story behind the music and its relevance in the wake of the 60th Anniversary of the birth of nuclear warfare. Tippett was a conscientious objector and went to prison during the war because of his beliefs, and if one thing is conveyed in the first half of A child of Our Time it is the ultimate futility of war and the suffering it brings to those involved. Tippett's music is often not very accessible to the masses. Even if people were listening to 'classical music'---which they're not---his style and sound can be confusing, daunting, and I will be the first to admit, a little monotonous at times. However, of all Tippett's music, A Child of Our Time is without doubt the most accessible. Firstly it has the emotional foundations of the tragedy of war, as well as a simple programmatic plot behind the music, which should be understandable to anyone. More obviously than that is the way in which Tippett interlaces the work with arrangements of Negro spirituals. Most people will recognise at least one of these famous tunes, even if it is through Lloyd-Webber's pillage of one them in his musical Joseph. I would like to think that some people this morning listened to the stories of the British soldiers and were moved by their words. I would also like to think that they heard Tippett's music, and were intrigued enough by it to find out what it was, investigate the work and the story behind it. Listening to 'classical music' is not always a very easy thing to do (I do it rarely, as I did even in my previous life) but often it is worth making the effort. If you do go and look this work up, take the time to listen to it and understand its meaning, you will be listening to one of the most important British pieces of art from the 20th Century. What other era in music exposes war so plainly as the truly horrific, painful, and tragic thing that it is? The power of this guy's writing is at times mindblowing. I met Tippett once. He was well in to his eighties and only a few years from death. I don't have anything to say about him, I was only 14 or 15 at the time. One day, probably not for a while, I will be able to say I met the man that wrote A Child of our Time.