Monday, April 11, 2011

Haydn's "Creation" at the Philharmonia Baroque

The music of the 18th century Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is some of the best company imaginable. The composer conveys a singular mixture of sanity and humor, two virtues that tend to go hand in hand, while still being endlessly inventive.

He was a gifted poor boy sent off for a musical education at the age of six, where he spent a lot of time starving. He then became a musical freelancer as a young man where he also spent a lot of time wondering where the next meal was coming from. This all changed when he became music director for Count Morzin in 1760, and then for the fabulously wealthy Esterhazy family where he spent the next thirty years in palaces out in the Austro-Hungarian provinces. As the Wikipedia entry puts it, "Isolated from other composers and trends in music until the later part of his long life, he was, as he put it, "forced to become original."

Upon the death of his patron Prince Nikolaus in 1790, Haydn had a fabulous late career for twenty years, writing music for rich Londoners who worshiped him as did a large public in Vienna. He wrote his final symphonies and string quartets, two forms he essentially invented in their modern form, along with two huge Handel style oratorios, "The Creation" and "The Seasons."

This last weekend, "The Creation" was performed by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra led by the conductor Nicholas McGegan (above right) with eighteenth-century instruments and historically informed performance practices. The result was great. I heard this piece played by the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Helmuth Rilling ten years ago, and that performance was so ponderous and solemn I did not make it past Part One of Three.

Last Friday night at Herbst Theatre, the first of five performances around the Bay Area, was a wonderful antidote, filled with liveliness, humor and sheer beauty. I wasn't crazy about the sound of the soprano soloist above right, Dominique Labelle (a completely subjective opinion that wasn't shared by most), and thought baritone Philip Cutlip (above middle) was a little underpowered, but it didn't matter because they were more than adequate, and the orchestra and the chorus led by Bruce Lamott (above left) were superb.

Best of all, the tenor soloist Thomas Cooley above was sensationally good, and you could follow just about every English word he sang without looking at the program.

The oratorio, by the way, was written bilingually in English and German taken from big chunks of the King James Bible version of Genesis and Psalms, along with bits from Milton. We are given the Six Days In The Beginning and then Part Three is the sex and love music of Adam and Eve. As my friend Charlie above put it, "this sounds like pure Mozart Papageno/Papapagena from 'The Magic Flute'," an observation seconded by Axel Feldheim.

Again, according to the Wikipedia entry, "In 1760, with the security of a Kapellmeister position, Haydn married. His wife was the former Maria Anna Aloysia Apollonia Keller (1729–1800), the sister of Therese (b. 1733), with whom Haydn had previously been in love. Haydn and his wife had a completely unhappy marriage, from which the laws of the time permitted them no escape; and they produced no children. Both took lovers."

From the evidence of Part Three of "The Creation," not to mention the historical record, Haydn managed to enjoy himself sensually quite happily over a long life. You can hear it in the music.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Typo alert: 1790 rather than 1890!

Civic Center said...

Dear Lisa: Grazie.

Bill Hawthorne said...

Dear CiviC Center,

My name is Bill Hawthorne and I am a political blogger. Just had a question about your blog and couldn’t find an email—please get back to me as soon as you can (barbaraobrien(at)


Civic Center said...

Dear Bill: You can find an email address under "My Complete Profile" at the top right of this blog. I've also sent you an email.