Haydn– The “Musician’s Musician”

Franz Josef Haydn, 1732-1809

I’ve always felt just a little bad for Franz Josef Haydn.  It is impossible to overestimate his influence on composers both in his lifetime and in the century that followed.  Both Mozart and Beethoven considered him a mentor; composers of string quartets, symphonies and oratorios for a hundred years after his death owed him a debt of gratitude.  And oddly enough, although his life was spent in Austria– most of it working for one family, the Esterhazys– he had a massive influence on English choral music.  His two major oratorios, “The Creation” and “The Seasons”, may have been written for audiences in Vienna, but they became huge sensations in England in the 19th century.  “The Creation” in particular was also among the most often-performed oratorios in the United States in the 1800s.

But despite all of this, in the 20th and 21st centuries, this towering master composer has been eclipsed by Bach and Handel before him, and Mozart and Beethoven after him.  This is a shame: the truth is that his music is endlessly inventive, and it runs the emotional gamut from the most moving of slow movements to breathlessly cheerful fast ones.  I have conducted “The Creation” on a number of occasions, and I always end the piece feeling so exhilarated that I would happily start over again from the beginning.

The oratorio is, as the title suggests, a musical depiction of the creation story. The libretto is drawn from three sources: the story of Creation in Genesis; Milton’s Paradise Lost; and the Psalms.  There are three soloists (soprano, tenor and bass) who sing the roles of the archangels Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel.  In the Part III, the soprano and bass become Adam and Eve.

Each “day” ends with the choir singing a song of praise.  This Sunday, we’ll sing the most famous of all those choruses, “The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God”.  You can hear the three archangels in a dialogue with the choir in the first part of the movement, before the choir takes entirely over.

I particularly like this recording because it is conducted by Sir David Willcocks, whose recordings with the King’s College, Cambridge choir made him a towering figure in 20th century choral music.  He died in 2015 at the age of 95.  I was lucky enough to work with him for a week when I was in graduate school; he conducted another Haydn work, the Lord Nelson Mass.  Sir David brought a special wit and joy to Haydn’s music, as you can hear in this recording.  Enjoy!

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