‘A Child of Our Time’ at Hexham Abbey

The Hexham Orpheus Choir performed Michael Tippett’s oratorio ‘A Child of Our Time’ written 1939-41, with full orchestra and four soloists, one of the most challenging oratorios in the modern canon.

Not many folks from Allendale, this time, have managed to get through the exhausting rehearsals for the Orpheus Choir’s concert yesterday evening. It’s a hard piece. But often for these concerts, several Allen Valley singers do swell the ranks of the Hexham choir, and after all, the Abbey is kind of the ‘mother church’ for Tynedale’s Church of England adherents. So the diary goes just a bit afield today to celebrate the dedication and enthusiasm of local singers who seek that bit more challenge than they can actually find on our patch.

I remember, when I was in better health, singing Mendelssohn’s Elijah, at the auditorium in King’s Priory School in Tynemouth, and being thrilled to my bones that we could participate in such a piece, just for heading down the road every Wednesday evening for a rehearsal term. It’s true that the Allen Valleys are actually more than just an isolated patch, here (I could do another piece on petrol stations, as another exemplar of amenities requiring significant travel), and so we are quite blessed to have Hexham as our market town, as it were, buzzing with culture and err, 17 coffee shops? Anyway, culture, the University of the 3rd Age (U3A), lovely restaurants, the Abbey itself, and !petrol stations, all make up the significant amenities of our nearby town.

So, back to Tippett. Written during the beginning of the second world war, when it seemed that matters could scarcely get more bleak, that sheer physical hell was visited upon our entire civilisation as Kristallnacht introduced genocide to modern Europe, Tippett’s piece shocks with grief, fright, rage and unfairness, as we move away from the oratorio’s sonorous beginning, into despair most desperate. But then, Tippett brings the choir together with the keenings of age-old spirituals (in neither a cultural appropriation, nor an ersatz displacement of black slave music out of its natural idiom, but rather in a moving integration of those spirituals into a broad sweep of timeless classical wonder, evoking the experiences of oppressed peoples all over the world), and by the final ‘Deep River’ people are quietly weeping throughout the Abbey’s transept. The oratorio is so timely for today, and still today we feel so helpless in the face of extremists and fanatics. Yet Tippett would have us believe in hope, some semblance of hope, just there, just within reach, if we can only stretch our imaginations to encompass the possibility.

Mark Edwards, the Director of the Orpheus Choir, had pulled out all the stops for this concert, bringing an orchestra (while the oratorio is extremely challenging for choirs, and hence seldom performed, it is beloved by orchestras, who will take a cut in pay to play it together) of great distinguishment and soloists of huge talent together in the Abbey. And the Orpheus Choir, after all an amateur group who love to sing, love to be seriously challenged, were rising to the occasion, lifted to the heights by the professionals around them, with special thanks to Mark Edwards for his belief in them.

Michael Tippett’s ‘songs’ are a bit like musical blank verse: you don’t know where they’re going, and when they’ve gone, you’d never be able to whistle them. So perhaps, musically, they conspire together to reflect the desperate state of the world, and then the deep melodies of the spirituals just envelope them, and us, in a pervasive sense of hope. Hope, still, after all the awfulness which should otherwise swallow it up.

The songs of oppressed people seem to sustain the oratorio and bring us through to the other end.

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