Monday, November 23, 2009

A Good Year for Haydn: Part 6, The Pre-Concert Talk

Following the concerts this past weekend with performances of Haydn's “Creation,” several people (including some of the musicians) who couldn't make the pre-concert talks asked me I'd be posting it on line. There are already several posts about Haydn's Biography (in this Haydn Anniversary Year), about “Creativity” in general and about the oratorio specifically previously posted here: my talk in some way recaps some of that but also adds some additional information. And the discussion afterwards prompted me to look at the issues of Haydn's text and especially Milton's original poem (I'll post that over at Thoughts on a Train). So, that said, here's another 4,000 words about Haydn:

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First of all, a disclaimer – which the late-comers of course will miss... When I first started working in radio almost 20 years ago, a host of a broadcast concert series was introducing that night's performance of Haydn's “The Creation.” At one point, she said “The Creation took place in 1798...” then caught herself and said “Ha... fat chance... the PREMIERE of Haydn's 'The Creation' took place in 1798.” And of course the next day, someone who was only HALF-listening called in to complain, with righteous indignation, that “your announcer last night” – implying me as far as my boss could tell – “denied that the creation ever took place!” -- So whenever I mention “The Creation” in the context of this pre-concert talk, I am speaking of Haydn's oratorio... just so we're clear...

Even further back than those 20 years, when I was living in New York City, two elderly sisters who lived in my building found out that I was a doctor, and proceeded to ask what I'd recommend for their various aches and pains. I tried to explain I wasn't THAT kind of doctor – I was a “Doctor of Music” which didn't seem to make much sense to them, either, so they continued asking me about their sciatica. So I just said “Take 2 Haydn Symphonies and call me in the morning.” Haydn always uplifted my spirits: it made sense to me.

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200 Years ago, Franz Josef Haydn died at the age of 77. He had been regarded as the greatest living composer of his day. His friend Mozart had died 18 years earlier at the age of 35, and his student Beethoven, then pushing 40, had already written some of his greatest works. Europe was in the midst of a generation of wars with Napoleon and Vienna was being bombarded by the French Army as Haydn lay dying in his house. The previous year, Haydn had made his last public appearance, carried into the hall to hear a performance of his oratorio “The Creation.” It proved to be so emotional for him, they had to take him out at the end of Part One, after the chorus “The Heavens Are Telling.”

He had spent 30 years of his life employed as the music director for the Esterhazy family, working for three different princes. The middle one, Nicholas the Magnificent as he was known, lavished money on a new palace called Esterhaza where he had a complete orchestra, an opera house, a theater, even one just for marionette operas which he was very keen on, and two concert halls, one just for chamber music. Haydn wrote for and conducted the orchestra, prepared the opera productions, wrote incidental music for the theater and provided the prince and his guests with a constant stream of music-making that was considered some of the finest in Europe. In one 9 month period, there were 125 opera performances alone, basically one ever 2 or 3 days – not including orchestra concerts and chamber music programs or evenings at the theater!

Though he is probably best known for having written 104 symphonies and some 80 string quartets, most people probably would argue “The Creation” which he started working on when he was 64, was his masterpiece. He had not intended to end his career as a choral composer – six great masses and another oratorio, “The Seasons” to his post-symphonic credit – but the third prince, in addition to not caring that much for music, also had to deal with his father's debt which meant he had to disband the orchestra, the theater and opera companies and much of the music-making. His only requirement of Haydn, whom he kept on the payroll out of gratitude for his long service, was an annual mass to celebrate his wife's Name Day. At the age of 57, Haydn thought he could just move to Vienna and retire – but within a year, he was taken off to London, an internationally famous composer.

While he was there on his first trip, he heard some oratorios by George Frederick Handel who had died over 30 years earlier, particularly a grand large-scale production of “Israel in Egypt” performed by hundreds of musicians. It left him amazed at the power of the sheer sound and power of this music and the genius of this composer he was not familiar with.

