Harry Christophers discusses the act of creation.
What do you think is the enduring popularity of Haydn’s Creation?
It is quite simply one of the happiest and most joyful works ever written – performers and listeners smile from beginning to end. Like Handel’s Messiah (and of course The Creation continues the same genre), it maintained its popularity right from its premiere. Its success was immediate and that is down to the way Haydn captures one’s imagination. His pictorial writing inspires the listener to conjure up images of the creation of the world – Haydn gives us everything, wonderful solo writing, daring orchestration and vibrant choruses.
The composer isn’t always thought of as revolutionary but Beethoven certainly envied this achievement. How much of a game-changer do you find the work?
Isn’t it strange that Haydn has come down to us as very much the grandfather of music and to many that conjures up an old fashioned person. He was, in fact, a ground-breaker and indeed set benchmarks for successive generations of composers. He revolutionised the symphony – he introduced clarinets into his Symphony No 99 and in The Creation he utilises the “harmonie” (the wind band) to virtuosic effect. You need only listen to the orchestral rendition of Chaos which opens the whole work – it’s daring and contemporary by any standard. Yes, he uses old style forms of recitative, aria, and chorus but binds them together in a new and vibrant way. But everything comes down to the way he represents nature. Haydn went for a walk every day, weather permitting, noting down as he wandered any musical ideas that came to him – he said he preferred “to look for my ideas on the street and in the midst of nature. Sometimes I copy a tree, a bird or a cloud”. Well he describes everything brilliantly but always with drama, love and a definite twinkle in his eye.
Do you prefer The Creation in German or English and what are the advantages of one or the other?
Up to now I have always performed The Creation in German – the vocal lines suit it better as one would expect from someone writing in their native tongue. Performing it in English produces numerous problems – we don’t know who was responsible for the original text (it may have been one intended for Handel) – it has been translated into German and back into English and any performance in English is going to be a compromise of sorts. Some of the English is very archaic, but I remember talking a German singer about the German version and he said that actually the German is also archaic and quite odd at times. But the language is so descriptive that, quite frankly, it brings out the best in both and I have to confess I really enjoyed the process of performing it in English and making some judicious decisions with the soloists – it was a team effort! Suffice it to say that the work was published bilingually in 1800 and it is believed that Haydn himself preferred the English language to be used when performing in English-speaking countries.
I’ve not heard as dynamic or dramatic reading of the score before. Did you consciously set out to realise it this way?
You are very kind. But the story of The Creation is pretty dramatic isn’t it? It’s all there in the score – Haydn has done it all for me and I am simply responding to this wonderful libretto. It is all about the pacing just as it is in any Handel oratorio. People have often mentioned to me that Haydn outstays his welcome in the Adam and Eve duet (Graceful consort) – he certainly does not if you feel the ebb and flow and cumulative energy of the movement. You have to keep looking forward and have in the back of your mind how you are going to reach that final chorus of praise – it has to be exhilarating for everyone concerned. But I was blessed with a trio of text driven soloists and an orchestra and chorus responsive to every little bit of detail.
There are so many enjoyable moments but could you pick a few of your favourites?
There are simply too many but I know you are going to push me on this. I love conducting the trio in Part II Most beautiful appear, which leads into the crazy chorus The Lord is great where the trio of soloists battle it out in exultant glory. And I love to just sit back and listen to Adam and Eve’s dialogue in the inspired recitative which opens Scene III of the final part (Our duty we have now performed) and I actually don’t believe I will ever hear it better performed with the sensitive continuo playing of Guy Fishman’s cello and Ian Watson’s fortepiano.