Haydn – Creation – Programme notes

7.30pm, Saturday 20 March 2010 – St Nicholas Church, Sevenoaks

Poster for the Cantate Choir's March 2010 Concert - Haydn Creation


Robin Walkerorgan
Gillian Keithsoprano
Kevin Kyletenor
Gavin Horsley – bass
Hazel Brooksleader


Haydn – Creation

Programme notes

What if earth be but the shadow of Heaven, and things therein each to other like, more than on earth is thought? John Milton, Paradise Lost

Keen readers of these notes will know from our last concert that Haydn wrote his masterwork The Creation late in his life. His then patron Prince Esterhazy was not musically inclined and left Haydn to his own devices, thus freeing him up from the social constraints of a resident composer to write ‘for himself and for posterity’. He had recently returned from a trip to England in 1795, where impresario Salomon had given him a long libretto called The Creation using text from the Bible and John Milton’s 17th century epic poem Paradise Lost. It had apparently been offered to Handel but he found it lengthy and lacking in the operatic drama he required for his oratorios. But Haydn had no such qualms and immediately asked his friend Baron van Swieten to translate it into German for him and began to compose.

The translation of the words has been a source of conjecture and controversy over the years. Both the Baron and Haydn were determined that the printed score should have both German and English words, so van Swieten translated it back into English when it was printed in 1800. We all know how much can get lost in translation. Sign outside a Hong Kong tailor shop: “Ladies may have a fit upstairs.” The biblical passages survive the process well. It is the Miltonic verses, which have arrived back almost unrecognisable. Several editors have tinkered over the years to improve the underlay (the way the text fits the music) and the un-English order of the sentences, “In splendour bright is rising now the sun” for example. Most choirs and audiences are so accustomed to this, however, that a wholesale revision would be received much as new versions of prayer books; it’s easier to understand but not the same somehow.

The Creation takes us through the six days it took God to do His work and into the seventh, when Adam and Eve take time to marvel at their new home. It does not go into the murky depths of what happened next and therefore the whole spirit of the piece is uplifting, joyous and, yes, playful. This was Haydn’s character too and he allows his creative and humorous juices to flow throughout, as his music describes every detail of the new created world which springs up.

From Paradise Lost the unknown author takes the characters of three archangels: Uriel (Tenor), Raphael (Bass) and Gabriel (Soprano). These take turns to narrate the bible passage from Genesis in recitative and then, through an aria, to describe in poetic detail what has been created. The role of the choir is rather that of a Greek chorus and it provides an awed response to what has occurred and praises God for His achievements. Only once is the choir directly involved in the action and what a moment that is! No sooner has Raphael started with ‘In the beginning…’, than the choir takes over in hushed tones with ‘And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, (wait for it!) Let there be LIGHT’!!! All heaven breaks out in the choir and orchestra. This must surely be what gave scientists the idea for the Big Bang Theory! From this moment on, we know that we are in for an exhilarating, roller-coaster ride through creation.


The Representation of Chaos

This is a sensational orchestral prelude, which captures in 18th century terms the formless void. Imagine you have never heard any music written since, no romanticism, no modern, no jazz, no pop. Haydn’s audience would have been spellbound and mystified by the extraordinary quiet of this opening, the rhythmic uncertainty and the rootless, shifting harmonies that seem unable to settle. Where are the four-bar phrases? Where are the rules of classical harmony? Where is the structure? Exactly!

Day One – Let there be light

Into this primordial state comes the still, small voice of Raphael hardly daring to interrupt in case, in doing so, the spark of life is snuffed out before it truly begins. The bleak C minor becomes an ecstatic C major as light pours onto the scene. The tenor (Uriel) enters in high excitement that ‘God saw the light, that it was good’. His aria is then in A major, a key as far removed from C minor as blue and red in the light spectrum, as night and day, as chaos and order of which he sings. He and the choir then tell how the evil spirits are plunged down into Hell and into endless night. This is done with disjointed arpeggios and chromatic scales so that the contrast is all the greater when the choir sings in jaunty A major of the ‘new created world’.

Day Two – Firmament, water, sky

In this short section, Raphael recites the creation of land and sea and gives the very first weather report. Always the orchestra depicts the events before the narration, as if to show that God’s work comes first and only then can man perceive it. Gabriel and the choir round off day two with ‘The marv’llous work behold amazed’ once more in C major.

