Boston Baroque, conducted by Martin Pearlman recorded Haydn's masterpiece at Mechanics Hall in Worchester, Massachusetts. The soloists Amanda Forsythe, Keith Jameson and Kevin Deas joined the ensemble for the performance of Haydn's crowning achievement. The Creation remains one of the greatest works in the choral repertoire and has been astonishing audiences since its premiere in 1798.
The ensemble's concert performances of The Creation have received rave reviews, with the Boston Globe stating: ‘Boston Baroque performed with vibrant color and a fleet momentum … and made it a vivid, effervescent occasion.'
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From its very first performance in Vienna in April of 1798, The Creation caused an unprecedented sensation throughout Europe. It was seen as the crowning achievement of the greatest living composer and box office receipts for the premiere broke all records. With tickets hard to come by, market stalls had to be cleared in front of the theatre, and foot police were hired to control the crowd. Following the Paris premiere Napoleon – who was nearly assassinated in the plot of Rue Saint-Nicaise on his way to the theatre – had a medal struck in honour of the composer.
In Vienna, Haydn’s oratorio has been performed every year since its premiere and has enjoyed the unique stature that Handel’s Messiah has in English-speaking countries. Elsewhere, however, the work, and particularly its text, gradually began to come in for criticism. At a time when a great deal of literature was censored in Vienna for its revolutionary tendencies, some saw dangerous Masonic influences in the text and the church banned performances in its buildings. Nonetheless, government authorities generally considered the libretto of The Creation to be safe and conservative. It reads like a Baroque text, influenced in part by Handel’s oratorios: it is based on a biblical model with old-fashioned symbolism and musical depictions of animals and other effects. While all this worked well with the Viennese, the more up-to-date – and less censored – German literati began after a few years to criticize it as backward. Schiller, whose plays were banned in Vienna, called the libretto a ‘characterless mishmash’ and considered the word painting in the music to be simplistic.
In England, where Haydn’s recent visits were still remembered with admiration, the music was an enormous success, even after the libretto eventually began to be criticized. But here there was another element at work. As popular as Haydn was, there were increasingly strong suggestions that it was presumptuous to try to compete with the enshrined oratorios of their ‘native’ son Handel. A newspaper review of the London premiere began the attack gently: ‘[The Creation], although not equal in grandeur to the divine compositions of the immortal HANDEL, is nevertheless, on the whole, a very charming production.’
By the end of the nineteenth century, The Creation was in low repute and rarely heard outside Vienna, except for some of its solo arias, which were used as recital pieces. The libretto, according to one biographer of the time, was in places ‘more than modern flesh and blood can bear … In another fifty years, perhaps, the critic will be able to say that [the work's] main interest is largely historic and literary.’
Nearly fifty years later, however, almost the opposite happened. In 1949, the short-lived Haydn Society, a company created by the scholar H. C. Robbins Landon, issued the first recording of The Creation and touched off its rapid revival as one of the greatest and most popular works of the choral repertoire. Today, even the librettist of this great work is generally admired as a fine collaborator who could inspire Haydn’s genius.
The work is in three parts, Part I dealing with the creation of the earth and its flora, Part II with the creation of the animal world and of man, and Part III with the awakening of Adam and Eve. Three soloists – the number always used by Haydn himself for this piece – portray three archangels and later Adam and Eve. Van Swieten’s German text derives mainly from English sources, principally paraphrases of the English bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost. An actual English translation, using some of the original words from these sources, appears in the first published edition of The Creation (1800), which gives singing texts in both German and English. Exactly who created the English translation has never been completely established, although some suspect Van Swieten himself, perhaps even with the collaboration of Haydn.
German or English?
The musical depictions of animals, the sunrise and other effects which were so criticized in the following century, were initially – and are again today – enormously effective and popular. The famous moment when light is created out of darkness with a sudden, fully orchestrated C Major chord was particularly electrifying to the original audiences. An eyewitness at the first public rehearsal records the effect:
No one, not even Baron van Swieten, had seen the page of the score wherein the birth of light is described. That was the only passage of the work which Haydn had kept hidden. I think I see his face even now, as this part sounded in the orchestra. Haydn had the expression of someone who is thinking of biting his lips, either to hide his embarrassment or to conceal a secret. And in that moment when light broke out for the first time, one would have said that rays darted from the composer’s burning eyes. The enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes.
The use of trombones and contrabassoon is unusual for the time and brilliantly enhances special moments, such as the creation of light and the heavy footsteps of beasts on the earth. The contrabassoon, which Haydn first heard in London, was in fact new to Vienna.
Haydn is said by various reports to have taken quick, vigorous tempos in conducting his own works, even in his old age. In some of the old manuscript parts used by soloists, there are embellishments added in certain arias, inspiring ideas about ornamentation which we follow in this recording.
Martin Pearlman © 2012