Monday, December 12, 2016

The Creation (Haydn)

This is my post from this week's Once or Twice a Fortnight.

For this installment of OTF, I thought I would continue our look at the works hosted by LiberMusica with an oratorio rather than an opera. This time of year, the oratorio of choice is Handel’s Messiah, but since we already discussed that grand oratorio a few years ago at this time, I thought I would go in a slightly different direction.

According to, at the 1791 Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey, Joseph Haydn was overwhelmed by the monumental sublimity of the choruses in Messiah and Israel in Egypt, performed by a gargantuan array of over 1000 players and singers. In the words of an early biographer, Giuseppe Carpani, Haydn 'confessed that ...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'.

Haydn was determined to compose his own epic oratorio, based on biblical sources and just before he left England for the last time, in the summer of 1795, the impresario Salomon handed him an anonymous English libretto on the subject of the Creation which had allegedly been intended for Handel half a century earlier.

Haydn immediately saw the musical potential in the Creation text, whose main sources were the Book of Genesis, Milton's Paradise Lost (especially for the animal descriptions in Part Two, and the hymn and love duet in Part Three) and, for several of the choruses of praise, the Book of Psalms. Back in Vienna, the composer asked the Imperial Court Librarian, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, for his opinion. He swiftly encouraged Haydn to take on the work, taking on the task of translating the text to German himself.

The Creation, like Haydn’s other oratorio the Seasons, has both a German and an English libretto, both written by Swieten (Swieten's English was less fluent than he liked to think, which makes for sometimes odd phraseology). For the quotations from the Bible, Swieten chose to adhere very closely to the English King James Version. According to scholars, the German text corresponds to no known German Bible translation. Instead, it is constructed in such a way that the word order, syllabification, and stress patterns are as close as possible to the English. The first public performance was held in Vienna at the old Burgtheater on 19 March 1799. The oratorio was published with the text in German and English in 1800.

The three-part oratorio is scored for three vocal soloists (soprano, tenor, and bass; there is also an incidental solo for alto in the finale), four-part chorus (soprano, alto, tenor, bass), and a large Classical orchestra. For the recitatives a harpsichord or fortepiano is also used. In parts I and II, depicting the creation. the soloists represent the archangels Raphael (bass), Uriel (tenor) and Gabriel (soprano). In part III, the bass and soprano represent Adam and Eve.

The vintage performance is a MONO recording featuring the Berlin Philharmonic, the Choir of St. Hedwig's Cathedral and soloists Irmgard Seefried , Richard Holm and Kim Borg, all under Igor Markevitch.

Happy Holidays!

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)

Die Schöpfung (The Creation), Hob. XXI:2
Oratorio in Three Parts, German libretto by Gottfried van Swieten

Irmgard Seefried (Soprano)
Richard Holm (Tenor)
Kim Borg (Bass)
Chor Der St. Hedwigs-Kathedrale
Berliner Philharmoniker
Conductor, Harpsichord – Igor Markevitch

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