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Commentary

Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1792) [Source: Wikipedia]
28 Dec 2011

The English Oratorio: A Celebration (Barbican Hall, London)

When we think of the ‘English oratorio’, the composer whose name most readily comes to mind is George Frideric Handel, the ‘adopted’ Englishman who in the first half of the eighteenth-century both anticipated and dictated English musical and theatrical taste.

The English Oratorio: A Celebration (Barbican Hall, London)

Click here for details regarding forthcoming performances

Above: Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1792) [Source: Wikipedia]

 

Inspired by imaginative genius and, at times, financial necessity, Handel created musical forms, including the English-language oratorio, which have remained at the heart of English musical life ever since. His works garnered extraordinary acclaim in his own day, and continued to exert an enormous influence on the musical history of his chosen country of residence long after his death,

In the 1730s and 1740s, as London audiences’ fickle taste for Italianate opera seria waned, and wearied by the continual political intrigues of the capital’s theatrical life, Handel turned his attention to another creative outlet and source of income; realising the possibilities offered by large un-staged dramatic works, by the 1740s the oratorio had completely replaced opera in his output.

Skilfully combining elements taken from Italian opera and oratorio, the English anthem and other genres, Handel produced a uniquely ‘English’ musico-dramatic form, one which has since inspired many composers, both native and foreign. The Barbican Hall’s six-month series celebrating the English oratorio continues in 2012 with a varied array of works of contrasting styles and intent, performed by illustrious English orchestras, conductors and soloists.

Today, compared with the box office popularity of Mozart and Beethoven, it is common to dismiss Haydn as — to coin Charles Rosen phrase — a ‘connoisseurs’ composer’, but, as Rosen points out, to do so is to overlook Haydn’s enormous popular success during the 1790s, a decade which witnessed an immense outburst of musical creativity in a deliberately popular style.

It is to this decade that both of Haydn’s major oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, belong. The latter’s numerous allusions to Haydn’s ‘back catalogue’ — such as the quotation from that perennial audience favourite, the Surprise Symphony, in the fourth number — reveal the composer’s shrewd commercial and musical instincts.

The Seasons sets texts by the early Romantic nature poet, James Thompson, poems which enable the composer to indulge in his beloved pastoral idiom. The work is characterised by wonderfully evocative tone-painting which explicitly points the sentiments of the text with particularity and dramatic inventiveness; surprising modulations and unexpected dynamic accents provide deliberately theatrical flourishes.

As the title suggests, the oratorio depicts the passing of the year, but it is more than a pictorial portrait; Haydn’s musical idiom, at times surprisingly simple, even naïve, expresses not only his wonder at the beauty of the natural world, but also reveals a sincere exploration and depiction of man’s relationship to Nature. It is a true coup de théâtre, presenting before us the entire universe as Haydn and his contemporaries new it.

Following his recent award-winning recording of Haydn’s other late oratorio, The Creation, conductor Paul McCreesh now leads some of the same performers, including his renowned period ensemble the Gabrieli Consort, in a performance of this work of infinite beauty, grace and insight.

The son of an aristocratic family of assimilated Jews, Mendelssohn was baptised and raised as a Protestant and lived as a devout Christian. His preoccupation with works of a religious nature was thus a natural outgrowth of his faith; but, when his interests in the Baroque oratorio tradition and, more particularly, in the revival of the Passions of J.S. Bach combined with nineteenth-century taste for theatrical melodrama, the result was a thrilling Biblical epic, Elijah.

Though compositional sketching commenced in 1837-8, the oratorio might, like Mendelssohn’s third oratorio, Christus, have remained unfinished had it not been for a contract in September 1845 from the Committee of the Birmingham Music Festival to conduct the 1846 Festival, which offered him the opportunity to present a major new composition.

According to one eye witness, the work was finished only 9 days before the Festival. Premiered on 26 August, by an orchestra of 125 players and a chorus comprising 271 singers, it was a sensational success: audiences demanded that four arias and four choruses be immediately repeated. Mendelssohn himself was clearly overwhelmed by the occasion, later recording: “A young English tenor [Charles Lockey] sang the last aria so beautifully I was obliged to exercise great self-control in order not to be affected, and to beat time steadily.”

Andreas Delf will conduct the Britten Sinfonia and Chorus in a performance show-casing some of the finest contemporary British voices: joining experienced baritone Simon Keenlyside and alto Catherine Wyn-Rogers are young singers at their forefront of a new generation of acclaimed performers, soprano Lucy Crowe and tenor Andrew Kennedy.

