Or so the story goes. In fact the origins of the work were probably less spontaneous and more complex. Previously Tippett had considered producing an opera based on the Dublin Easter Rising of 1916, but he found the Jewish problem more immediate and troubling - perhaps not surprising for one who was later to be sentenced as a Conscientious Objector to three months’ imprisonment in Wormwood Scrubs. Tippett himself explained:
“The Jews were the particular scapegoats of everything, for every kind of standing outcast, whether in Russia or America or even in England. For these people I knew somehow I had to sing songs.”
Tippett’s masterstroke was to include within his universal reflections and specific narrative, five Negro spirituals: “I felt I had to express collective feelings and that could only be done by collective tunes such as Negro spirituals, for these tunes contain a deposit of generations of common experience.” (Tippett, ‘Poets in a barren age’, in Moving into Aquarius (London: Palladin, 1974), p.152.). But, it was also a decision which resulted in an inherent technical and aesthetic difficulty: how to successfully assimilate a sophisticated western classical idiom with the simple, pure language of the spiritual?
The problem of integrating opposing musical genres was not entirely overcome in this stirring and uplifting performance by the BBC Proms Youth Choir - the massed forces of several UK youth choirs who, having attended an intensive course in Birmingham, were brought together with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under the baton of David Robertson.
Tippett produced both the score and the text - after T.S. Eliot had declined to write the libretto, professing that the composer would produce a more appropriate text himself. And, blending echoes of Wilfrid Owen’s war poetry with Jungian psychology, the text is relatively - and atypically for Tippett - simple and terse. The four soloists all enunciated their recitatives clearly and with excellent projection, with tenor Paul Groves employing a particularly sensitive declamation. Elegance, flexibility, and impassioned sentiment characterised Groves’ Part I solo ‘I have no money for my bread’; and he skilfully manoeuvred the more chromatic idiom of his second solo, ‘My dreams are all shattered in a ghastly reality’, in Part II, where ethereal high strings and some beautiful solo playing by flute and oboe enhanced the lyrical poignancy of the vocal melody.
Sarah Connelly, announcing the opening ‘Argument’ with poise and earnestness, sang throughout with rhetorical presence and clarity. Her Part III solo, ‘The soul of man’, was rhythmically alert and naturalistic, in animated counterpoint with a buoyant string line derived motivically from the spiritual.
In the role of ‘narrator’, baritone Jubilant Sykes, making his debut at the Proms, initially seemed a little nervous and restrained, but he grew in stature as the work progressed. Although his baritone perhaps lacks the necessary weighty resonance of a true bass, and at times he struggled to find sufficient impact and gravitas, Sykes shaped his recitatives and arias with thoughtfulness and care, building through his opening recitative to the inject drama and urgency in the final line, “And a great cry went up from the people”, and carefully colouring the text in Part III to reassure that “The simple-hearted shall exult in the end”. His Act 2 Scena with Connolly was particularly impressive, superbly conveying the escalating the menace of threat and fear, and leading effortlessly to the eruption of fugal violence in the choral ‘Terror’, “Burn down their houses! Beat in their heads!” Sykes’ subsequent grave utterances were perfectly paced, never exaggerated but each word placed for bitter impact. In the slowly paced Spiritual of Anger, ‘Go down, Moses’, chorus and bass suggested the innate power endowed by repression and injustice, and the baritone summoned up a momentous tone to convey the weight of collective history.
It was soprano Sally Matthews, stepping in to replace the indisposed Measha Brueggergosman, who was the star of the evening. From her first solo, ‘How can I cherish my man in such days’, her lines were unfailingly resonant of tone and rich with emotion, as she effortlessly soared in Tippett’s high melodic arches. With glimmering sheen, Matthews rode above the choral ensemble in the first spiritual, ‘Steal away’; in the penultimate ensemble with chorus, the translucence of her final ascents made the promised renewal seem undeniable.
