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Let There Be Light on Haydn’s Creation


Creation Image by Joss Sessions

Chorus pro Musica with the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra will be offering a very unusual performance of Haydn’s Creation on June 2 in Jordan Hall  featuring synchronized projections designed by English videographer Joss Session. Some thoughts and conversations on the work and the presentation follow.

Human imagination gives us an amazing wealth of stories on the origin of the world. To the Chinese, the Yang and the Yin were One and when separated, the tension of their opposite qualities produced the world and all things in it. The Japanese say that Chaos reigned until the Three Creating Deities formed heaven and earth and all things in it. Hindu belief tells us that God and the universe are essentially one, and God manifests Himself as the world and all things in it. One African myth tells us that a god named Bumba created the sun and moon along with various creatures and finally, man.

The story of origins from the Jews in the Old Testament of the Bible now finds familiarity throughout the West; its two versions in the Genesis chapter have God in the beginning creating all things in six days and resting on the seventh. The Judaic version of this story for Haydn’s composition, The Creation, was embellished by the Book of Psalms and enhanced with the Genesis portion of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

When Joseph Haydn left London in 1795, he was given a poem titled The Creation of the World, which has a murky past on authorship and translation but was ultimately set by the composer after Baron van Swieten gave him a version in German (Die Schöpfung) — because Haydn lacked sufficient fluency in English. The libretto was then translated back to English. So the libretto has some awkward syntax, according to Betsy Burleigh, music director and conductor of Chorus pro Musica, whom I talked to recently about the upcoming performance.

She decided to add visual aspects to the performance through lighting and projections. “It came out of a series of discussions at CpM,” she explained, “about what we were trying to accomplish in terms of bringing new people into our audiences, people who might not normally walk in the door of a classical music concert. It’s the younger people, especially, we are trying to entice, and the visual component is an important one.”

Burleigh did not know the English videographer Joss Sessions, but a member of the CpM board knew he was quite creative had quite a bit of experience with combining visual elements to music. So he has been engaged to accompany The Creation with light and visual projections. He will also be performing, he told me, because of the multiple selections he has at his disposal that will be selected spontaneously as the music unfolds.

The oratorio is about a cosmically momentous beginning of the world, whose story was then set to music by the elderly Haydn. Having received its premiere on April 29, 1798 at Vienna’s Palais Schwarzenberg in an invitation only performance, Die Schöpfung was without doubt an instant success. The first public performance in Vienna’s Burgtheater on March 19, 1799 sold out far in advance and was given numerous times during the oratorio’s first year. A year later, the translated work, as The Creation, was performed at Covent Garden Theatre to great acclaim. Haydn could not have had any greater success than the number of times the work was performed in his lifetime. His last hearing was in 1808, one year before his death.

The Creation,” Burleigh explained, “is such a wonderful work.  Everything Haydn did, even though he was advanced in age, was  inventive, useful, and energetic. These late Haydn works are so musically rich and effervescent, that I have a great enthusiasm for this music.”

The work is a compendium of several different aesthetic styles, beginning with the orchestral parts that synthesize the contemporary writing; yet the work remains distinctly the work of an old master. The fugal style in the choral numbers is from an experienced ear for vocal capabilities and expression. For example, Number 19, “The Lord is great, and great His might,” displays this keen sense of counterpoint in the chorus, and when florid writing for three vocal soloists is added, the effect is stunning.

The oratorio is in three major parts. Part I begins the extraordinary tale of the creation of the world narrated by three soloists, Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel. Divided by recitative and aria, supported by a mixed chorus, the 13 numbers comprise a wide variety of forms ranging from solo recitative and aria to three narrators and chorus in highly complex textures. The latter is illustrated with great effect in the close of Part I with the famous and highly effective “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” Part II, culminating in Uriel’s recitative (number 23), reveals the creation of man “in his [God’s] own image, male and female created he him.” A beautifully lyrical aria follows, Uriel singing fervently of this new and wondrous creature in the image of God. This new creature needs companionship so God gives man “a woman fair and graceful spouse.” After creating the earth and heavens, the birds of the air, all the fish of the sea, the flowers and plants, and humankind in six days he surely needs the seventh day to rest from these taxing labors.

Part III describes the Garden of Eden with its two lovely new inhabitants side by side joyfully passing the “golden hours.” Humanity now ensconced in paradise, Adam and Eve as the embodiment of God’s grace, express their gratitude. They give thanks to God for their lives and their carefree existence in the plentitude and fullness of flowers in bloom, sweet fruit on the trees, and morning dew quickening all. The Lord is great! Amen!

This is the first classical work in which Sessions has participated, and he finds it fascinating to lend his hand to something that offers such broad possibilities in a different vein than he is used to. Burleigh reinforced the idea of going beyond the usual concert presentation. A well-known feature of the overture is that it begins in C minor, representing chaos and the primordial ooze, and ends with a crashingly loud C-major chord. What will be a surprise is what Joss will do with that momentous event. In fact, the audience will be in for an experience not usually attended to a classical work like Haydn’s The Creation.

Asked about how Jordan Hall would be used, Burleigh responded, “To me, this is one of the most interesting things about this project. We are not going to be projecting on a screen [but rather] Joss will take advantage of the architectural features with their historical interest. We’ve spent a fair amount of time together face to face. He’s been to the United States twice, and since this project was born, we’ve Skyped. We’ve had a lot of discussions on the types of images, how do we coordinate the images with the music, in terms of the impact on the audience, how do we deal with the soloists and the chorus, all of these kinds of decisions that have to be made. It’s taken a lot of time but it has been stimulating; it has been exciting and we feel like we are doing something new and how often do you get to say that?”

Will the addition of Sessions’s lighting and visuals add to the performance? Probably, but to realize the maximum effect, one must enter Jordan Hall with an open mind and allow one’s senses to embrace whatever comes. Reflection is for later; being immersed in the moment is for now. That is what art of any medium asks us to do, does it not?

Anthony J. Palmer, presently a Visiting Scholar at Boston University, has a BA in vocal/choral studies and MA in composition from California State University, Los Angeles, and a Ph.D. from UCLA. He retired from college teaching in 1998.

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