Imagine the very beginning of time; the darkness, the void, unformed chaos. It’s an unsettling, disturbing place, where nothing feels quite right, there’s no order or control and you have no idea what might happen next. Then suddenly, comes a thrilling explosion, and there is light, banishing darkness and discord, and illuminating a brand new world. This is the beginning of Joseph Haydn’s oratorio “The Creation”, and the beauty of it is that although Haydn is embarking on his musical account of the Creation story as told in the Bible, he could also, with a little stretch of the imagination, be describing the way modern cosmologists see the origins of the universe. Haydn uses meandering, unresolved harmonies in his overture to depict primordial chaos, and no matter how many times you hear it, the moment when he breaks into a simple, but massive, C-major chord as the choir sing “and there was light” is always startling.
As the piece unfolds, a trio of angels, assisted by the heavenly choir, guide the listener through the beauties of this planet that we call home. Haydn paints extraordinarily vivid musical pictures, from the majestic to the comic. The first sunrise is an awe-inspiring swelling of sound as the instruments gradually pile into a simple scale that rises slowly out of a single flute note, whilst later, Haydn deploys all the characterful colour of the wind and brass instruments to conjure up lions, tigers, and even worms and flies – the lowly worm requiring the bass soloist to plummet to the very depths of his range, accompanied by a contrabassoon.
I have the pleasure of singing Creation with the Durham Singers in Durham Cathedral in November, and as ever with our autumn concerts, I’m particularly looking forward to hearing our period instrument orchestra again. Although Creation is performed fairly regularly, period instrument performances are not so common and we think this will be the first of its kind in the North East. This is partly, I think, because of the very particular requirements for specialist eighteenth century instruments, which are not the same as that we see more regularly in works by Bach or Handel. By Haydn’s time wind and brass instruments in particular were evolving – flutes, for example, had more keys, and the clarinet was becoming a regular part of the orchestra, so a completely different set of instruments are needed, and what we’ll have in November is an orchestra that illustrates another step in the evolution towards the familiar modern orchestral instruments.
The text Haydn used for Creation has an interesting and convoluted history: it’s often performed in his original German version, but we’ll be singing in English, in an edition based on an original text that Haydn then had translated into German. He always intended it to be performed in either language, having taken his original inspiration for the oratorio from Handel’s “Messiah”. We don’t know exactly who wrote the original English text and while parts of it come straight from the King James Bible, there are more colourful passages that bring to mind John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, such as furious the chorus about the rebellious devils being hurled out of heaven, or the quirky descriptions of the animals, my favourite being the “flexible tiger”. Haydn’s music may fit the German version better, but the slightly eccentric English is so much more fun.
This year, we’ve joined forces with Samling, who support young singers at various stages of their careers, and our five soloists have all benefited from their work. Samling Artist Bradley Travis, sings the biggest solo role, that of the angel Raphael and four younger soloists sing the parts of the other two angels (Clare Tunney and Hugo Hymas), and Adam and Eve (James Quitmann and Ana Fernandez Guerra). Clare and Ana have both sung in the Samling Academy opera performances in Sage Gateshead, whilst James and Hugo have been regular members of Durham University performances. Clare, Hugo and James joined us at a day long rehearsal and workshop last week, and while we got to grips with the demands of Haydn’s choruses, we were also given a taste of the incredible talent, dedication and professionalism of these young singers.
The most famous part of Creation is the chorus “The Heavens are Telling”: it’s often sung by church choirs, and it’s one of the first pieces I remember singing as a child, so I’m very excited by the work that Clare, and our Musical Director Julian Wright, have been doing with a number of local primary schools. Clare visited the schools, talked to the children about her life as a student opera singer, and sang to them, and the children have been creating artwork inspired by Haydn’s music. They’ve also been learning “The Heavens are Telling” and during our afternoon rehearsal, they’ll be joining us, our orchestra and soloists, to sing along to this most famous of choruses. If you’re not able to come to the evening concert, or if you’re not sure whether it’s your thing, just drop in to the cathedral at any time during the afternoon and listen for a bit.
After its scary, chaotic beginning, Creation ends with the ordered beauty of the Garden of Eden, as Adam and Eve sing rapturous love duets to each other and explore the wonders around them. But the final, joyful chorus, full of Alleluias, is tinged by a sinister note, when Raphael makes one last appearance to remind us that our human weaknesses mean there cannot really be a happy ending, a touch of detail that makes Creation more than just a series of cartoon pictures.
Photographer – Gavin Engelbrecht (taken during rehearsals)
I've always enjoyed writing, and I fell into reviewing about five years ago when the classical music website Bachtrack happened to be looking for someone to cover a concert in Durham. Since then, I've written regularly for Bachtrack, the Northern Echo, NE:MM and in 2013 I founded Music in Durham, a concert listing and review site for classical music in Durham. My greatest love is baroque music, particularly Handel.
When I'm not writing, playing, singing or running Durham Singers' publicity, I have a day job in international sales, and in 2012 I wrote and published a book about my favourite Russian author, called "Dostoevsky's Russians".
Latest posts by Jane Shuttleworth (see all)
- FEATURE: Lars Vogt - January 1, 2016
- PREVIEW: Haydn: The Creation – The Durham Singers – Durham Cathedral – 21-11-15 - October 16, 2015
- Anacréon – Orchestra of The Age of Enlightenment - September 14, 2015