Filling the stage of Sanders Theater at Harvard’s Memorial Hall on Sunday, the Back Bay Chorale of some 118 singers, along with a 44-member orchestra, gave a rousing performance of Haydn’s much-loved masterpiece, The Creation. Scott Allen Jarrett conducted; soloists were Jacquelyn Stucker, soprano, William Hite, tenor, and Sumner Thompson, baritone.
Haydn seems to have found inspiration for The Creation during his first visit to London in 1791, when he heard Handel oratorios performed in Westminster Abbey with very large forces, and became eager to try his hand at a work of similar grandeur. Asked for advice on a suitable subject, his friend the French violinist François-Hippolyte Barthélemon is reported to have picked up his Bible and said: “There, take that, and begin at the beginning.” In fact, the libretto Haydn took back to Vienna after his second stay in London in 1794-1795 is based on the opening chapter of the Book of Genesis, augmented by passages from the Psalms and from Milton’s Paradise Lost. Baron Gottfried van Swieten, director of the court library in Vienna and himself a champion of Handel’s oratorios, translated and reworked the libretto and arranged for two private performances of The Creation in April, 1798. The public premiere took place at the imperial theatre in Vienna in March, 1799, with the composer conducting about 180 performers, and the work immediately became popular throughout Europe. The first edition, published in Vienna in 1800, contained both the German and the English texts. Back Bay Chorale chose the German text, including both texts in the program booklet; the English text was projected on a screen above the stage.
The shade of Handel inhabits The Creation, yet Haydn brought to it his own gifts of melodic invention, elegant part writing, and expressive instrumental color. Part I of the oratorio recounts the first four days of creation: the emergence of light, land and sea, plants, and the heavenly bodies. Part II depicts the fifth and sixth days: the creation of animals, birds, fish, insects, and the first man and woman. Part III tells the story of Adam and Eve before their temptation and fall from grace. In Parts I and II, the six days are further articulated, each day beginning with a recitative on a text from Genesis, followed by commentary in an aria or ensemble, followed by another recitative and a closing chorus of praise. Part III, although shorter, follows a similar pattern. With a sure instinct for pacing and contrast, Scott Allen Jarrett kept the narrative flow alive through multiple gradations of mood and style in a performance that was more than the sum of its parts. Beginning with the famous depiction of chaos, with its nebulous harmonies and scarcely defined snatches of melody, Jarrett maintained the suspense of the opening scene until the choral recitative burst into a triumphant C major on the words “and there was light.” The sunrise in the final scene of Part I brought more magical instrumental tone painting, while ethereal high flutes at the beginning of Part III seemed to depict the celestial bliss of Paradise. Jarrett succeeded in eliciting precise diction and carefully shaded dynamics from the Chorale despite its size. Occasionally tentative in the opening scenes, the chorus seemed to gain in spirit as the oratorio progressed. “Awake the harp,” with its percussive chordal opening and closing passages supported by trumpets, trombones,and timpani framing a double-fugue, was sung with all the verve and energy Haydn’s evocation of Handel deserved. In “Achievèd is the glorious work” at the end of Part II, contrapuntal passages were punctuated by well-focussed chordal “Hallelujahs,” again evoking Handel.
The three soloists acted as archangel-narrators in Parts I and II of the drama; in Part III, baritone and soprano took on the roles of Adam and Eve. Formulaic secco recitatives, accompanied skillfully at the foretepiano by Justin Thomas Blackwell, delivered the texual refrains “And God said” and “And it was so.” More colorful narration was often enhanced by orchestral accompaniment. As Raphael, baritone Sumner Thompson’s powerful yet beautifully modulated voice stood out in a series of recitatives with extended orchestral interjections that narrated the unfolding of heaven and earth. “And God made the firmament” was followed by vivid orchestral storm music that gradually quieted down from thunder and lightning to rain, then halting hail and finally, snow. Haydn’s depiction of the “boist’rous sea” and emerging mountains and rocks in “Rollend in schäumenden Wellen” (Rolling in foaming billows) recalled a typical Italian rage aria in minor mode, its wide range and jagged intervals accompanied by furious string roulades. Thompson’s pianissimo on the words “Leise rauschend” (Softly purling) that contrasted the “limpid brook “with the raging sea did full justice to Haydn’s word painting, the final cadenzas complemented by softly evocative horn calls. A summit of descriptive writing was reached in the extended scene that introduced the sixth day with the creation of the beasts, from the noble lion and leaping tiger to contented flocks and, finally, the creeping worm. The aria that followed returned to the triumphant mode of the lion’s roar, but not without a snarl from the trombones to evoke teeming shoals of fish. One might be tempted to play this quaintly literal-minded descriptive scene for laughs, but Thompson and Jarrett let the music, even its clichés, speak for themselves.
