Opera’s loss was oratorio’s gain
The Creation, generally considered Haydn’s crowning achievement in the genre, has definite roots in the work of Handel, including Messiah, which Haydn heard in London.
Franz Joseph Haydn, who wrote more than 100 symphonies, at least six masses, two oratorios, and innumerable chamber works, was a prolific and very popular composer. His admiration for the works of Handel knew no bounds and was no doubt bolstered by his having heard some of Handel’s best oratorios, including Messiah and Israel in Egypt, during one of his extended visits to England. There was no opera house near the rural estate at Esterhazy where Haydn did most of his work, but he did produce some extraordinary vocal and choral writing in the masses and oratorios, most famous of which is The Creation.
Though he composed The Creation in German, Haydn was working from a libretto reportedly intended for Handel and adapted in English from two rich textual sources: the biblical creation story in Genesis and John Milton’s masterful Paradise Lost. This Providence Singers performance will use an English translation specially adapted by Betsy Burleigh to fit more naturally with music originally composed for Haydn’s German version.
Haydn’s natural cheerfulness seems to have been fully engaged by the thematic emphasis on freshness and newness in the great Christian creation myth, and the melodies and harmonies that he brings to this material are redolent with a childlike joy, wonder and celebration. Handel himself would have been pleased to write some of the great choruses that Haydn composed for this work. He would also have been impressed with Haydn’s vivid writing for the classical period orchestra, a more fully developed ensemble with several new instruments unknown in Handel’s time. Particularly memorable are the introductory orchestral representations of chaos and of the first sunrise. Haydn’s writing for the vocal soloists (the angels Raphael and Uriel, and Adam and Eve), moreover, would also have appealed to Handel the opera composer. From the Puritan Milton, Haydn’s libretto seems to have drawn an emphasis on the love of Adam and Eve as a miniature model of the properly reciprocated love of God for humanity — an emphasis most fully expressed in Haydn’s musical setting of their beautiful final duet. In The Creation, opera’s loss has certainly been oratorio’s gain!
A concert preview event, free and open to the public, will be held on Thursday, January 31, at 7:30 p.m. in the vestry at Temple Emanu-El, 99 Taft Avenue, Providence. Reservations are not required. Discussion will be led by Betsy Burleigh, artistic director of the Providence Singers, and poet Brett Rutherford of the University of Rhode Island, moderated by Cantor Brian Meyer. Additional information on the performances is available on websites for Providence Singers and New Bedford Symphony.
David Parker, a founding member of the Providence Singers, is a member of the bass section.