Haydn’s ‘Creation’

The Creation 

Josef Haydn (1732 – 1809)

by Joseph Haydn

First bilingual oratorio?

Haydn’s greatest hit….

 

 

The Handel Festival, Westminster Abbey

 

In 1791, during Haydn’s first triumphant visit to London, he attended the annual Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey.  The tradition at the time was to perform Handel’s oratorios with as many as 1,000 performers, and that year Israel in Egypt and Messiah made a huge impact on Haydn. He resolved to compose something similar himself, particularly inspired by the vivid musical pictures in Israel in Egypt.

Initially a suitable libretto did not materialise, but four years later, just as he was leaving London for home for the second time, he was given a libretto, The Creation of the World, based on Genesis as it appears in the King James Bible, and on Milton’s Paradise Lost.

When Haydn arrived back in Austria he had the libretto translated into German by that great musical connoisseur and pillar of Viennese society, Baron Gottfried van Swieten.  Then he got to work on what would be one of his final masterpieces.  It took him more than a year to complete and left him ill with exhaustion.  But at the first performance, before a private audience of the great and good, the listeners were so completely bowled over by the musical picture of the creation of Light that the performance had to stop while they recovered.  The Creation proved to be an instant huge success, too, with the wider public.

In fact, Haydn had decided to publish The Creation in both German and English, making it probably the first bilingual musical composition.  He also published and distributed it himself, with the aid of subscriptions, which proved to be very lucrative.  Also, he conducted many lavish charity performances raising huge sums for the Tonkünstlersocietät, a charity supporting widows and orphans of musicians, very much in the vein of his inspiration, Handel, in his support for the Foundling Hospital in London.

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Magnificat – John Rutter

The UK premiere of John Rutter’s Magnificat was given in Coventry Cathedral, but this was a year after the world premiere, which was in the Carnegie Hall, New York. Indeed, most of Rutter’s larger choral works were written for American choirs.

It is an immediate, tuneful, sunny work, which has the added bonus of being performable by amateurs. Its directness is explained by Rutter himself: he says, ‘In countries such as Spain, Mexico and Puerto Rico, feast days of the Virgin are joyous opportunities for people to take to the streets and celebrate with singing, dancing and processions. These images of outdoor celebration were, I think, somewhere in my mind as I wrote, though I was not fully conscious of the fact till afterwards.’* It should be added, that it is highly singable because Rutter happens to write very well for the voice.

His conscious model, however, was J.S.Bach’s Magnificat, specifically the earlier E flat version which has a set of so-called Lauds, or Songs of Praise, which were traditionally inserted amongst the Latin text (these included the popular German hymn, Martin Luther’s Vom Himmel hoch, and the plainsong Virga Jesse floruit). So similarly Rutter has interpolated a setting of the anonymous 15th century English text Of a rose, and he uses the plainsong tune for the Sanctus, which, again, would not normally be part of the Magnificat. (There are other bits of plainsong lurking amongst the orchestra.) Rutter has also dipped into other ‘traditional’ formal ideas, such as in the Doxology, as it was in the beginning. Here he has employed the common practice of making this a repeat of the opening music (as did Bach (Magnificat), Handel (Dixit Dominus), Vivaldi (Gloria) – and many more).

Rutter has made this piece available in a version for full orchestra and also for a smaller ensemble. Stour Singers will be using the latter version, for the simple reason, the smaller orchestra will fit in the church.

*© Collegium Records

If you would like to listen to John Rutter talking about the Magnificat on YouTube, please click on the following:

back to May Concert 2018

Requiem – Gabriel Fauré (1845-1925)

Fauré’s Requiem does not follow the traditional pattern of a mass for the dead. It was not triggered by the death of someone he knew, nor was it a commission. He said it was ‘composed for the pleasure of it’.

Gabriel Fauré

It was started when Fauré was 32, and it took him 16 years to finish. It is a wonderfully serene work, despite being composed during what might now be called a protracted ‘mid-life crisis’.

He had been appointed choirmaster at the famous Madeleine church in Paris and had become engaged to Marianne Viardot – he had been in love with her for 5 years. In October Marianne broke off the engagement because she felt, not love for him, ‘only affection mixed with fear’. It appears that behind his outwardly charming manner Fauré hid a darker side.

Fauré was devastated and immediately went away on long travels in Germany, England and Switzerland. He met Liszt twice, but it was Wagner and his operas which particularly fascinated him. Despite this obsession, strangely there is no trace of Wagner in his style of composition.

Eventually returning to Paris aged 38, he married and settled down to the tedium of organising services at the Madeleine, and teaching piano and harmony – what he called his ‘mercenary work’. But his ambition was to flourish as a composer. Sadly the daily grind ensured he only had time to compose during the summer holidays, and he despaired of ever reaching the public. Being so grossly thwarted in his real calling, perhaps it was not surprising that privately he suffered from what he called ‘spleen’, which took the form of depression and anger, perhaps violence. Things did not improve until he was 45, when he did start at last to gain some recognition. He finished work on the Requiem 3 years later, in 1893 (although he would go on to reorchestrate it in 1900).

Considering the turbulence of his spirit during its composition, the serenity of the Requiem is quite extraordinary.

