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Creation-ism

This weekend I will be joining a local choral society for their performance of Haydn’s The Creation – and what better way to welcome Spring now that it’s finally arrived.

An avowed and much-loved masterpiece from its earliest performances – Vienna, 1798 – ‘whose appeal [I read from A Peter Brown's DECCA sleeve-notes] was irresistible to the noble and leisured classes, amateurs and connoisseurs of different nationalities’, Die Schöpfung tells the story of (duh) the first week or so of the creation myth, in three parts.

It opens simply, in the humming potential of the void, moves to the first, dramatic, sunrise, and then gradually builds in complexity, as the forces of darkness are cast out and the cosmological items, flora and fauna, are created, one by one, until finally Adam and Eve walk hand-in-hand in the Garden of Eden (which is Kent, right?), Man- and indeed Womankind enjoying a somewhat brief respite before the Fall.

The whole thing runs to 1h45 – which given the amount of ground it has to cover (no pun), is quite efficient, really.

It is said that, inspired by (the success of?) Handel’s oratorios, Haydn asked a friend for ideas for something he could set to music. The friend picked up a Bible and suggested that he “Take that, and begin at the beginning.”

Less romantically, its genesis was in a Handel hand-me-down, an English poem called The Creation of the World (author unknown), which the crowd-pleasing Georgian didn’t care for on the grounds that setting it would have meant a piece that lasted four hours.

The eventual libretto, abridged and translated by the Esterházy’s Imperial librarian/diplomat/musician/Everything Else, Gottfried van Swieten, comprises bits of Genesis, the Psalms, and Milton’s Paradise Lost (the angels, mostly). It was officially published, in simultaneous translation, as twere, in 1800; but with Handel-worshipping English audiences in mind, both texts incline peculiarly towards the Anglican, especially where Biblical quotations are concerned. Metrical considerations have left us with some more-or-less irremediable ‘English’, and surely nothing has ever been so translated-from-ze-German as the line ‘In long dimension / Creeps with sinuous trace the worm.’

Musically, the word-painting is less than subtle, but perfectly in keeping with the standards of an oratorio (un-acted operas for Lent, essentially). And it achieved a trick of ‘universal’ synthesis: French-style overtures, Italian dramatic structure, English verses/religious formulae from the KJV, and psalm-based choral numbers with which the Germans would have been conceptually familiar.

Certainly it captured the zeitgeist (or whatever they call that in Germany). With 45 performances in Vienna alone in the ten years following its composition, and in capital cities throughout Europe, by ensembles routinely measuring in the hundreds, The Creation was the stadium-seller of its day.

My own introduction to it was, predictably, as a chorister in the Church of England (Maidstone, actually), singing the only stand-alone anthem to have emerged from the complete work, ‘The Heavens are Telling (the Glory of God)’. As a classically-inclined young fellow (read: ‘squit’), I would have been one of the younger kids to be aware that Gabriel was not the only archangel; but I also acutely recall one Sunday morning, autopiloting my way through its uncomplicated joy, and brassily attempting to ‘Display the firmament’ one time more than everybody else in the rehearsal room.

By secondary school I’d twigged that there was more to The Creation than just one anthem – i.e. solos, for would-be soloists – and I proposed it for our Choral Union concert. Seeing through this, no doubt, the choir director said he couldn’t be doing with all those Adam-and-Eve arias (‘This world so great, so wonderful’) which, it is widely held, are some of the best music Haydn ever wrote. He was a wise man, that director, and a first-class teacher: but he was wrong on that occasion. Wrong and a spoilsport.

I auditioned for a university choral scholarship with the Raphael ‘rage’ aria about the waters ‘Rolling in foaming billows’, but I don’t recollect our ever performing it while I was there. No doubt such things were thought crass. See also: ‘enjoyable to sing or listen to’.

So I think the first time I ever sang the whole Creation was with the Oxford Spezzati, a group of a few dozen of us who go back, at a music festival in West Kensington – my good friend Al playing the flatulent bass notes of the ‘immense leviathan’ with ill-disguised bassoonist’s gusto.

And the last time I sang ‘The Heavens are Telling’ was in the Chapel Royal, at Hampton Court. I had the bass ‘verse’ part, which I now suspect means, over time, that I’ve sung all the parts of that particular movement. (Aled Jones, eat yer heart out.)

The German is the lesser-trodden path these days (what even is a ‘Finsternis‘?). There’s something a bit uncomfortable about the opening tenor aria’s repetitive insistence on ‘Ordnung‘… But for all its sober origins, the English text is pretty silly. ‘Finny tribes’; ‘flexible tigers’; and I’ve heard at least one soloist word-paint the hell out of the ‘fleecy, meek and ble-e-eee-eating flock’. A note to nature writers: if I find ‘purling’ and/or ‘limpid brooks’ in your work, we will not be going home together.

I assume it sounds quite foolish to the Germans, also. But for all that, it is usually quite fun. (Or it had better be. I’m about to miss the first match of the cricket season.)

Per Prof. Brown, though, the romping tunes and memorable – or, perhaps more accurately, ‘easily- learned’ – choruses make this also a fairly sensible choice for choral societies, whose concerts are, in the majority of cases, a pragmatic combination of the amateur and the professional. The choruses are repetitive (both internally and externally), often interrupted by long solos, duets, trios, etc. (there’s only one that isn’t, in fact), and relatively few and far between. I’m not suggesting that the idea of a choral society is to keep the dues-paying members as quiet as possible… but it helps to know one’s limitations.

In 1808, amid the blast of the Napoleonic Wars, an ageing Haydn made his last public appearance at a gala do of The Creation, attended by royalty and, allegedly, Beethoven. At the creation of light, the audience broke into spontaneous applause, causing Haydn to deflect the adulation heavenwards – but by the time they reached ‘The Heavens are Telling’ his ill-health and emotions had got the better of him, and he was carried out. Fifteen months later, the French entered Vienna, and the last rendition of his music Haydn heard came from the mouth of a French officer:

In native worth and honour clad,
With beauty, courage, strength adorn’d,
To heav’n erect and tall he stands
A man, the Lord and King of nature all.


For The Oldie, in a different edit

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