During his second visit there a couple of years later, people were trying to talk him into writing an oratorio of his own. A text was given to him that Handel himself had never gotten around to setting: the story of the Creation as told through words from the Book of Genesis and from Milton's Paradise Lost.

A year after returning to Vienna in 1795, a friend of his, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, volunteered to rework this “Creation” text into German for him. And so in October of 1796, Haydn set to work on it. He finished it about a year and a half later, in April of 1798, the longest amount of time he had ever spent on a single work. It was premiered at the end of that month in a private performance. Hundreds of people who couldn't get in crowded around the palace where it was being performed, hoping to hear some of it: 30 extra policemen had to be brought in to contain the crowd. The first public performance was given 11 months later and had sold out long in advance: it became the biggest box-office success of the season. In the remaining 10 years of Haydn's life, it was performed all over Europe over 40 times outside Vienna, something quite unusual for so large-scale a work. It's first American performance took place in Boston in 1818.

An oratorio is basically a work for voices with chorus and soloists and orchestra – unlike an opera, the subject matter is usually sacred, usually taken from the Bible directly or indirectly, but may often involve biblical characters in a very operatic way: however, it is all done without staging, without sets or costumes and was designed to be performed in a church, not an opera house.

In Handel's day, English law closed the opera houses during Lent and so he (and the singers) would lose a lot of income. So he decided to initiate a season of Oratorios performed in churches. Even though some people were disgusted at the idea of biblical stories trussed up in opera-like music, the idea was very successful.

Two terms you need to realize: there are recitatives and there are arias. A Recitative is a form of heightened speech or declaimed music, musically very simple – usually over a simple harmonic structure played by the harpsichord with one cello and bass supporting the bass-line. Their purpose is to carry the action or story-line in the most easily understood way. Other recitatives may be a little more involved, somewhere between that and the style of the aria. Arias are melodic, quite literally “songs” – lyrical meditations on what happened in the recitatives. Haydn, in this case, sets the words from Genesis as simple recitatives – the arias' texts come from Milton's Paradise Lost.

Haydn's 'Creation' is in three parts – the standard approach that Handel had used – and its three main characters are three angels who observe and report on the events: Raphael, the bass; Uriel, the tenor; and Gabriel, the soprano. The third part focuses on Adam and Eve who are usually sung by the same voices singing Raphael and Gabriel. In all, it lasts about an hour and 45 minutes and while it makes a long evening to have two intermissions, it's difficult to find a place where you can break if for just one: at the end Part One would work but the Parts Two and Three combined are way too long; Part Three is the shortest of the parts but it would still be too much to go through without any intermission. In today's performance, there will be an intermission after Part Two. (So, plan your bladders accordingly.)

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One of the things about Haydn's “Creation” that has always interested me is the time it was written in: it's almost the Last Hurrah for 18th Century Classicism, the last great artistic statement of the philosophies of the Enlightenment – with or without its attitudes toward religion – and with its emphasis on humanity. The Classical Era was a time of well-proportioned art – balanced and logical. Premiered in 1798, it was close to the start of a New Century and whether or not there was a sense of a “New Beginning” when they'd reach 1800, in hindsight it's hard to ignore. At the time Haydn was writing 'The Creation,' he had a student, a young 20-something named Beethoven: who knew that in five years, this young man would produce his “Eroica” Symphony which would change the course of music history for the 19th Century? It's not that it changed overnight or that everybody agreed to turn the page at the same time – but this new era that eventually became “The Romantic Era” was not as interested in form and balance and structure and logic and all the nice things that marked the previous generation's music. Beethoven would be all about expanding – if not breaking – the rules. With Beethoven, our modern-day perception of the Creative Artist also changed.