Back to Concert May 2018

Bach Cantata No.191 Gloria

Much of Bach’s prodigious output consists of re-workings of previous compositions.

This is true of Cantata 191. It is described by Bach as a Christmas Cantata, and it is entirely a reworking of parts of the Gloria from his Mass in B minor. For the first movement he has used the chorus Gloria in excelsis – et in terra pax from the Mass unchanged, and the following duet is the Domine Deus from the Mass sung to the words ‘Gloria Patri et Filio et Spiritui sancto’. The cantata concludes with the chorus Sicut erat in principio.The music for this is the chorus Cum sancto spiritu which concludes the Gloria in the Mass. The words Sicut erat don’t fit the original, so he has modified the beginning so that they do.

So we get a small insight into the way Bach worked. There are many more examples of reworkings to hand, since all the Mass in B minor apart from the Kyrie and the Gloria consists of reworkings of previous cantatas.

Charpentier’s Filius prodigus

Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643 – 1704) lived and worked under the rule of Louis XIV.

For a composer of his stature it is perhaps surprising that he was never a member of the Chapel Royal. But there were excellent opportunities elsewhere in Paris, such as the court of Mademoiselle de Guise, for whom he composed Filius Prodigus in 1680.

Ten years previously he had returned home to Paris from a 3-year stay in Rome, imbibing all that was Italian in musical practice. Mademoiselle de Guise, being very much an italophile, immediately appointed him her court composer and resident counter-tenor.
During the next 17 years he composed a huge amount of music for her and her friends and relations, including the ‘motet dramatique’, Filius prodigus. In 1680 Mademoiselle de Guise enlarged her group of musicians, making it one of the largest and best private musical establishments in France. His scope thus widened, Charpentier produced, in Filius prodigus, a work on the scale of a small oratorio. He cast the rôle of the prodigal son as a counter-tenor, so Charpentier himself will have been the first to perform the rôle.

Michael Haydn’s Run, ye shepherds

Michael Haydn (1737 – 1806)

Run ye shepherds was probably composed in 1775, in Salzburg. Michael Haydn worked for the Archbishops of Salzburg for most of his professional life. This was early in the reign of Archbishop Colloredo who was famous for favouring simplicity in church music (causing problems for some of his composers). Michael Haydn had already been working towards a simpler style of composition and he flourished under this new Archbishop.

The words of Run ye shepherds are simple and direct. Haydn sets them to music of a näive charm which perfectly matches their simplicity. The centre-piece of the work is a contemplative soprano solo ‘O happy shepherds’. This is framed by two short choruses: first the excited shepherds hurrying to the stable; then a lullaby which ends with the baby asleep.

Haydn’s Kleine Orgelmesse (Missa Brevis Sancti Johannis de Deo)

Joseph Haydn’s employer, Count Nicolaus I of Esterhazy, was a keen amateur musician and made huge demands on Haydn. This meant the greater part of Haydn’s output took the shape of symphonies and chamber music written for the Court. But he was called upon at times to compose music for the Church.

Haydn presenting the Mass to the brothers in 1775

In Eisenstadt, just down the road from the Esterhazy Palace was the Abbey of the Brothers of Mercy (Barmherziger Brüder) – it is now the hospital. Haydn (who also lived in the same street) had a great liking for the Brotherhood, and this lovely little Mass is one of a number of works he wrote for them.  It is deliberately modest both in the musical resources needed to perform it and in its dimensions.  To keep it short, Haydn used the common practice in the Gloria and the Credo of having four lines of text sung simultaneously by different voices; tricky if you’re trying to follow the words, but it does eat up the text!

The interior of the Brothers’ chapel, with the organ Haydn played at the first performance.

 

Brahms’ Requiem

First impulse

It is thought by some that he was first prompted to compose a requiem by the death of his friend Robert Schumann in 1856. There is little likelihood that he could have undertaken this at the time since he had been supporting Schumann’s wife Clara during her husband’s last two years of illness and when Schumann died Brahms was in the middle of a crisis in the creativity department. The idea of an unfulfilled desire to write a requiem seems quite plausible, though.

Choice of text

Since his early years Brahms had been an avid reader and deeply interested in literature. So he was in the habit of choosing works of literary weight to set to music, rather than more obvious lyric poetry (which would have been easier to set).

Brahms’ German Requiem

Brahms composed the German Requiem between 1865 and 1868, when he was in his mid-30s

and in full flow with works such as the Piano Quintet, String Sextets, the Horn Trio, the Handel-and Paganini Variations. It was a time of passionate involvement with a number of young ladies, at one point almost ending in marriage. But in February 1865 he was devastated by the death of his mother, an event which triggered the composition of the Requiem.

For his text he turned to Luther’s wonderful, resonant translation of the Bible, choosing parts which had things to say to the grieving living, rather than being focussed on the dead (as in the Catholic Mass for the Dead). The result is a work with deeply dark moments, but which is ultimately comforting and greatly uplifting. His careful naming of it as ‘A German Requiem’ signals the fact that it has nothing to do with the Christian liturgy. It is written specifically for the concert hall, and Brahms commented that it could be called a Human Requiem.

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