Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Good Year for Haydn: Part 4 - Creating "The Creation"

At the end of May, 1791, Franz Josef Haydn, newly arrived in London, attended a Handel Festival at Westminster Abbey. There were, supposedly, one thousand performers including an orchestra that featured contrabassoons, a “gigantic collection” of wind and stringed instruments (including “large double basses”) and larger-than-usual timpani capable of playing an octave below the normal kettledrums. In this way, Haydn – who had heard Handel's music before performed in Vienna with tasteful up-dated arrangements by Mozart – heard Handel as probably Handel himself never imagined. Two complete oratorios were included on the programs – Israel in Egypt and Messiah – along with the brilliant coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest and excerpts from a variety of oratorios like Judas Maccadbeus, Saul, Samson and several others.

As H.C. Robbins Landon relates in his essay, “Haydn's 'Creation,'” “Haydn was stunned.” I'm not sure if the pun was intended, considered how a purist might react to such a performance today. After all, Sir Thomas Beecham's over-achieving version of Handel's Messiah is generally held up to ridicule these days, but over two centuries ago, a similar approach was met with “absolute shouts of applause.”

And Haydn was deeply affected by this music.

After seeing the King and everyone in the audience rise to its collective feet at the start of the Hallelujah Chorus, Haydn listened to the music and burst into tears: “He is the master of us all.”

To an English composer, Haydn admitted after hearing “The Nations Tremble” from Joshua, he “had long been acquainted with music but never knew half its power” before hearing this music.

It had to be more than sheer numbers and volume, though, that impressed Haydn so mightily. His biographer wrote “Haydn confessed to me that when he heard Hendl [sic] in London, he was struck as if he had been put back to the beginning of his studies and had known nothing up to that moment. He meditated on every note and drew from those most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur.”

The sense of grandeur is not something Haydn employed normally in his music. There might be a sense of the sublime in the way he could handle a phrase or reach a cadence but normally, “sublime” and “grandeur” might be less in evidence on the daily rounds of music at Palace Esterháza where his primary role was to provide the prince, his employer, with symphonies, chamber music and operas. It was only recently that he had begun writing choral music on a large scale.

Apparently, the Esterházies did not keep a very active chapel since Haydn wrote few sacred works in the course of his 30 years there (there were two small-scale masses composed shortly after he left school; then six more were written for Esterháza between 1766, when old Werner died, and 1782).Now, as a teen-ager, Mozart had to supply his employer, the Archbishop of Salzburg, with a regular flow of masses and short organ works designed for the brief but tightly controlled services there.

But only late in his life, Haydn, then on his third prince and living in semi-retirement, only turned to large scale choral works because it was now his principal duty, supplying the annual mass for the Name Day of Prince Anton's wife.

Meanwhile, unexpectedly, he found himself taken off to London to grace the audiences there with new symphonies, string quartets, piano sonatas and songs. He came back with some librettos as his agent, Johann Peter Salomon, had urged him to write an oratorio much like Handel's.

It was during his second trip there that someone had given him a hodge-podge of horrid poetry about the glories of England – not so much a religious work as apparently a political one:

“For England had great wealth posses'd by sea's access and thereby blest with plenties not a few which next the virtue of thy watchful eyes will her secure from foreign miseries...”

(Good grief... and Haydn had trouble with simple English...)

Granted, it was a time of great patriotic pride, England fending off the insanity unleashed by the French Revolution and steeling itself for the inevitable wars with Napoleon that would consume much of the next 15 years. The wretchedness of the text may not have been the only reason he rejected it: but what a coup it would've been for England to have this ballyhooed around the Continent with music by the famous Haydn as a form of musical propaganda while the English were in search of political and diplomatic alliances against the French!

No, what eventually attracted Haydn's attention was nothing less then the opening chapters of the Bible.

The libretto he had been given was one that had originally been prepared for Handel himself who, for whatever reason, never got around to setting it. For the most part, it was taken from Milton's Paradise Lost, interspersed with quotes from the Book of Genesis. Baron van Swieten was a friend of Haydn's, a diplomat at the Austrian court who loved Handel's music and commissioned Mozart to reorchestrate some of his oratorios for late-18th Century sensibilities (on a far more discreet scale than was going on in London, obviously). He now prepared a German version of this libretto and made subtle suggestions to Haydn how to handle certain passages:

“In this chorus, the Darkness could disappear gradually but in such a way that enough of the Darkness remain to make the sudden transition to light very effective. “And there was light” must only be said once.”

Whether Haydn would have thought so or not, we don't know, since he took Swieten's advice. It's one of the most effective moments in the work, as it turned out: the audience at the first performance applauded so vigorously at this point, the orchestra was unable to proceed for several minutes.

It's quite possible Handel would have set this text as a glorious fugue, repeating the line ad infinitem. At least, that's what would have been expected.

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Baron Gottfried van Swieten, btw, is a very fascinating character of the times: originally physician to the Empress and later a diplomat who was ambassador to Prussia, dealing with Frederic the Great during the 1772 partition of Poland, he was also a keen amateur musician and composer who studied with a student of J.S. Bach's while he was in Berlin. He would later become the chief librarian of the Imperial Library, initiating the first card catalog in 1780, then in 1784 proposing a copyright law that, if it had been approved by the Emperor, would have helped Mozart's finances considerably. He was also the Minister of Education but ran afoul of the liberal Emperor by being a little more liberal than expected: “more concerned about the dangers of religious orthodoxy than heresy, he believed students should be taught a system of secular values based upon 'philosophy.'” When Emperor Joseph II died in 1790, his more conservative brother Leopold became emperor and fired Swieten the following year, on the very same day that Mozart died.

