Where’s Papa?

"Papa" Haydn

I adore Haydn—“Papa” Haydn, as Mrs. Nettles, my high school music teacher, taught me. I always thought it would be cool to have Haydn as my papa. We’d go down to the park throw the ball around and then he’d head home and write a string quartet. Parent-teacher-night? No problem, Haydn would meet with my music teacher and then show her a thing or two about sonata form. Many of my “sophisticated” music friends take Haydn for granted. I guess his music isn’t ugly enough. That’s pretty much how they feel about Vivaldi, too—I guess it has something to do with them being prolific. As if writing more means less. The flipside is true for me though: I wish Elliott Carter was half as prolific as he is.

It’s fitting that one of the final recordings of the Haydn anniversary year (the 200th anniversary of his 1809 death) is Die Schöpfung (The Creation), one of Haydn’s last works. René Jacobs, the RIAS Kammerchor and Freiburger Barockorchester with soprano Julia Kleiter, tenor Maximilian Schmitt and baritone Johannes Weisser do the honors on a new recording for Harmonia Mundi.

Haydn’s Inspiration

At the end of 1791, Haydn attended the Handel Commemoration in Westminster Abbey and heard the master’s works performed on a large scale. Haydn heard Handel done in the big English style, with hundreds of performers on stage, and was floored. His Italian biographer, Giuseppe Carpani wrote, “Haydn confessed to me that when he heard the music of Hendl [sic] in London, he was struck as if he had been put back to the beginning of his studies and had known nothing up to that moment. He meditated on every note and drew from those most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur.”

The Baron van Swieten and The Creation

Enter the Baron Gottfried van Swieten. He was the guiding spirit of the Gesellschaft der Associirten Cavaliere, an association of noble music lovers who organized concerts of large-scale choral works in Vienna. So yes, Handel’s works were played in Haydn’s Vienna (sung in German), but were frequently re-orchestrated by Mozart and contemporaries to bring them up the standards of late 18th century orchestration. Mozart’s wrong-headed mash of Messiah is the classic example—has a great composer ever committed a hate crime to equal this? Swieten had been nudging Haydn to write an English oratorio (even before Haydn’s journey to England) in the “spirit and manner of Handel.”

Thoughts of an English-style oratorio had been swirling in Haydn’s head since 1794, when he began an oratorio based on a 17th century treatise proclaiming England’s natural right to sea sovereignty (that cries out for a musical treatment, doesn’t it?). The English impresario Johann Peter Salomon, was also thinking about a Haydn English oratorio, and it was Salomon who obtained the libretto for The Creation, probably at the end of Haydn’s second visit to England. Papa brought the libretto back with him from England and showed it to Swieten. Swieten adapted it (he said he wanted to “clothe the English poem in German garb”) and kept pushing Haydn to write the oratorio.

Much of Swieten’s text is an adaptation of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the epic poem that became known in Germany in the latter part of the 18th century. The libretto also contains bits from the book of Genesis. As Haydn worked on the piece (from autumn of 1796 to early 1798). Papa and Swieten had lots of back and forth about the work, and the baron even had individual numbers played for him by a small orchestra. Apparently, Haydn frequently bowed to the baron’s suggestions. I guess my poor papa, a lifelong Esterházy servant, was conditioned to nod “yes” to the wealthy.

Haydn Triumphant

The Creation premiered at the Palais Schwarzenberg on April 30, 1798, with Haydn conducting before an audience of wealthy folk who were given tickets by the Gesellschaft der Associirten Cavaliere. It was such a success that two more performances were added. The general public got to hear the work several months later, and once the score was published it was played all over Europe. The Creation was premiered in America by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society in 1819.

The Creation is sublime—one of my favorite works in the choral repertoire. Every drop of Haydn’s skill as an orchestral master are on display in the vivid tone painting that depicts everything from the chaos before creation, to flashes of lightning, to descriptions of all kinds of wildlife—including slithering worms! The vocal writing is direct and lyrical and the choral writing is suitably grand. I leave it to the journalist Joseph Richter (a contemporary of Haydn) to sum up the appeal of the work: “What I really liked is that [the work] is written in high style, and yet I could understand it.”

René Jacobs

René Jacobs’ Haydn

The Creation joins two other superb Haydn recordings conducted by René Jacobs on the Harmonia Mundi label: The Seasons and the Symphonies Nos. 91 and 92. I was licking my lips in anticipation of this recording of The Creation. Was the salivatory experience fulfilled? Mostly yes, but there are also some fumbles. First the good stuff. Despite the fact that there’s been some bitching from the anti-period-instrument camp about the Freiburger Barockorchester and their string sound (will the strident fatwah about lack of vibrato ever end, because nobody really cares anymore), I love their crisp articulation and verve. Wind and brass playing? Stunning. There is spice and warmth throughout, and the ensemble nails Haydn’s Disneyesque special effects. The choral singing of the RIAS Kammerchor is spot-on clear and energy pulses through every phrase they sing. While the vocal soloists don’t quite stand up to the roster of artists who have recorded the work before, which includes (just naming some of the noteworthy sopranos) Elly Ameling, Gundula Janowitz, Lucia Popp and Emma Kirkby, they are all fresh-voiced and technically secure.

There are some missteps, however. As on Jacobs’ Idomeneo recording, fortepianist Sebastian Wienand’s incessant mugging and silly improvisations during secco recitatives are getting on my nerves in a big way. The keyboard noodling that made the recitatives on Jacobs’ recordings of Mozart’s Così and Nozze fun don’t make sense here—The Creation is not a drama giocoso, so basta Sebastian! The biggest negative is scale. I quote the liner notes that speak of the Handelian model, “Haydn later considered that large forces were indispensable for effective performance of his Creation.” We don’t have that here. The string ensemble is small, and while winds and brass are two and three on a part, the sound is not grand. It’s not altogether a bad thing because there is a lovely transparency, but there is no denying that the performance lacks grandeur. Is that enough to sink the project? Not in the least. This is a low-fat performance, delicious in many ways, but it’s not the Cecil B. DeMille version of The Creation.

Here’s bit of the documentary DVD that comes with the recording:

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