Poster design Thomas Matthews
Conductor Mark Shanahan
150-strong Hackney Singers perform The Creation, inspired by the book of Genesis, the Biblical book of Psalms and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Sung in English, Haydn’s masterpiece is conducted by renowned opera conductor Mark Shanahan, accompanied on the organ by the choir’s répétiteur Andrew Storey.
Hackney Singers, who recently celebrated their 40th anniversary and last sang The Creation in 1988, return to the Georgian splendour of St John at Hackney for the first time since October 2012 for what is set to be a stunning performance.
Josef Haydn The Creation
When Josef Haydn attended the great Handel festival in London in 1791 he was blown away. Although they were over half a century old, he’d never before heard any of Handel’s wonderful biblical oratorios – the likes of Saul, Israel in Egypt, Judas Maccabaeus and of course Messiah – and he was stunned by their scale and grandeur.
He’d written an oratorio himself several years earlier – The Return of Tobias (1774) – but in truth this was more of an unstaged opera, dominated by solo singers and with only a modest role for the chorus. Haydn must have thought to himself, ‘I could do something like that’. And in fact the opportunity to do so soon presented itself. While he was still in London his friend and impresario Johann Peter Salomon gave him a libretto, said to have been put together by a Mr Lidley or Lindley, based on the story of the Creation as told in the first chapter of Genesis and as reimagined by John Milton in Paradise Lost. He was attracted by the project, but he seems to have felt that his English was not up to the task of setting the text to music, so he put it away in a drawer.
The idea did not go away, however, and in the mid 1790s Haydn returned to it, fortified by a German translation of the libretto by Baron van Swieten. He worked on the music through 1796 and 1797, and Die Schöpfung (‘The Creation’) was premiered in Vienna on 30 April 1798, with Haydn himself conducting. ‘Such was the excitement of the city that eighteen mounted and twelve foot police were engaged to control the crowds, and this despite the semi-private nature of the performance. The Creation was an enormous success, the greatest Haydn had enjoyed since London’ (H.C. Robbins Landon, 1967). An equally successful first public performance followed the next year, after which one member of the audience enthused: ‘In my whole life I will not hear another piece of music as beautiful; and even if it had lasted three hours longer, and even if the stink and sweat-bath had been much worse, I would not have minded. For the life of me I would not have believed that human lungs and sheep gut and calf’s skin could create such miracles. The music all by itself described thunder and lightning, and then you would have heard the rain falling and the water rushing and the birds really singing and the lion roaring, and you could even hear the worms crawling along the ground. In short, I never left a theatre more contented, and all night I dreamed of the creation of the world’. Audiences all over Europe took it to their hearts in the ensuing decades, and The Creation has since gained a place perhaps second only to Messiah in music-lovers’ lists of favourite oratorios.
The plan of The Creation is fairly straightforward and conventional. It is divided into three parts. The first describes the creation of heaven and earth, the land and the sea; the second the creation of animals and human beings; and the third Adam and Eve’s domestic life in the Garden of Eden. The narrative of the successive stages of the Creation is in the hands of the three archangels, Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor) and Raphael (bass). The main role of the chorus is to intersperse the story with glorifications of the Creator.
It has to be admitted that the text of The Creation is problematical in places. When it was first published, Haydn took care to ensure that it had an English libretto as well as a German one, because he wanted to maximize its sales in the important British market. This seems to have been the original libretto given to Haydn by Salomon, but with some significant amendments by van Swieten. Largely, it would appear, as a result of these changes the English is less than idiomatic in places. Some of its vocabulary is rather quaint (the ‘flexible tiger’ in Raphael’s enumeration of God’s new creatures never fails to raise a smile, for example), and word-order inversions can make the meaning hard to unpick (in the chorus ‘The heavens are telling’, for instance, ‘the wonder of his works displays the firmament’ actually means ‘the firmament displays the wonder of his works’ – the word order works in the original German, but not in English). These infelicities have been perpetuated in subsequent editions, but the latest Novello version (1999) edited by Michael Pilkington, which Hackney Singers are performing this evening, does at least iron out some of them.
But never mind the words. What music! The whole oratorio sees Haydn at the very top of his game, but surely none of it is as arresting as the opening ‘Representation of Chaos’. This is deeply mysterious music of great harmonic daring, highly avant-garde for its day, evoking the primordial confusion out of which God created the universe. Haydn follows this up with a coup de théâtre in the succeeding chorus, announcing the creation of light: the words ‘and there was light’ begin pianissimo, but at ‘light’ there is a sudden fortissimo outburst (Haydn played a similar trick on his audience in his ‘Surprise’ Symphony (1792)). The recitatives and arias that follow are wonderfully descriptive, as Haydn conjures up in his music, for example, a variety of meteorological phenomena in No.3 and a gallery of beasts of the field in No.20 (concluding well below the stave with the worm), and matches the bucolic text of No.8 with suitably pastoral music. Listen out in particular for No.12, in which a majestic evocation of sunrise is balanced by a ravishing depiction of moonlight. The next number, concluding Part 1, is ‘The heavens are telling’, probably Haydn’s best-known chorus. Like the rest of the choruses in The Creation, it is a full-throated paean of praise to God. Part 3 is of deliberately lower musical wattage than the preceding two, dealing as it does with the relationship of Adam and Eve (in terms highly uncongenial to a twentyfirst-century feminist) rather than the mighty workings of the Creator, but it too ends with an exultant chorus in praise of God.
© John Ayto 2014