If nothing else, Beethoven was the first successful “free-lance composer.” Not that he didn't accept money from the aristocrats – he still needed their support to live – but he wasn't “beholden” to them in the sense Haydn had been (“Herr Haydn, the Empress is coming to visit next week, we'll need a new opera. Please see that you have one ready.”) Beethoven, with his deafness, became the epitome of the struggling, suffering artist. His personality, considered low-class and rude in his time, turned him into a titan striding the universe, in hindsight... but of course, his music would have been enough to do that for him... because with Beethoven, somehow, everything changed.

For all the arts in Ancient Greece and a scientist yelling “Eureka” when he was taking a bath, the ancient Greeks had no word in their vocabulary for “creativity.” The word for art was “TECHNE” from which we get our words “technique” and “technology.” Art was based on rules. For the most part, Imagination had little to do with it. Even though there were nine muses to assist artists – not just poetry and music and dance and theater but also history and astronomy – the idea that they would come down to earth to inspire artists was something that only developed about a thousand years later.

Things didn't change much during Roman times – with the Christian era, they introduced the word “creatio” which meant Divine Creation, God creating something out of nothing. Men who created art essentially were craftsmen – “facio' meaning “to make,” from which we get the word “factory,” making something out of something else: raw materials – you take this piece of stone and turn it into a beautiful statue.

Even in the 1600s, people still argued that a poet claiming to be “creative” was taking on concepts only attributed to God. Only in the mid-18th Century, around the time Haydn began composing, did the “Enlightenment” start humanizing religious interpretations. Still, Haydn would not have expected to have God in any form come down to him to reveal how he should compose a troublesome passage in the symphony he was working on. A devout man – and a Mason – if he was “blocked,” he might walk away from the piano and pick up his rosary: during this process, when his mind was engaged on a spiritual ritual, a solution to his writer's block might occur to him – but he didn't believe it was God speaking to him through the rosary beads. This was no different than what happened to Archimedes when he took his bath – by doing something that freed your mind from the problems you were focused on, you opened your mind to become aware of other possibilities. In a more nature-oriented 19th Century, Beethoven would take walks in the country to clear his mind and do the same thing. It doesn't help to just sit and stare at a blank page, waiting for your new symphony to appear before your eyes.

Haydn said he was never so religious as when he was writing “The Creation,” beginning every day by kneeling beside the piano and praying to God to give him the strength to finish this work – not to compose it for him: Haydn was 64 when he started work on it: who knew how long he would live or how his health would hold out? Would he be able to finish it? He wrote at the end of every new piece he wrote, “Laus Deo” - Praise God. 'The Creation' ends with a whole chorus in Praise of God.

In the mid-20th Century, scientists started talking about the Right Brain and the Left Brain and how each one had certain characteristics that could control our personalities. The Left Brain was more logical, rational, more analytical and methodical, more objective. The Right Brain was more intuitive, irrational, random, spontaneous and subjective. Depending on which side of the brain might be more “dominant,” you might be one personality type or another. Taking those non-scientific tests, I find I score highly “right-brained” with only a few 'left-brained' traits. It might help explain how a particular person views the art he's creating. It might help explain why you like a certain type of music and not another. It might explain why someone would be unhappy at work if they're primarily a right-brained person in a left-brained job.

I was reading last week about composer Elliott Carter – who turns 101 in a few weeks and is still composing, by the way. He kind of laughed at the idea of waiting for “inspiration” to begin work on a new piece. He said he's given a challenge – a commission for a new piece for particular performers or a combination of instruments. He examines the possibilities, thinks about what he'd like the piece to “say” and then sets about solving the problems it presents: that, he says, is where Inspiration comes in. It happens in the middle of the process – for him, it is not the beginning of Creativity.

Aaron Copland said inspiration comes to him in a flash, that he hears the whole piece in an instant and then the problem is trying to get it down on paper. Many composers have said the piece they finish is not necessarily the piece they'd started: somewhere along the way, things change, new ideas are discovered – perhaps Inspiration guides them along different paths than they had initially thought. As many “creative types” as are out there, creating all different kinds of things, there are probably just as many views on how “creativity” works.