Tenor William Hite sang the role of Uriel. After the choral outburst, fortissimo, on “und es ward Licht” (and there was light), Uriel’s aria in a bright A major gave way to a dramatic arioso in a murky, chromatically tinged C minor as the “affrighted hell’s spirits” sank to endless night. In the chorus that followed, “despairing, cursing rage” (C minor, fugal) was pitted against the “new created world” (A major, chordal) hailed at the end of the first day. In a secco recitative, “And God said, let there be light,” Uriel introduced the fourth day and final scene of Part I. The introduction to the accompanied recitative that followed was another piece of inspired nature music, opening as the sun rose on a single note that expanded upwards in the violins and downwards in the basses to a majestic fortissimo in dotted rhythms. Celebrating the power of the sun in ringing tones, Hite turned to a hushed and silvery cantabile in a brief arioso describing the moon, a magical interlude before the return to more formulaic recitative announcing the creation of the stars. C major was again affirmed in “Die Himmel erzählen” (The heavens are telling), a verse anthem in the Anglican tradition in which choral refrains alternated with stanzas sung by the trio of soloists. In Uriel’s only extended solo aria, “Mit Würd’ und Hoheit angetan” (With native worth and honor clad), Hite again contrasted martial tones declaring man “the Lord and King of Nature” with a more relaxed cantabile depicting Eve.
As the archangel Gabriel, soprano Jacquelyn Stucker was assigned the two most elaborate arias. “Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün” (With verdure clad the fields appear) is a lilting siciliano in 6/8, its pastoral atmosphere enhanced by horn and woodwind color. Stucker was more than a match for the extensive ornamentation Haydn added to the simple melody, executing cadenza-like passages with sure rhythmic sense and tonal control. “Auf starkem Fittiche” (On mighty pens), the traditional “bird aria” that opens Part II, is a virtuoso tour de force. Here Stucker displayed the full scope of her powerfully expressive voice with increasingly elaborate musical characterizations of the eagle, lark, dove, and nightingale ranging from unadorned melody to turns, trills, and an extended cadenza. Thompson and Stucker changed roles in Part III, becoming Adam and Eve for the remainder of the oratorio. In the opening Sinfonia, Largo, flutes invoked Paradise, while horns recalled the simple pleasures of country life in the Garden of Eden. Uriel’s recitative called on the newly-created couple to praise God in song. In the duet that followed, stanzas by the soloists were punctuated with responses by the chorus in an expansion of the verse anthem procedure; in the final response, grand chordal sections framed a central fugal passage. Adam and Eve’s next duet was far removed from the accompanied recitative that introduced it. Here was a simple, mostly syllabic love song, Adagio, two well-matched voices in perfect harmony. The second section, Allegro, was a contredanse complete with rustic fiddling and horn calls. In the brilliant final chorus, “Singt dem Herren alle Stimmen” (Sing the Lord, ye voices all), a solo quartet sang in alternation with the chorus, contralto Li-Han “Lily” Tseng stepping out from the ranks of the choir to join Stucker, Hite, and Thompson. Here again a grand chordal opening and conclusion framed an energetic fugue, the soloists interjecting with increasingly elaborate melismas on “Amen.” In a final dramatic flourish, the coda opened with repeated iterations of the fugue‘s head motive, leading to a final statement of the entire subject in stentorian octaves.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.