When Geniality Meets Creativity: Haydn in Rome

ItalyItaly Haydn, The Creation: Orchestra and Chorus of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  Chorus Master, Ciro Visco.  Christiane Karg (soprano)  Benjamin Bruns (tenor)  Günther Grosissböck  (bass) / Andrés Orozco-Estrada (conductor). Sala Santa Cecilia, Rome 21.12.2015. (JB)

Were there a World Composition Prize for geniality, it would surely have to go to Franz Joseph Haydn. But what happens when geniality meets creativity?  For that, you could do worse than go to a performance of The Creation.

But first, some background information is pertinent. Haydn had been bumming around London (just what genial folks do)  between 1791 and 1792, and 1794 to 1795 aged 60  and 63, respectively.  Of his best-known twelve London symphonies, the so-called surprise  had its premiere there in March 1792.  The surprise comes at the end of the first phrase of the second (variations) movement, when the strings very quietly announce the theme, which is then ended with a thunderous chord for full orchestra at bar sixteen.  The old joker had always suspected that London audiences would like being taken for a ride.  And he got confirmation of this.  When a joke is as bad as this it is really very funny indeed. In London, that is.  This brand of humour survives even in today’s London theatres and concert halls.  Haydn would later have a bit of fun with the animals entering Noah’s Ark.

The unqualified successes of the oratorios of the utterly humorless Handel were at another level.  Haydn was familiar enough with opera, having written several successful ones, but oratorio was a new formula for him: an opera in which the composer is required to invite the audience to activate their imaginations to provide sets and costumes to bring to life a bible story?  And doesn’t that delve deeply into religious belief?  Of matters which music alone might address? of that which cannot be spoken in words?   How the old mischief-maker would have been challenged!

Moreover, Haydn’s London impresario, Johann Salomon, had been showering Handel with librettos  for oratorios.  Handel had turned down the proposal for The Creation, saying that the text would require four hours of music, and no right-minded English audience would sit through all that.  Haydn said he would think about it.  We can almost  see his knowing-smile.  He would eventually get it down to just under two hours of music.  Irritatingly, no one has been able to discover  the actual author / compiler  of the libretto.

I say compiler since there are lengthy biblical  citations (Genesis, the Book of Psalms and more)  from the Authorised Version of the Bible (1604) which London audiences would have known from memory, as well as direct  scenes from Milton’s Paradise Lost, known only to the “educated”.  What was already in his audience’s memory had a particularly strong appeal to Haydn.  He instinctively knew that you cannot give understanding to anyone that doesn’t already have it.  But you can show them that they do possess an understanding which they are possibly not  totally aware of.   It was to this totality which Haydn would appeal.

Back in Vienna, Haydn’s impresario, Barone Gottfried van Swieten, was invited by the composer to provide a German translation of the English text.  Die Schöfpfung  was born.  But Haydn’s soul remained with his beloved English audience.  The score was published in both languages, though London had to wait for its premiere a year after the 1798 Vienna opening, which was a private affair for the Barone’s posh friends. All the same,  that invitation-only event had the desired effect the wily Barone had calculated: there were long queues for the public repeat performances all over the German speaking world.

Santa Cecilia opted for Die Schöpfung, as do most of the concert promoters of Europe, even in the UK.  I don’t know how the work is presented in the Americas.  I shall, however,  refer throughout to the original English libretto, on the assumption that readers of this site are more likely to recognize context in that language.   And as mentioned, it was Haydn’s specific wish that his oratorio   be heard in the original English, wherever she is spoken.  I myself belong to a generation that participated in performances with amateur choruses in English. The soloists there were usually professionals and the orchestras a mix of amateur and professional.

It seems that the Columbian conductor, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, has already endeared himself to Vienna’s orchestras and audiences.  He can now add Rome’s Santa Cecilia to his honours.  Their finest  wind players turned out for him to delivery the jewels which Haydn so thoughtfully provides for them.  The oratorio’s drama depends on a blending and mixing of the seeming incompatible qualities of  decisiveness and mysticism (plumbing  the unknown).  That blend and mix was probably never more beautifully attended to than by Orozco-Estrada.  His rapport with his players was exemplary.  And so was his communication with the chorus and the audience.

Andrea Oliva’s gentle sounding flute duet with the soprano’s On mighty wings the eagle proudly soars aloft  was one of the evening’s greatest delights: soaring aloft indeed, both of them.  Christiane Karg’s voice soars much more easily than it walks.  She finds herself in a spot of bother when she has to merely walk, especially in the lower register.  In her opening aria, With verdure clad  she even flummoxed the reliably solid Orozco-Estrada, who audibly made every effort to support her, which then drowned her out; but when he withdrew it,  left her cruelly exposed and sounding a little harsh.  Please let me not sound too critical of Ms Karg: she was most moving as Eve in the final part, where the writing lay comfortably within her tessitura.

The creation myths which the anonymous author of the Book of Genesis set down, were in circulation long before he or she  wrote them. Universalism was part of Haydn’s philosophy too: there is a healthy agnosticism (unknowingness) in his creation  of the chaos which preceded the first day, brought about musically by abruptly shortchanging every expected phrase ending. Of course, in performance, this misshaping has to be perfectly shaped.  Once again, the conductor was almost awesomely respectful of Haydn’s imaginative requirements.  Never have I ever heard such a Before-Life soundscape so professionally realized.  Orozco-Estrada might be considered for a Nobel Prize in Microbiology.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth  sings the bass.  These are the first words we hear.  They are declamatory and per forza full of what-is-to-come.  Günther Groissboöck  (bass) has the right voice of  solidity to be the herald from eternity.  Haydn follows Handel stylistically in these recitativi secchi: all attention on the words with minimum accompaniment.  The orchestra are holding a C minor chord –the key of the chaos music.  And the bass has the right rich vocal colours for his first aria, Rolling in foaming billows .  We later hear him as the ideal, mellifluous Adam.

And the spirit moved upon the face of the waters  sing the chorus on their first entry: hushed, mysterious, restrained.  Ciro Visco has to be congratulated again on the nuanced, poised delivery of his Santa Cecilia Chorus.  Whether you want them mystic, suggestive, or in thrall to the joy of worship,  they are respectful of Haydn’s wishes down to the last detail.

Benjamin Bruns (tenor) didn’t have quite the technical accomplishment of the other two leading singers, but his projection was mostly exemplary with fine ringing top notes, though not always clean of phrase –Now vanished by the holy beams.  

This was a Creation where everyone seems to have taken Hamlet’s advice to his friend of – more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  Just what Haydn had in mind, I fancy, when his geniality met his creativity.

Jack Buckley

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