March 2022



Soloists Shafali Jalota (soprano), Hugh Benson (tenor), Tom Kennedy (bass)

Cantandum Nina Kopparhed, Helen Prentice, Rachel Tocknell, Caitlin Walsh soprano; Helena Bickley-Percival, Lucy Chambers, Julie Edwards, Isabel Nesbit, Delia Robertson alto; Charlie Dart, Nick Dykes, Tony Kyriakides, Kevin Walsh tenor; Iain Butler, Hunter Danskin, Jeremy Gray, Robert Harvey Wood, James Kazi, William Nicholson bass.

Piano duet Jonathan Dods, Martin Ford
Conductor Gilly French

Haydn’s The Creation is a magnificent piece. One of the greatest of 18th century works, it combines mature classical style with sensuously beautiful vocal writing. It was premiered in 1799 to ecstatic reception anduniversal praise. It is an inspired response to Handel’s oratorios, which Haydn heard for the first time duringhis two visits to London earlier in the decade.

The libretto is curious and its origins obscure. The text was probably at first called The Creation of the World; it does not survive in its original form but is thought to date from about 50 years earlier and intended for Handel. It is derived partly from Genesis and partly from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It fell into three parts, Part 1 covering Days 1-4, part 2 Days 5 and 6 and part 3 mutual love in the Garden of Eden. Each Day was probably represented by a similar plan: recitative prose from Genesis – verse commentary as aria – more recitative – choral hymn of praise by the heavenly host. It is largely in iambic meter, with some curious epithets (‘expanded boughs’ and ‘dreary, wasteful hail’, for example). Sometimes the results sound faintly ridiculous, such as the days and nights being made to talk to each other (in The heavens are telling) and some awkward word-order inversions throughout (‘the marv’lous work behold amazed the glorious hierarchy of heaven’).

Haydn’s librettist, Baron Gottfried von Swieten, revised the text and made a number of suggestions as to how certain passages could be treated musically, although the result was something of a clumsy reconstruction with scant respect for the original design. Faulty grammar and confusion of tenses often gives rise to an illogical and sometimes confusing effect. However, Swieten’s task was to provide a bilingual text, one that would work in both languages – he also had to provide a German text that closely matched his revision of the English. So, if he found a German phrase to his liking, the English was altered to conform.

The solos are assigned to archangels – Gabriel (S), Uriel (T) and Raphael (B) – in parts 1 and 2, and to Adam (B) and Eve (S) in part 3. The angels adopt a somewhat florid, lofty style whilst Adam and Eve’s music is more folk-like. The choruses owe a great debt to Handel. They mainly represent the heavenly host in praise, especially in the fine, energetic fugues, although there is a narrative function in the opening number.

The emotional direction throughout is almost constantly upward. On the First Day, the harmonically audacious Representation of Chaos generates a high tension that is dissipated by the astounding creation of light, a stunning moment that brought the composer to tears and on more than one contemporary occasion stopped the performance because of the rapturous reception it received. It is followed by the splendid tone-painting of Now vanish before thy holy beams, portraying the fall of the spirits of darkness and a chorally serene ‘new created world’ emerging from the despair of the fallen angels. After the division of the waters on the Second Day, the vaults resound to the first of the brilliant choruses, The marv’lous work. Day 3 sees the formation of an earthly landscape: the seas, rivers and mountains in the great tone-painting Rolling in foaming billows, a luxuriantly evocative With verdure clad and culminates in a glorious choral fugue, Awake the harp. Day 4 sees the creation of sun, moon and stars before a joyous The heavens are telling.

Part 2 opens with Day 5 and the birds and fish vividly brought to life (On mighty pens; Most beautiful appear); beasts (Now heaven in fullest glory shone) and man (In native worth) are created on Day 6. The extended concluding chorus of praise, Achieved is the glorious work, features a solo trio and another triumphant extended fugue. Part 3 is about Adam and Eve; our programme ends after their first duet and extended chorus, an extended hymn of praise which is the most substantial piece in the whole work.

Tonight’s concert is being given in the piano duet accompaniment by Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) and is our third venture into duet performances of great oratorios (after Brahms and Mozart Requiems in 2019 and 2020). They bring a chamber-music intimacy to the works and make possible small-scale performances such as ours. As this version does not set the accompanied recitatives, they have been omitted from the performance.