So during Haydn's day, all of these things about being an artist were about to change – the role of the artist in society, no longer being an employee of an aristocrat; the artist not as a craftsman but as an inspired creator when people started talking about a God-given Talent driven by a Divine Spark. Artists, following Beethoven's example, could now get away with anti-social behavior because it was generally considered they were always on the verge of 'madness,' wrapped up in the mysteries of creation, or at least of creativity.

And, for better or worse, artists were now expected to compete in a Free-Market Economy – and then as now we can assume Big Concepts and Great Ideas didn't always bring in lots of money, though it might bring you fame, generally after you died. And so the True Artist no longer wrote to entertain people now: the True Artist wrote for the Future. And so on... These are all things Haydn would never have dreamed of – and so in a sense it's held him back in our Pantheon of Great Composers: he was a nice man in a powdered wig who wrote pleasant music to entertain aristocrats... turned out 104 symphonies, 80-some string quartets, a handful of masses and two oratorios... but he is primarily remembered today for having set the groundwork so composers like Mozart could do it better – he was the 'warm-up act” for Beethoven. That's like saying “Too bad Haydn couldn't become an orange.”

(In fact, comments I heard after the Saturday night performance included things like “too bad it wasn't by Beethoven” or “well, it's not Mozart's Requiem.”)

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Arthur Koestler, in his 1964 book, “The Act of Creation,” lists three types of creators -- the artist, the sage and... the jester. In his thoughts, creativity can move freely between humor, discovery and art. And without getting too detailed in it – it's 700 pages of text – it made me think how Haydn attains the level of artistic creation – the sublime – in one of his last works.

When I was first studying what they call music “theory” - which examines the mechanics of music and how notes create scales and chords and how they work in the context of harmony and tonality – one of my teachers wrote two chords up on the board, what we'd call a dominant chord and a tonic chord. We hear them all the time, especially in the sections of “recitative” in today's work - each one brought to a close by these two chords – V – I – as we call them. Then he put another 'I' (or tonic) chord in front of them: “This,” he said, “is not composing – this is a cliché.” Then he put an X between the first tonic chord and the dominant chord and said “Putting something in here – THAT'S composing.”

The cliché is the expected. That X, whatever it may become, is what's UN-expected.

Most people think of PAPA HAYDN, the genial man in the powdered wig with a twinkle in his eye for the musical practical joke that makes us smile: the unexpected loud chord in the middle of a slow soft passage lulling us to sleep; the introduction of a rough peasant dance into a courtly minuet where, amidst the silver-buckled satin shoes one finds the dirt from a peasant's boot; the ticking of a clock, the clucking of a hen; the odd changes in rhythm or pauses in the middle of a phrase, the false endings, the modulations out of left field – or certainly way out of Left Brain. He's playing with our expectations and in the process, catching us – even 200 years later – unawares. Sometimes we smile, or chuckle or L-O-L... but it's these “unexpected things” that also elevate our awareness above the standard operating procedures. They exist because we SENSE the standard operating procedure and when the unexpected happens, we SENSE that something has shifted in our awareness. In some cases, this is pure humor – a special effect for the cause of being able to create a special effect. In some cases, it goes deeper than that: there are humorous examples in “The Creation,” especially in the bass's catalog of the different beasts that God creates – we hear the roar of the lion, the movements of the “flexible” tiger and the galloping stags and mighty steeds... there are bucolic cattle and sheep and, finally, a cloud of insects and a lowly worm – in fact, so low, the singer ends the passage on a low D.

But there are other moments of more serious “tone painting,” the idea of taking a visual idea and suggesting it in music. The first is in the Representation of Chaos, the world without form and void – this “overture” may not sound “chaotic” as WE think of it – how was your Friday? – but chaos in the sense of slowly swirling masses of celestial gas floating in space, perhaps – well, not a concept I think Haydn would have thought of in 1796 (though it's interesting to note that while this year is the 200th Anniversary of the Death of Haydn it's also the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th Anniversary of the publication of his “Origin of Species” – and the controversy continues...)

