Although Denis, Rick, Jessica and I have each been designated to blog for a particular composer, I'm sure it would be silly to suggest we're blind to the charms of the others (or, indeed, composers beyond this list). So, having written about Purcell (and Handel) a couple of weeks' ago, this week it's Haydn (and Handel) that attracts my interest.
Of course, this weekend the big Haydn celebrations kick off, with the 200th anniversary of his death. Although I see from his blog that Denis is trekking off to Eisenstadt (lucky him!), I'm staying in Oxford on the 30th for (perhaps with fitting irony, on the eve of the celebrations of Haydn's death), The Creation. The performance should be just as good as anything in larger festivals: the choir of New College, Oxford (under Edward Higginbottom), with Oxford Philomusica and soloists Mhairi Lawson, Rufus Müller, and Giles Underwood. (The recording with the same forces won Choral CD of the Month in the December BBC Music Magazine.)
It's a terrific work - one I've sung several times in the past, and one I'm writing a programme note about at present, as it happens. In several ways it's a forward-looking work: the canny Haydn had his librettist, Gottfried Van Swieten write a bi-lingual libretto, so that the work could be performed in both England and Austria - an indication of the awareness of international markets that was to be so important in the nineteenth century. Musically too, it was seen as pretty revolutionary: the 'chaos' opening to the oratorio was extraordinary in its day (though to us it sounds rather straightforward in harmonic terms). The idea of an opening that creates order from chaos was to haunt the aspirations of symphonic composers of the nineteenth century (and Wagner, too).
But of course The Creation was also backward-looking: a homage to Handel, and to England's late-eighteenth-century Handelmania. Haydn must have known he was taking a gamble venturing into that territory - to compete with a revered master on his home turf was never going to be easy. And it would seem he was right.
Although The Creation was a great success in both Vienna and London, not all were appreciative. Haydn's London friend and admirer, the great music historian Charles Burney, wrote with some annoyance to his friend Christian Latrobe about the reception the work had in London. This is an unpublished letter, held in a collection of Burney's manuscripts in the Beinecke Library in New Haven, USA, so I thought a chunk of it might be of interest to blog readers. A neat copy of the letter is entitled 'On Haydn's Creation. Performed in London Apr. 21st. 1800'. In it, Burney says:
"If I had leisure, I cd. write a folio dissertation on the beauty of that divine Music, & the intelligence, the mind, & conceptions, of the matchless composer! The Handelians, who are most of them utterly unable to judge of Handel's real merit; and all jealous of that of others--as well as pert & flippant soi-disant Connoisseurs, have handed it abt. as a bon Mot, that the opening of the Creation is so confused that "Chaos is come again".-- And what shd. be come again, but Chaos, when chaos is to be described? are sounds to be arranged in harmonic & symmetric order, before order was born? It struck me as the most sublime Idea in Haydn's work to describe the birth of order by dissonance & broken phrases.--a whisper here--an effort there--a groan--an agonizing cry--personifying nature--& supposing her in labour, how admirably has he described her throes, not by pure harmony & graceful melody, but by appropriate sounds, wch. applied to any other purpose wd. be little better than jargon; but here, in loco--are sublimely beautiful! Yet if the hearer does help the composer out, musical imitation is so feeble, that his designs & conceptions will never be understood-- But if this is not picturesque Music, it is in vain ever to be attempted. When dissonance is tuned, when order arises, & Chaos is no more, what pleasing, ingenious, and graceful melody & harmony ensue! What a new & powerful effect had the encored Chorus on the feeling part of the audience who unable to stay till it was finished to express their raptures, broke in upon the performers with impassioned applause both times, before the movement was finished!-- And what a flash of harmony on the last word of the sublime text of genuine Scripture--"God said let there be light, & there was Light!--But I must shorten my Dissertation, being in a very great hurry--wth. a 1000 things to say on the subject..."
What a marvellous insight into the earliest performances of this work, and the responses they aroused!