Program notes for Toronto Mendelssohn Choir’s Creation concert on April 27, 2016 at Koerner Hall, Telus Centre for Performance and Learning. Notes by writer and lecturer Rick Phillips.
By 1790, when he left the full-time employ of the Esterhaza court after thirty years, Franz Joseph Haydn was one of the most successful and famous composers in Europe. He was invited to England, enjoying two separate visits during the 1790s. In London, his music was performed, and he was wined and dined, becoming the darling of English aristocratic society. At one point, Haydn attended a festival of music by G. F. Handel, the late, great Baroque master who had been based in London decades earlier. Although he was already familiar with Handel’s music, Haydn’s admiration and respect for Handel’s craft were renewed, especially for the oratorios and their high drama and inspirational music. Before long, Haydn began to hatch ideas of composing an oratorio himself – a musical field to which he had not yet contributed. He was presented with a libretto compiled from the story of the creation of the world as described in the epic poem Paradise Lost by the 17th century English poet John Milton, and the Book of Genesis from the Bible. Haydn returned to Vienna in 1795 and gave the text to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the Imperial court librarian and a prominent figure in Vienna at the end of the 18th century – a writer, poet, translator, composer, and devoted patron of the arts. Haydn asked van Swieten to shorten the text, translate it from English into German, and suggest musical treatments. Van Swieten obliged on all requests and Haydn began to compose in 1796. The Creation was premiered successfully in Vienna in 1798, and was quickly taken up across Europe.
Always an astute businessman, Haydn made two versions of the oratorio – one in German, one in English – and he created slightly different melodic lines to fit the different inflections, stresses, syntax and rhythms of the two languages. Today, both versions are performed. When sung in German, the work is known as Die Schöpfung. In English, it’s The Creation.
The opening orchestral introduction, called “The Representation of Chaos” is famous. Haydn paints the dark, frightening void just prior to creation by using snippets of melody, vague rhythms, strange harmonies, awkward dissonances and sudden outbursts.
“There is nothing else quite like it,” claims Noel Edison. “It’s the Big Bang expressed in music, and was way ahead of its time!”
Then later, at the creation of light, Haydn literally creates a blaze of music, immediately breaking the darkness with the musical equivalent of blinding sunlight. Noel likens it to “God striking the match.” Encouraged by Baron van Swieten, Haydn used quite a bit of word-painting in The Creation, a compositional technique where the meaning of the words is enhanced by their musical depiction. An example would be the use of a harsh dissonance on the word “pain.” Noel advises, “Listen for this technique throughout, especially in the creation of the animals in Part 2. Haydn had a wonderful wit, and in The Creation he combines deep spirituality with his tongue sometimes firmly planted in cheek.”
Scored for full orchestra and chorus, the oratorio is grouped into three parts. In Parts 1 and 2, soprano, tenor and bass soloists take the roles of the archangels Gabriel, Uriel and Raphael, respectively, who act as narrators. Part 1 deals with the first four days of the earth’s creation. Part 2 represents the fifth and sixth days, with the appearance of plants and animals. In Part 3, the seventh day, Adam and Eve arrive as a bass and a soprano, but Haydn only deals with the early, blissful existence of the first couple. Noel explains, “…before eating the forbidden fruit.”
The Creation was composed at a time when most people were creationists, before advances in science had presented a credible alternative to the biblical explanation of our roots. As a result, the oratorio is occasionally criticized today for its dated, naïve and simplistic view of the world. But Haydn’s genius emerges in how he depicts in music the simple, awestruck wonders of God and Nature. Noel believes, “Haydn’s music is the sorbet of life. It’s fresh, not over-played, not over-worked.” Haydn had a great theatrical sense, with the ability to colour and animate subjects in music, and in no work is this more evident than in The Creation.
Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher and music tour host. www.soundadvice1.com
You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you.