Classical Notes: Let there be light

Okanagan Symphony Orchestra hits high notes with chorus and vocalists in Joseph Haydn's The Creation.

At Easter (as well as at Christmas) orchestras and choirs often join forces for a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Most of us know bits of it.

However, much less familiar is Joseph Haydn’s The Creation, composed more than 100 years later.

This was the spring project for Okanagan Symphony, along with three soloists and the OSO Chorus. It’s a magnificent piece.

I didn’t know any of it, and had I seen it on a CD rack I might have ignored it, but of course it’s never too late to try something new.

Both pieces are oratorios – large compositions for orchestra and singers. Like opera, oratorio uses soloists, a choir, and depicts specific characters.  However, opera is musical theatre, whereas oratorio is strictly a concert piece.

Also, opera deals with historical stories – involving romance, deception, and murder, whereas oratorio depicts sacred topics, appropriate for church performances.

During Lent in 17th-century Italy, because of the Catholic church’s prohibition of spectacles, oratorios became the appropriate choice for opera lovers.

During Haydn’s visits to London he heard Handel’s oratorios, and he wanted equally spectacular results. He obtained from impresario Johann Peter Salomon a poem The Creation of the World, telling the Judeo-Christian creation story as related in The Book of Genesis and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Haydn decided to re-write the piece in German, but it was published bilingually and is still performed in either language. Haydn himself preferred the English version for English audiences.

However, the translation is so awkward that even in English-speaking countries the German original is sometimes preferred, as was the case with OSO music director Rosemary Thomson.

Structured in three parts, it’s scored for soprano (performed with the OSO by Siobhan Raupach), tenor (Isaiah Bell) and bass (Randall Jakobsh). (Raupach and Jakobsh are both originally from Vernon.)

The parts begin with one of the most famous numbers in the work – a prelude using stark chords and clashing harmonics to convey the meaningless and disorder before creation began. The music is dark and cold, and in minor keys.

Suddenly, there’s an unexpected and massive major chord after “let there be light”. At the public premiere in Vienna, this moment created such a sensation that, according to a friend of the composer: “At 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 six days of creation occupy the first and second part, with each day introduced in recitative (musical dialogue) by the archangels. Each new creation, just as described in Genesis – is portrayed in short tone poems. And the choral singers add gorgeous choruses, especially at the end of each day of creation.

The oratorio finishes on the happy union between Adam and Eve, culminating in a sublime marriage duet. But the temptation of Eve and expulsion from the Garden of Eden are only indirectly mentioned.

The first performance was sponsored by citizens who paid handsomely to stage the premiere. (Salomon tried to sue, on grounds that “his” English libretto had been translated illegally).The first performance was by invitation only, but hundreds crowded into the street to hear this eagerly anticipated work, and 30 special police were needed to keep order.

Those lucky enough to gain admittance wrote glowing accounts, and one audience member wrote: “Already three days have passed since that happy evening, and it still sounds in my ears and heart, and my breast is constricted by many emotions even thinking of it.”

The London premiere was at the Covent Garden Theatre (the Albert Hall hadn’t been built), and Haydn attended a performance a year before he died.  When, at the coming of “light”, the audience broke into spontaneous applause “Papa” Haydn pointed upwards saying: “Not from me—everything comes from up there!”

Jim Elderton is a local filmmaker and freelance writer who reviews the Okanagan Symphony season for The Morning Star.


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