We hope that you will be able to join us for our performance of ‘The Creation’ next Saturday, 18th March. David Fletcher’s programme notes give a fascinating background to the music you will hear.
Imagine what it must have been like to have seen the sea for the first time at the age of 58! On New Year’s Day 1791, Joseph Haydn crossed the English Channel for the first time, to visit a country where his music had already enjoyed huge popularity. He stayed for eighteen months, making a great impression: one reviewer of his first concert wrote, “The sight of that renowned composer so electrified the audience, as to excite an attention and a pleasure superior to any that had ever been caused by instrumental music in England.”
Not surprisingly given that success, Haydn returned for an equally long stay in 1794-95. It was not just a matter of performances: his last twelve symphonies, out of an impressive total of 104, were written during those two visits, and of course he was also a prolific composer of chamber music and piano sonatas. The concerts, some of them organised by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, were very lucrative, giving him a secure financial future for the rest of his life. We know that he also attended large-scale performances of oratorios by England’s favourite composer George Handel, including Messiah and Israel in Egypt.
You might think that by 1795 he would have happily hung up his musical boots (to coin a phrase) and enjoyed the huge esteem in which he was held – not just in England but throughout Europe. Not at all!
As Haydn was leaving London, Salomon gave him a poem entitled The Creation of the World, quite possibly in the hope that he would return with a new work inspired by it. In fact a third visit never materialised, but this was the spur to the first – and arguably the best-known – of a succession of choral works which Haydn composed during the remaining fourteen years of his life.
Back in Vienna, Haydn gave the poem to his friend Baron Gottfried von Swieten, a diplomat and amateur musician. For his libretto, von Swieten translated it into German, and also used passages from the book of Genesis and some psalms. He then made suggestions to Haydn about how to set the words of some numbers! The Creation was first performed in 1798, creating a huge sensation, and was published bilingually two years later.
There are many reasons why this work has been so admired. The choruses are majestic, often breath-taking, rivalling the best in Handel’s oratorios. Each of the three soloists has opportunity to show off their range and expressiveness: almost always, the pattern is for one of them to sing a short recitative (using the words of the King James version of the Bible) followed by an aria, after which the chorus reflects on what has been described. However, the orchestra plays almost as important a part as the voices; from the opening dissonant representation of chaos to the expressive depiction of different creatures (including the humorous “heavy beasts” and the worm!), and in many other instances, Haydn shows his mastery of illustrating the text of the libretto.
The libretto, however, is more problematical. It seems that von Swieten, in issuing a bilingual version, did not have an ear for the rhythms of the English language. So we have such phrases as “the wonder of his works declares the firmament” and “thy power adore the heaven and earth”, when clearly the word order is back to front! It is hugely surprising that the text has persisted with only minor improvements, rather than someone taking it by the scruff of the neck, as it were, and producing a much more intelligible version. Too late now; the words are so well-known now that such a drastic change is not feasible. One obvious alternative is to sing it all in German, von Swieten’s native language, and provide a translation for the audience. I wonder: would you have come to this concert if we had adopted that solution?
Weird word-order notwithstanding, there is no doubt of the impact and importance of The Creation among large-scale choral works. It seems that Haydn sensed what an awesome piece he was composing: “I was never so devout as during that time when I was working on The Creation”, he observed. We hope that you will find this evening similarly uplifting, and as enjoyable as we have found it in rehearsal.