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Introducing… The Creation

We take a look at Haydn’s greatest choral work…

What does a sky full of stars sound like? What about an angel, or a tiger preparing to pounce?

That’s the challenge Haydn answers so spectacularly in The Creation – a choral epic brought to life by the Glyndebourne Chorus and an all-star team of soloists this autumn.

In the latest in our Introducing series, Alexandra Coghlan takes a look at Haydn’s greatest choral work…

A brief introduction

Sitting in a concert in Westminster Abbey in May 1791, Joseph Haydn – the 60-year-old giant of European music – experienced an unexpected epiphany. He was, according to his biographer, ‘…struck as if he had known nothing up to that moment. He meditated on every note.’ The music that inspired such a response? Handel’s Messiah.

Handel’s oratorios opened up a whole new world of creative possibility to a composer whose long career had been dominated by instrumental music: symphonies, sonatas, string quartets. The result was an astonishing late-flowering of choral music, yielding not just The Creation (1798) and the exuberant The Seasons, but also the mature Masses – radiant, profound musical statements of faith.

Handel’s legacy took even more concrete form when, in 1795, Haydn was given a copy of an anonymous libretto perhaps intended for the elder composer, but never set. Combining texts from Genesis, the Psalms and Milton’s Paradise Lost, it told the story of no less a subject than creation itself. It was the final spark; Haydn commissioned a new German adaptation, and set to work to bring this grandest, most audacious of subjects to sonic life.

The Creation was premiered in Vienna to rapturous success. ‘I wouldn’t have believed that mere human lungs and sheep gut and calf’s skin could create such miracles… I never left a theatre more contented, and all night I dreamed of the Creation of the World’ wrote one audience member. Only the Catholic Church stood apart, banning it from sacred spaces on account of its unduly joyful, insufficiently moralising tone. It’s precisely that spirit of unbounded joy and celebration that has helped Haydn’s Creation endure – more popular today than ever: a spiritual masterpiece for a secular age.

Why not to miss this concert

The Creation is a blow-by-blow musical drama, complete with characters and an almost cinematic soundtrack from the orchestra. We meet a whole host of angels, as well as Adam and Eve, who in turn take delight in introducing all of Creation, from dazzling light and billowing seas to the whole animal kingdom. The work plays out almost like a musical panorama – changing landscapes and scenes summoned one after the other in front of our eyes.

Haydn’s score seems to come with a smile on its face. There are laugh-out-loud musical jokes (listen out for the “sinuous worm” that arrives last to the menagerie, with a wonderful low ooze; “great whales” that seem to call from the depths of the orchestral sea; a leaping tiger who gallops briefly through the music).

And then there are the choruses; listening to The Creation is like walking inside a great Gothic cathedral. The architecture of Haydn’s music is breath-taking, packed full of tiny details that only emerge on closer inspection. From the ebullient ‘The Heavens are Telling’ to the ecstatic ‘Achieved is the Glorious Work’, it’s also a work that does joy better than almost any other. There’s scarcely a cloud in this newly created musical sky.

A great moment to look out for

One of the most memorable and arresting moments of Haydn’s Creation is the very beginning. The oratorio opens with an extended instrumental passage – not an overture, absolutely part of the drama. Titled ‘The Representation of Chaos’ it’s no less than an attempt to conjure primordial disorder and nothingness in sound. With only traditional musical tools to use, it’s a bold gesture, and the result is astonishingly modern. To Haydn’s audience it must have been electrifying.

We begin on a unison C – a single note, unanchored by harmony or melodic context – held by all the orchestra. From that seed the music gradually swells and spreads outwards in harmonies that defy conventional logic and rules, meandering off in unexpected directions, drifting and turning down blind alleys. It’s extraordinary: the most sophisticated art used to evoke its own absence. When God creates light in the following movement it blazes out in white, bright C major, and the process that began with that first, naked C is finally, and dazzlingly, fulfilled.

Cast and creative team

Olivier-nominated conductor James Henshaw – recently praised for his ‘precision’ and ‘confidence’ by The Arts Desk –  makes his Glyndebourne debut conducting The Creation. Soloists include Australian soprano Cleo Lee McGowan, whose voice was praised for its ‘sweetness and purity’ by OperaChaser and bass William Thomas, winner of Kathleen Ferrier, Critics’ Circle and John Christie awards.

The Creation will be on stage at Glyndebourne 18 November – 15 December 2023

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