“I was never so devout as during the time that I was working on The Creation,” mused Joseph Haydn. “Every day I fell to my knees and prayed to God to grant me the strength for a happy completion of this work.” Haydn might have been disappointed to learn, however, that religious conservatives of his time considered new music – anything composed after Palestrina – to be profane. His great oratorio, in their minds, would have been oratorio a non orando: prayerful music during which no one prays. It was too sensual, theatrical, and operatic; it was banned from places of worship.

None of this seemed to matter by the middle of the 20th century when, in July 1941, citizens of Melbourne attended their first Creation at St Paul’s Cathedral, where the church choir was accompanied by the ABC orchestra under A.E. Floyd. “The soloists were competent and sympathetic,” reported one newspaper. “Dr Floyd brought out the beauty of the music in many charming and brilliant choral effects. A large congregation was privileged to hear the inspired strains of Haydn’s popular oratorio.”

Likewise, a large audience was privileged to hear the inspired strains of Haydn’s popular oratorio on Thursday night, performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra under conductor Sir Andrew Davis, and featuring soprano Siobhan Stagg, tenor Andrew Staples, bass Neal Davis, and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Unlike the congregation at St Paul’s, however, this was presumably not the first Creation for many in the audience at Hamer Hall.

Certainly, Haydn and his oratorio experienced something of a resurgence in the second half of the 20th century. As a new generation of Romantic composers came to the fore in the 19th century, The Creation fell out of fashion. Berlioz once said that he had “always felt a profound antipathy for this work … its lowing oxen, its buzzing insects, its light in C, which dazzles like a Carcel lamp; and then its Adam, Uriel, Gabriel, and the flute solos and all the amiabilities really shrivel me up – they make me want to murder someone.”

By and large, modern listeners have no such qualms or inclinations. Haydn’s Creation is now readily admitted as some of the most life-affirming and gratifying music in the Western canon. Haydn looked to later interpretations of Handel’s oratorios – extravagant affairs with mammoth orchestrations – for inspiration. Rather than waiting for others to stage such performances, Haydn composed The Creation with a broad palette of instrumental colours, directing large orchestral forces in specific, subtle, and powerful ways.

In this regard, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra – playing with great energy and a full sound, especially in the first part – excelled under Sir Andrew’s inspired leadership, who skilfully extracted the nuances and colours of Haydn’s tonal imagery. It is his sublime orchestration that makes the creation of light, for instance, so effective: arguably some of Haydn’s finest writing, the tutti fortissimo C Major bursting through a gloomy fog of unresolved, C minor meanderings was breath-taking. The temptation to tightly-rein the large orchestral forces of The Creation has produced numerous plodding, earthbound performances and recordings. Sir Andrew and the relatively modest numbers of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, on the other hand, offered a spritely and vibrant live concert without becoming unwieldy.

One critic wrote in 1802 that “movement and repose are made to come alive by a magical play of colour on the imagination and by the art of the music; all this is paraded in front of the inner eye like a fine shadow-play, showing us the beauties of paradise, a wonderful garden, or a world newly born.” As with a shadow play or the 18th-century magic lanterns so popular when Haydn was composing, his oratorio is a philosophical entertainment, both educative and awe-inspiring; a series of tonal paintings accompanied with texts from Genesis, Psalms, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Bridging the musical and textual in The Creation was the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus under guest chorusmaster Warren Trevelyan-Jones, which provided rousing performances in the triumphant choruses throughout. A key focus-point of the oratorio is, of course, its archangels Uriel, Gabriel, and Raphael, performed by Staples, Stagg, and Davies respectively. Emerging mezzo-soprano Shakira Tsindos joined the cast for the final chorus. As is tradition, Davis and Stagg also took the roles of Adam and Eve in the third part. All performed convincingly – their duets and trios being the most compelling moments – and breathed life into Paul McCreesh’s revision of librettist Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s infamously chaotic English.

It is easy to start believing after a time that one has heard enough of Haydn’s Creation. Nevertheless, it seems apt that a work of such joy and reverie – composed in a period of war, political turmoil, and rapid scientific and technological advancement – should be performed and relished with abandon at this moment in time.

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra performs Haydn’s The Creation at Arts Centre Melbourne until June 17


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