Baron van Swieten is probably best known for having introduced Mozart to the music of Bach and Handel, especially commissioning him to modernize the orchestration for some of Handel's oratorios. His other claim to fame is having adapted the libretto for “The Creation,” giving Haydn a German translation to set to music even if the English re-translation he made is a bit unidiomatic (in addition to accents on the wrong syllables, there's the famous line about Adam's forehead: “the large arched front sublime / of wisdom deep declares the seat”...).

Interesting to reconcile his attitudes about secularized education with his work on the text for “The Creation.” But whether, like both Mozart AND Haydn, Swieten was a Mason or not – and the approach to the story was definitely more Masonic than evangelical – consider this collaboration began in 1796 a year after Emperor Franz I, who'd ascended to the imperial throne after his father's brief, barely two-year reign, banned the Masons (which would remain an underground society until the dissolution of the monarchy in 1918).

The idea of “the propagation of a humanity in God's image” was very much a part of the Masonic ethos and had much in common with the attitudes of the Enlightenment of mid-century Central Europe. As Robbins-Landon writes in his essay, it “is perhaps the last witness, and one of the most moving, of a great humanitarian era in Central Europe, a truly golden age which was soon to disappear for ever.”

As a composer, Baron van Swieten had considerably less impact: he wrote three comic operas and ten symphonies, not all of them extant. The Grove Dictionary includes in its entry on him that, “as a composer, van Swieten is insignificant.” Haydn own assessment of his friend and colleague, at one point, described his symphonies “as stiff as the Baron himself.”

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Around this second visit to London, Haydn had already been engaged in choral works, something less frequently represented in his previous output. While “The Seven Last Words from the Cross” was originally an instrumental composition for Good Friday (written for a cathedral in Spain in 1787) which he later arranged for string quartet, he later reworked it as a choral work, a collection of seven motets with instrumental interludes. On his first trip to London, he had heard a performance of it in which a local composer added a chorus to his music: Haydn's typically laconic response was “I would have done the vocal parts better.” Then, after returning from England, he set about doing just that, premiering it in 1796: the popular reaction was enough to prompt friends like Baron van Swieten to ask Haydn to write another oratorio.

With memories of Handel's music heard in London still in his mind, he wrote the first two “Name Day Masses” for Princess Heremngilde Esterhazy, wife of his employer Prince Anton II, including the famous “Mass in Time of War,” both in 1796. In October, he began work setting Baron van Swieten's adaptation of the libretto for “The Creation.”

The first official indication that Haydn was working on it can be found in a letter written to Beethoven by the man young Beethoven had been studying with while Haydn, his official teacher, had been off in London – Johann Georg Albrechtsberger. “Haydn came to see me yesterday; he is occupied with the idea of a big oratorio which intends to call 'The Creation,' and he hope to finish the work soon. He improvised some of it for me and I think it will be very good.”

Haydn didn't finish it “soon.” He worked on it for almost two years, finishing it in April, 1798. He had never spent so much time writing one composition. When he finished it, he had just turned 66.

A devout Catholic, Haydn began each piece by writing “in nomine Domine” (in the name of the Lord) on the top of the page and, at the end of the piece, “Laus Deo” (Praise God). He often turned to the rosary when he was having compositional difficulties, finding its concentration and consolation unblocked his thoughts.

(While faithful artists might find inspiration in prayer, Beethoven found inspiration in walks in nature, something he especially enjoyed during his summertimes spent in the countryside. A modern-day composer might spend time on a treadmill or something and by disengaging the mind from the stress of reality, allow the brain to free up its thoughts to come up with possible solutions and ideas. Many authors and composers have written about the power of “meditating” in one way or another, this process of freeing the mind from everyday surroundings: when I was at Yaddo, a writer's colony in Saratoga Springs, the daily regimen was basically “breakfast in the dining room by 8:00, a walk around the grounds” (there were two pathways through the woods, the shorter one taking about 20 minutes, the longer one about twice that, as I recall) “and then, at 9am, retire to your studio to work uninterrupted till dinner at 5pm.”)

Haydn wrote about his work on the oratorio, "I was never so devout as when I was at work on 'The Creation'; I fell on my knees each day and begged God to give me the strength to finish the work. ... I spent much time over it because I expect it to last for a long time." Frequently working on it till he was exhausted, he collapsed into a period of illness after conducting its premiere.

Here is a promotional video made at a recording session of “The Creation” with William Christie and Les Arts florissant for the Virgin Classics label. It is sung in German:

Recording dress is a lot less formal than concert dress. Included are a few highlights for you: following the opening of “Chaos” and then the appearance of Light, you'll hear “The Heavens are telling” that ends Part I and the duet from Part III between Adam and Eve. The instruments are from the period of Haydn's day (note the horns and trumpets especially).

To be continued: including a synopsis of the oratorio with video excerpts...

- Dr. DIck

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