Wednesday, May 24, 7:30pm, Free-will offering
The Chancel Choir of First Presbyterian presents one of the greatest masterworks in all of choral literature, Creation by Joseph Haydn. Scored for chorus, soloists, and orchestra, this oratorio depicts the story of the creation of the world as described by the book of Genesis.
Classical-Music.com describes The Creation in this way:
"The structure of The Creation has an ideal simplicity and strength. In the first two parts the six days of creation are announced in 'dry' recitative by one of the three archangels, Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel; after each act of creation the archangels expatiate on its wonders in accompanied recitative and aria; and each day after the first (which ends with the chorus heralding the 'new created world') culminates in a jubilant hymn of praise by the heavenly hosts.
Part Three, depicting the first morning in Eden, Adam and Eve's praise of all creation and their mutual love, falls into two sections that similarly climax in a triumphant chorus. In the arias and accompanied recitatives Haydn reveals his genius for instrumental tone-painting, using techniques honed in his operas and his Italian oratorio of 1775, Il ritorno di Tobia, but with a new boldness and sophistication - above all in the wonderfully inventive treatment of the wind instruments. The climactic choruses - the epitome of what the 18th century termed 'the sublime' in music - deploy Haydn's ripest symphonic and contrapuntal mastery with a freedom, variety and sheer brilliance of effect that were obviously inspired by Handel's example.
With its picture of a benign, rationally ordered universe and its essentially optimistic view of humanity (the Fall is referred to only casually just before the final chorus), The Creation was perfectly in accord with the temper of the Enlightenment, both in Georgian England and in 1790s Vienna.
Its theological content, minimising conflict, guilt and retribution, also chimed in with Haydn's own personal faith - 'not of the gloomy, always suffering sort, but rather cheerful and reconciled', as an early biographer put it. Indeed, in composing the oratorio he felt he was performing an act of religious devotion. It is ironic, then, that the Catholic church was quick to take offence at its non-moralistic tone and alleged 'secularity' of expression, and banned it from places of worship.
But the church could not hinder the work's immediate success. The Creation received immediate acclaim when it was performed before a packed aristocratic audience in the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna, first at an open rehearsal on 29 April 1798 and then at its official premiere the following day. Haydn, who conducted, was as overwhelmed as his listeners. His first biographer, Georg Griesinger, reported that the composer ‘could not describe the feelings with which he was filled when the performance went just the way he wished, and the public listened in total silence. “Sometimes my whole body was ice-cold,” he admitted, “Sometimes a burning heat overcame me, and more than once I was afraid I would suddenly have a stroke.”’
Owing to the huge demand, two further semi-private performances were arranged at the Schwarzenberg Palace in May. But it was not until the following year, with anticipation now at fever-pitch, that the non-aristocratic Viennese public were able to hear Haydn’s great oratorio for themselves.
The performance, in the Imperial Burgtheater on 19 March, was on a grand scale, though the proportion of players to singers was not what we would expect today: the most reliable reports suggest that some 120 instrumentalists (including tripled woodwind parts) were complemented by an all-male choir of around 60. Voice fanciers were also eager to hear the debut of the talented and eye-catching 17-year-old soprano Therese Saal.
The end result was the greatest triumph of Haydn’s career.
A Viennese journalist, Joseph Richter, wrote that ‘I wouldn’t have believed that mere human lungs and sheep gut and calf’s skin could create such miracles... I never left a theatre more contented, and all night I dreamed of the Creation of the World.’ Another eyewitness, Johan Berwald (cousin of the Swedish composer Franz), reported that ‘the whole performance went off wonderfully. Between the sections of the work, tumultuous applause; during each section, however, it was as still as the grave. When it was over there were calls, “Father Haydn to the front!” Finally the old man came forward and was greeted with a tumultuous applaudissement and with cries, “Long live Father Haydn, long live music!”’