Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Good Year for Haydn: Part 5 "The Creation" (Finally)

The Harrisburg Symphony, joined by the Susquehanna and Wheatland Chorales and the Messiah College Concert Choir and soprano Ilana Davidson, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and bass Richard Zuch, conducted by Stuart Malina, will perform Franz Josef Haydn's oratorio “The Creation” this weekend, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum. I'll be doing a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance, some of which will be taken from these posts which were prepared from notes I posted for my class on Haydn at the Harrisburg Area Community College.

You probably don't need a “plot synopsis” to know what's going on, given the familiarity of “the story” but in addition to all the material I've posted about Haydn's life and about the “Creating The Creation,” here is an outline of the different numbers of the oratorio with a few video excerpts.

By way of introduction, let me explain two terms:

Recitative, at its simplest, means “heightened speech” with just a simple bass-line under the declamatory voice, punctuated by cadential chords. The more complex ones have episodes of the orchestra interspersed between fragments of “heightened speech” by the singer. These are generally used for setting the biblical text.

An Aria is a lyrical solo for the voice and is generally a meditation on the events expressed in the preceding Recitative.

In opera, recitatives are where the action (drama) takes place, and arias reflect the reactions of the characters to those actions.

In Haydn's oratorio, the three vocal soloists represent different angels relating the events: in the order of appearance, they are Raphael (bass), Uriel (tenor), and Gabriel (soprano). In Part III, the additional roles of Eve and Adam are usually taken by the same soloists who sing Gabriel and Raphael though additional singers might be added.

In quoting the English translations, I switch back and forth between Baron van Swieten's supplied English and the translation prepared by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker used in their Telarc recording (an excerpt from that performance is included at the end of this section).

The Harrisburg Symphony's performance will use the “standard” van Swieten translation.

The oratorio is in three parts.


Part One begins with its famous “representation of chaos” goes directly into the section with its great dramatic moment, “And there was light!”

(This performance is conducted by John Nelson with soprano Natalie Dessay and baritone Laurent Naouri and Ensemble Orchestral de Paris but the poster doesn't shed much light on the chorus or the identity of the tenor)
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Uriel sings the aria (with chorus) “Now vanished by the holy beams, the ancient ghostly shuddering darkness, the First Day appears.”

Raphael then sings the recitative dividing the water from the firmament (complete with roaring blasts of wind)

Raphael's Recitative: dividing dry land from the waters – Earth and Seas – Aria, complete with roaring waves but ending with the flowing brook.

Gabriel's Recitative – bringing forth grass and fruit-trees; her aria “With verdure clad” is one of the work's more famous excerpts. Here is Sally Matthews singing the original German with Sir Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in October 2007:

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Uriel's Recitative, proclaiming the Third Day, leads to the chorus “Awake the Harp.”

His next Recitative calls for light to be divided day from night. A more involved Recitative follows, with the musical description of the first sunrise, a crescendo from very soft to very loud with a noble resolution to a brilliant D Major chord. The moon is described in silvery tones lead into the chorus (perhaps the oratorio's “greatest hit”), “The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God.”

In this "audio only" video, you can hear the First Sunrise with Uriel's recitative and the chorus "The Heavens Are Telling" - performed by tenor Jan Kobow (it sounded like Ian Bostridge to me) with the VokalEnseble Köln and Capella Augustina (playing period instruments) with Andreas Spering, conductor, from a Naxos recording.

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And thus endeth Part One.

The second part begins with Gabriel's Recitative bringing forth fish in the sea and birds in the air. Her aria describes the various birds (my score's English says “On mighty pens uplifted soars the eagle aloft”): from the proud eagle to the merry lark and cooing doves.

Raphael then tells of the great whales and living creatures – be fruitful and multiply. And thus was the Fifth Day.

This leads into a trio, about the green hills (Gabriel), wafting breezes (Uriel) and the fish leaping in the waters (Raphael) which then adds a grand chorus to the trio, “The Lord is Great.”

In the next sequence – bringing forth the living beasts – Haydn describes musically the appearance of the roaring lion, the “flexible” tiger, the nimble stag and the noble horse as well as more docile cattle and sheep. Among the cloud of insects, there is also the lowly worm (which takes the bass soloist down to a very low D, far below the standard range). Having gotten through that, the baritone now sings the aria, “Now shines the brightest glory of heaven” which includes a few more bellowing beasts along the way.

It's curious that, at the time, critics were divided on this literal depiction of the text in the music – music representing specific images like the lion or the worm. They may have been unaware that Vivaldi had done similar things in his concertos (not just “The Four Seasons”), but by the time Beethoven included bubbling brooks and birdsong in the 2nd Movement of his “Pastoral Symphony,” this was considered brilliant. Go figure.

In this video, you'll hear a largely amateur performance recorded in Sri Lanka with the orchestra and chorus augmented by members of the Amsterdam and Bombay Chamber Orchestras. The conductor is Lalanath de Silva; Raphael is sung by bass Michael Dewis. It's unfortunate he doesn't have the Low D at the end, but he gets an A for effort!

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The aria concludes, “but all the work was incomplete: there wanted yet that wondrous being” and so in the next section, Uriel's Recitative and Aria, God creates Man – and then “the partner for him formed, a woman fair and graceful spouse.”

Here is a performance (with tenor Ian Bostridge, the London Symphony and Sir Colin Davis) of Uriel's aria, “In native worth and honor clad” sung in the original German.

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Raphael's Recitative concludes the Sixth Day, followed by another chorus, “Achieved is the glorious work” and then a trio which begins happily enough before Raphael mentions out “if God turns his face away, with sudden terror they are struck” (shivering strings) as “God takes their breath away and they vanish into dust.” Happier thoughts bring the trio to a conclusion before leading into the chorus, “Achieved is the glorious work: our song let be the praise of God.” Allelujah!

And thus endeth the Second Part.

Part Three, the shortest of the three – typical also of a Handel oratorio – concerns itself with the first days of Adam and Eve, opening with a peaceful instrumental interlude that sounds like it will become a love duet from an opera but instead becomes a Recitative for Uriel who describes the “Happy Pair” walking hand in hand.

The Hymn begins with a duet for Adam (Baritone) and Eve (Soprano) (“By thee, with bliss, oh bounteous Lord... this world, so great, so wonderful”) later joined by the chorus (“forever blessed be his pow'r”), the longest 'number' in the whole work.

A simple Recitative first for Adam then for Eve precedes their delightful duet, “Graceful consort” (or “sweet companion”) that could find a place beside any comparable duet from Mozart's “Marriage of Figaro” or “Magic Flute.” “But without you, what is to me the morning dew? The evening cool? The ripened fruit? The fragrant flower?” Just delicious!

Uriel's “Oh happy pair,” a short recitative, leads to the final chorus, “Sing to God, ye voices all.”

This excerpt is from Robert Shaw's recording with the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus available on Telarc and sung in English: the poster includes the final chorus from Part II (“fulfilled at last the glorious work”) and excerpts from Part III (Adam and Eve's duet, “Sweet Companion” - also included in German in the William Christie promotional video above) then Uriel's Recitative, “Oh happy pair” and the concluding chorus, “Sing to God ye hosts unnumbered”)

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To be continued...

Here's a look at an emotional performance in 1808 which turned out to be Haydn's last public appearance before his death 200 years ago. Haydn had been brought to the performance carried in a chair. At the end of Part One, he had to be taken out of the room: in this scene, a watercolor painted by a witness of the occasion, Haydn is seated in the foreground, just before leaving the performance when the audience turned to bid him farewell and he waved to them as if in benediction.

Dr. Dick

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