Day Three – Seas, mountains, fields, flowers

‘Rolling in foaming billows’, Raphael’s next aria, gives the orchestra the chance to exercise its Sturm und Drang muscles with tempestuous and continuously agitated semiquavers. Now we are in D minor, which can become a smoother, rocking D major as we come in land via the rivers to the ‘limpid brook’. The description of the green and verdant land is given to Gabriel, the soprano, in a lyrical aria in Bb major, ‘with verdure clad the fields appear’. This is for the first time in 6/8 rhythm, a metre very much associated with pastoral scenes in the classical portfolio. Once again, the choir rounds of the section with a hymn of praise for the third day, ‘Awake the harp, the lyre awake’.

Day Four – Day and night; sun, moon and stars

This section is opened in accompanied recitative by the tenor, Uriel, who describes how day and night are characterised by sun, moon and stars. No aria follows this time but choir and soloists unite in perhaps the best-known movement of the entire work, ‘the Heavens are telling the glory of God’ back now in C major. One third of Haydn’s symphonies are in C major. It is his key of happiness and celebration. It was also the only key for trumpets and kettledrums until the late 18th century.


Day Five – Birds and whales, all living creatures

Now that living creatures start to appear, Haydn can turn to his experience of writing opera and to make full use of the dexterous soprano voices of the day. The aria ‘on mighty pens uplifted soars the eagle aloft’ makes full use of the ability of the high voice and its sister instrument the flute to represent the various warblings of lark, dove and nightingale while violins dart hither and yon. The bass then exhorts all the fish and fowl to be fruitful and multiply in a short but resonant piece. The trio of soloists greet this with an ecstatic A major movement describing all the wonders now around and all attributed to God. The choir joins the trio to confirm that ‘the Lord is great’ and that his might will last for ever.

‘Straight opening her fertile womb’, the earth now brings forth various animals. Once again, the orchestra depicts the movements before Raphael announces first the tawny lion, then the flexible tiger, the nimble stag and the noble steed. A pastoral 6/8 again accompanies the grazing cattle and sheep. Little stabbing staccatos announce the swarms of insects but best of all is Haydn’s joke as ‘in long dimension creeps the sinuous worm’.

Day Six – And God created man

God’s work seems almost done and Raphael takes stock in his aria ‘Now Heaven in fullest glory shone’. But something is missing. He pauses to consider and realises that someone is needed who can appreciate all this creation and praise God in his gratitude. Uriel announces the creation of man in God’s image. This time, C major is used for a heroic aria ‘In native worth and honour clad’ to describe this god-like vision of man, who must rule over all Nature. The accompaniment is now thrusting, assertive and strong, moving effortlessly through a range of keys in mature Classical style. When woman is added, the same melody is made more gentle by the addition of extra quavers, a more liquid accompaniment and more constant harmonies. The aria ends softly in ‘love, and joy and bliss’.

At the end of the sixth day God sees everything he has made and that it is good. The choir concurs with the mighty chorus ‘Achieved is the glorious work’. Though not long, this chorus manages to combine the strength of homophonic writing (all parts moving together) with the intricacies of fugal entries, where parts copy and overlap each other to create a rich texture. This, in miniature, represents the world which has just been created. The trio of soloists then describes the relationship of God to all the creatures on earth, how ‘on Thee each living soul awaits’. Food and wellbeing flow from the hand of God but, if withheld, then all suffer and are fearful. The choir reiterates its chorus in a longer version to close Part Two.


Praises to God

This is dawn of the first morning on earth, the seventh day, the day God rested. We know immediately that this is new for we are in E major for the first and only time in a luxuriously warm and rosy introduction. Uriel now takes the role of narrator. The Bass and Soprano portray Adam and Eve and the choir is the angelic host. Together they marvel at the world around them, their happiness in it and their unbounded gratitude to God for his creation. In an unbroken sequence of musical scena, they extol the merits of the sun, the stars, the elements, fountains, forests, birds and beasts, mountains and valleys ending with ‘The heavens and earth Thy power adore; We praise Thee now and evermore.’

Adam is confident that they have performed their duty to God. He now turns his attention to Eve, whom he wants to be the partner of his life. The duet ‘Graceful consort, at thy side’ is a tender love duet in which each makes vows to the other. The pace picks up as the young lovers bubble over with the excitement of it all. Uriel pops back to sound the briefest note of caution. ‘O happy pair and happy still might be if not misled by false conceit. Ye strive at more than granted is and more desire to know than know ye should’. But that is for another time, for now the angelic host sums up in praise of God: ‘Sing the Lord, ye voices all.’

Sara Kemsley