February 28, 2009

How to Write Like a Genius: Open Secrets of Haydn's "Creation"

Question: How much can a creative genius learn from others? Answer: A lot. Take the fascinating evidence of Haydn’s Creation¸ which the RPO will be performing in honor of the composer’s bicentennial on Mar. 19th and 21st. Like any natural beauty, The Creation needs no special guidebook on how it should be admired. The piece “has it all”: serene melodies with perfect bone-structure and proportion. It has a great shape and soul. Sounds like a great date already. But there is an added bonus for the audience of this piece. It allows us to trace a fascinating trail of inspiration, from one genius to another.

The Creation is an oratorio, giving Biblical and poetic (Milton’s Paradise Lost) texts the operatic treatment. It is scored for an orchestra, solo vocalists and chorus. If you’re thinking this reminds you of another show you just attended in December, you would be right. Haydn was inspired to write his Creation (1796) after a visit to England where he heard several oratorios by Handel, including the ever-popular Messiah. At the height of his career, Handel made a name for himself writing Italian operas in the 1720’s and -30’s before he turned to setting sacred text with the same intensity around 1740. The Messiah has dramatic, visual images built right into the music. The soprano soloist “laughs” in long squiggles as she sings “Rejoice Greatly.” The chorus (intentionally) wanders apart while singing “All we like sheep have gone astray.”

Musical word-painting is everywhere in the Messiah, and it evidently impressed Haydn, who promptly honored (or lifted) the idea. The Creation begins with a famous passage about chaos before the earth was made. The music sounds strange and hazy, not pausing to rest in harmony. As light appears for the first time, the harmony shifts abruptly from dark minor to sunny major. And so on. The music itself underscores the meaning of the text. It is Handel’s model in Haydn’s pen.

The Creation takes on several grand subjects: a Creator, the universe, all mankind, all beasts. Haydn uses a fittingly beefed -up orchestra, with extra strings, contrabassoon, even trombones to accompany the vocal quartet and chorus… Wait a minute! This is beginning to sound like another piece that top most people’s Classical Top Ten, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the “Ode to Joy”!

Amazingly, it is possible to hear seeds of the Great Ninth in the Creation. Beethoven studied with Haydn, and his music is stamped all over with the inspiration of his teacher. For example, Beethoven’s signature Scherzos are unpredictable, oddities replacing the stately Minuet dance in Haydn’s symphony model. They are partly Beethoven’s tribute to the notorious humor in Haydn’s music (like the sudden explosions in his “Surprise Symphony.”) Also, Beethoven’s attention to structure and organization was probably fostered by Papa Haydn, who thus generated most of his 104 successful symphonies on demand during his thirty year job as a court composer. It is then very possible that Beethoven recalled a performance of Haydn’s end-of-life achievement, The Creation, as he composed his own definitive Ninth Symphony. It begins with its own primordial, hazy chaos, moves from darkness to light, and employs the biggest band available, etc.

For me, this flow of ideas to and from The Creation is really fascinating. One really great number to notice for old/new hand-holding is the ending of the fourth day (and Part One), “The Heavens Are Telling.” The vocal quartet alternates with the chorus in an up-beat anthem over rich orchestration. It is an updated chorus from the Messiah just decades shy of the “Ode to Joy.” This Creation is a grand and warm treat, just the thing to celebrate Haydn life and the end of winter (crossing my fingers for that!).

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