Musically, we get these shapeless lines that seems to go nowhere slowly, the cadences always stretching to places we didn't expect and leading us on to... well, more ambiguity. It's very unsettled but unsettling because we never really get a sense of “resolution” out of this harmonic motion, just as chaos of ANY kind would not be expected to have any sense of resolution. (It may sound tame to use, today, after listening to 200 years of Beethoven, Wagner and Schoenberg in between.)

But when Haydn sets the words “And God said 'Let there be light'” – he gives us such an unexpected burst of sound – resolving the hushed, murky C Minor of the opening to a brilliant loud C Major chord -- “And there was LIGHT!” - the audience at the first performance broke out in applause and the orchestra could not continue for several minutes.

There are storms with roaring winds and soaring waves – written in a standard “tempest” aria style. Another moment of sublime tone-painting is the first sunrise – after dividing the night from day by creating the sun and the moon: harmonizing a simple D Major scale, Haydn proceeds from a single D played softly, lines expanding outwards both up and down, filling in with some harmonic twists and turns that finally resolves everything to a broad D Major Chord marked fortissimo all in the span of ten measures. After a little silvery moon music, Haydn then begins what is perhaps the oratorio's “greatest hit,” the chorus “The Heavens Are Telling,” one of his most joyous creations.

In one sense – and mostly from a 19th Century Romantic sense – Haydn's Creation is not a universal, emotion-plumbing piece of theatricality that will inspire you with awe at the wonders of God's Creation. It is as much about Praising God for His creation as it is telling us what happened – and in most cases being quite objective about it.

A composer writing this a hundred years later would have had a huge dramatic climax at the Creation of Man – but in Haydn, he comes along after this humorous catalog of other beasts and without any special musical pictorializing. Right after the lowly worm, the bass sings an aria that the Creation wasn't quite complete: it needed one more thing. And in a simple recitative, the tenor sings the words from Genesis, “And God created man in his own image,” followed by a lyrical and noble aria which also includes one of the worst lines in the English translation Haydn was presented with – talking about Adam's forehead (speaking of right brain/left brain), the English reads

The large and archèd front sublime
of wisdom deep declares the seat.

No great chorus, not even a climactic chord on God breathing life into man's nostrils, no rapturous meditation on Man's coming to life – true, he gets a whole aria, not just eight measures like the worm... but Haydn, being a product of 18th Century Enlightenment, focuses on the humanity of Man's creation, not the magic of it. The whole third part of the oratorio, focused on the Happy Pair of Adam and Eve, sounds like domestic bliss that you could find in the resolution of a Mozart opera like “Marriage of Figaro” or “The Magic Flute” except here, Adam and Eve, the first couple, haven't been through the dramatic and often heart-wrenching twists and turns that Mozart's characters had just been through. That wasn't Haydn's “thing.” But whatever his “thing” was, he left us some great music that can lift your spirits and take you beyond our every-day existence.

Remember that story I started with about “Taking 2 Haydn Symphonies and calling me in the morning”? Well, I was reading an essay about Haydn's 'Creation' that concludes with this story, written down by one of Haydn's first biographers. It was the year after Haydn's “Creation” had been premiered and the writer was in Vienna when he'd come down with a fever. Stuck in his hotel room and not feeling like doing anything, he thought he would go to mass at a near-by church, in hopes, as he put it, the music might cheer him up a bit. It turned out they were performing a recent mass by Haydn which this would-be biographer had not yet heard.

“Scarcely had it begun before I felt myself affected. I broke out into a perspiration, my headache went away: I left the church with a cheerfulness to which I had long been a stranger, and the fever never returned.”

However the power of Haydn's music affects you today, I hope you'll be able to enjoy our performance of “The Creation” by Franz Josef Haydn.

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