Although Tippett adopted a traditional oratorio format of recitatives, arias and choruses, the subject matter does not lend itself naturally to this form. However, conductor David Robertson moved fluently through the various Parts and numbers forming a coherent narrative. Contrapuntal textures in the instrumental interludes were well delineated and characterised; and in the Part III sequence, from ‘The soul of man’ to the final spiritual, Robertson crafted an unstoppable contrapuntal and harmonic momentum, steady pulses from the ’celli and timpani, together with extended dominant pedals, creating an inexorable movement to resolution - the latter quietly achieved with a gentle cadence, “Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope” - it is hardly Robertson’s fault if the opposing classical and popular idioms do not fully coalesce.
The youthful choral forces had been well rehearsed by their respective choral masters and by Stephen Halsey. The music for chorus is not particularly ‘difficult’ in a technical sense - in fact Tippett simplified the spirituals in order to unify the musical language by basing own music on their fundamental elements; but, the negro slaves’ songs do need to be sung with passion yet without affectation if the charge of misappropriation, even exploitation, is to be avoided.
The members of the Proms Youth Choir were disciplined throughout. There was plenty of passion and volume, although sometimes without true weight and penetration, particularly in the tenor and basses - but perhaps that is an unfair observation, given the youthful ages of the participants. Certainly, there was much energised singing, and the lightness of the young voices prevented some of Tippett’s slightly turgid rhythmic settings, and rather repetitive imitative passages, from seeming too heavy-handed. Thus in the Chorus of the Oppressed in Part I, the polyphonic entries were crisp; similarly the Double Chorus of Persecutors and Persecuted was rhythmically energised, and sharp staccato strings intensified the air of dread. There was a lovely ensemble blend in the opening chorus of Part II, ‘A star rises in mid-winter’, and despite the size of his forces, Robertson was able to induce many a subtle pianissimo or diminuendo, notably in the opening spiritual ‘Steal away’.
The final spiritual was performed from memory, and this was both a strength and a weakness of the performance. For while such a direct address to the audience in the vast arena seemed to invite inclusion and ‘collective’ involvement, the stiff-armed rigidity of the massed singers had a distinct distancing effect - less Negro slave anthem, or even Lutheran congregational chorale, and more English cathedral evensong.
That said, all these parts added up to an intensely satisfying whole. The chorus masters of the participating choirs (the CBSO Youth Chorus, Quay Voices, National Youth Choir of Scotland, Côr Hyn Glanaethwy (Wales) and Codetta (Northern Island)) joined their young charges on the platform, and there was a genuine spirit of warm, joyful communal music-making.
In a short programme interview, David Robertson explained his rationale for the evening’s programming, the first half of the concert comprising one of Charles Ives’ most well-known works, The Unanswered Question, Samuel Barber’s ever-popular Adagio for strings, and Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s 1954 trumpet concerto, Nobody knows de trouble I see: “At the centre of this programme is the notion of reflection and questioning.” Unfortunately, in the first half Robertson did not allow sufficient time for such probing and contemplation (although he was not aided in his endeavour by much thoughtless and surely unnecessary and incessant coughing and spluttering); for in choosing to commence the Barber almost before the last echoes of Ives’ discomforting, unresolving string chords had subsided, he almost reduced the latter work to the status of irrelevant prelude to the more popularist work. The three performing groups - solo trumpet, four flutes (chosen here instead of the alternative, more diverse, group of two flutes, oboe and clarinet) and strings - were spatially separated, but Ives’ preference was for the strings to be placed off-stage and, although perhaps impractical on this occasion, the unwavering metaphysical soundscape created by the strings is surely best experienced as a cosmic rather than a human phenomenon.
Adopting a fairly slow tempo, Robertson structured the long linear lines of Barber’s Adagio effectively, but the work did not attain the emotional scale for which one might have wished. Trumpeter Håkan Hardenberger scaled the stratospheric heights of Zimmermann’s jazz-serial concerto with ease, but as a whole the performers did not quite capture the freedom of the jazz-inspired idiom and Robertson could not fully elucidate with clarity the structure of the episodic form.
Perhaps the greatest accolade of the evening should be reserved for Tippett’s oratorio itself - a work of the highest spiritual and human ambitions but one which also achieves a compelling impact and power, and which confirms Tippett’s own faith in the nature and function of music.