It was the first performance of Tippett’s A Child of our Time, on 19th March 1944, in a concert promoted by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the London Region Civil Defence and Morley College Choirs — conducted by William Goehr, with soloists Joan Cross, Margaret McArthur, Peter Pears and Rogerick Lloyd –that brought Michael Tippett’s name before a wider public.

Tippett’s oratorio characteristically embodies a considered philosophy of music’s nature and function. In November 1938 Herschel Grynsbaum, a 17-year Polish Jew, assassinated a minor Nazi diplomat in retaliation for the persecution of his parents; the boy was imprisoned and disappeared, and the Nazis retaliated with a savage pogrom. Initially Tippett asked T.S. Eliot to write the libretto, but the poet suggested that as his own response might be too obviously ‘poetic’, the composer might be better advised to produce his own text. Tippett’s emotional response to Grynsbaum’s fate, and to that of all European Jews in the ensuing war, was typical in its desire to express both the horror of man’s inhumanity to man and the assurance of compassion and peace — the light and shadow within us all.

The three-part form of the oratorio was modelled on Handel’s Messiah, but the masterstroke was the inclusion of Negro Spirituals at crucial emotional and dramatic highpoints. Tippett thereby created for himself the problem of integrating the language of these spirituals with his own style, one of highly sophisticated European sensibility; he reduced the spirituals to a simple minor triad with added 7th, using them as an imaginative substitute for the Lutheran chorale, and based his own music on this core triad, thereby overcoming the apparent incompatibility of styles. There is not merely juxtaposition but true integration, as taught musical arguments combine with naturally expansive lyricism. Thus, in ‘Nobody knows’, the opening, immediately recognisable melodic quotation is treated contrapuntally and with the irregular accentuation that is consistent with Tippett’s own musical language. Similarly, the alto solo ‘The soul of man’ is derived melodically and rhythmically from the spiritual, but is also distinctively personal particularly with regard to the natural declamation of the text.

Tippett’s work explores elemental questions which retain their power to urge us to reflect on the relationship between individual human actions and universal catastrophes. At the Barbican Hall in March, Sir Andrew Davis conducts the BBC Symphony and Chorus, in a performance of this great work, which has been described as “an impassioned protest against the conditions which make persecution possible”.

Setting a poem by Cardinal Newman, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius depicts an ordinary man on the point of death, facing his judgement before God. Elgar found in Newman’s poetry a subject of both private and universal significance: Gerontius’s predicament touched the composer’s own anxieties, and these doubts ring through the painful chromaticism of Part 1 as forcefully as the vision of eternity offered in the more affirmative Part 2.

Derived from a close network of musical motifs, the music is shaped in wide arches and moves swiftly and dramatically through the text, the harmonies changing rapidly as the orchestra shares the expressive responsibility with the choral voices.

Widely considered one of the composer’s greatest works, The Dream of Gerontius was, like Mendelssohn’s Elijah, commissioned by Birmingham Music Festival, and it was first performed at Birmingham Town Hall. It is thus fitting that in April Andris Nelson will conduct the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and soloists Toby Spence, Sarah Connolly and James Rutherford in a performance of this deeply moving work, which combines religious fervour with human passion.

It might be argued that Handel’s Messiah has influenced British musical life more than any other single composition; Handel’s feeling for the English language was perhaps as fine as that of Shakespeare, and it was this musical power of expression to which the composers who followed in his footsteps aspired. In so doing, they created a musical and dramatic heritage which is gloriously celebrated in this exciting series at the Barbican Hall.

Claire Seymour


Haydn: The Seasons

14 January 2012

Gabrieli Consort & Players
Paul McCreesh conductor
Christiane Karg soprano
Allan Clayton tenor
Christopher Purves baritone

Click here for additional information.


Mendelssohn: Elijah

7 March 2012

Britten Sinfonia and Britten Sinfonia Voices
Andreas Delfs conductor
Simon Keenlyside baritone
Catherine Wyn-Rogers mezzo-soprano
Lucy Crowe soprano
Andrew Kennedy tenor

Click here for additional information.


Tippett: A Child of Our Time

Hugh Wood: Violin Concerto No 2 (London premiere)

23 March 2012

BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus
Sir Andrew Davis conductor
Nicole Cabell soprano
Karen Cargill mezzo-soprano
Toby Spence tenor
Matthew Rose bass
Anthony Marwood violin

Click here for additional information.


Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius

14 April 2012

City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and CBSO Chorus
Andris Nelsons conductor
Sarah Connolly mezzo-soprano
Toby Spence tenor
James Rutherford bass-baritone

Click here for additional information.

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