Haydn’s The Creation: The Sistine Chapel of Music

Joseph Haydn as painted by Thomas Hardy in 1791.

Joseph Haydn as painted by Thomas Hardy in 1791.

On September 29 and October 1 & 2, 2016, the Houston Symphony performs Haydn’s masterpiece, The Creation. Learn more about the concert here.

When it comes to grand choral works from the classical era, most symphony fans will immediately think of Mozart’s Requiem. Full of darkness, terror and passages of transcendent beauty, this is one of the few pieces of classical music that has become famous enough to crop up in mainstream pop culture every so often. While Mozart’s final, unfinished masterpiece certainly deserves its fame, it has perhaps overshadowed another great choral piece of the same era that in many respects is its polar opposite and equal: Haydn’s The Creation.

Like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Haydn's The Creation tells the story of the creation of the world as depicted in Genesis.

Like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Haydn’s The Creation tells the story of the creation of the world as depicted in Genesis.

Whereas Mozart’s Requiem is a pessimistic work focused on death and the end of the world, Haydn’s The Creation provides listeners with a radiant vision of the Genesis creation story similar to that depicted in Michelangelo’s frescoes for the Sistine Chapel. Mozart’s Requiem is music of darkness; Haydn’s The Creation, of light. Indeed, one of the most famous moments of Haydn’s The Creation is when the chorus says, “and there was light.”

Haydn finished The Creation in 1798, nearly seven years after his friend Mozart’s death. Despite their age difference (Haydn was almost 24 years older than Mozart), the two composers had been lifelong friends who frequently took inspiration from each other’s music. They would often gather with other friends to play chamber music in Mozart’s apartment in Vienna, Mozart on viola and Haydn on violin. Mozart famously honored Haydn by dedicating a set of six groundbreaking string quartets to his avuncular musical mentor, writing “A father [Mozart] who had resolved to send his children [the string quartets] out into the great world took it to be his duty to confide them to the protection and guidance of a very celebrated Man, especially when the latter by good fortune was at the same time his best Friend.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Haydn's longtime friend.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Haydn’s longtime friend.

Mozart may have even played a role in inspiring Haydn to compose The Creation. In 1789, Mozart produced a version of Handel’s Messiah with updated orchestrations. This may have been Haydn’s first exposure to Handel’s famous oratorio, which had been premiered in Dublin decades earlier and was still relatively unknown outside Britain. He certainly heard it and other oratorios by Handel during the celebrated trips to London he took after Mozart’s untimely death.

Handel defined the genre of oratorio for all composers who came after him. Oratorios were grand works for chorus, soloists and orchestra that told biblical stories through music. Haydn was greatly moved by Handel’s Messiah, and was determined to make his own contribution to the genre of oratorio. Any music lover who has enjoyed Handel’s Messiah will be delighted by Haydn’s The Creation; perhaps the main reason it is less famous is that The Creation has not been incorporated into any annual holiday tradition.

Haydn was a devoutly religious man; at the end of every score he finished he wrote “Laus Deo,” Latin for “praise be to God.” He himself saw The Creation as his greatest masterpiece, as the culmination of his life’s work as a composer. His depiction of the creation of the world, however, reflects the scriptural interpretations of contemporary Enlightenment era culture. Whatever one’s religious beliefs (or lack thereof), Haydn’s The Creation engages with fascinating philosophical ideas that remain as relevant as ever.

The Austrian Imperial Library, where Baron Gottfried van Swieten worked.

The Austrian Imperial Library, where Baron Gottfried van Swieten worked.

Many of these ideas are apparent in the text of The Creation. Unlike Mozart’s Requiem, which uses a traditional Latin text, or Handel’s Messiah, which draws directly from the Bible, Haydn’s The Creation uses an original text inspired by both the Bible and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The ultimate form of this text was fashioned by one of classical music’s most important patrons: Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Swieten was one of the great taste makers in music history; a patron of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, he was also a pioneering champion of earlier composers like Handel and Bach. Indeed, it was he who commissioned Mozart’s version of Handel’s Messiah. A learned man who fought for education reform and served as Imperial Librarian for many years, Swieten worked closely with Haydn on The Creation, drawing on many cultural influences current at the time.

Consider, for instance, that The Creation does not start with a void of nothingness. Instead, it draws on classical Greco-Roman mythology, beginning with a depiction of Chaos to which God will bring order. This primordial chaos is depicted in the famous instrumental overture, which contains bold and unsettling harmonies that many commentators have seen as ahead of their time.

This uneasy, even disturbing atmosphere is only resolved with the entrance of human voices and the famous “and there was light” chorus. Though it is on the whole a profoundly optimistic work, Haydn’s The Creation isn’t just sunshine and smiles the whole way through: it contains the full spectrum of human emotions. For instance, one dramatic chorus inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost describes the great war of heaven and the casting of Lucifer and the fallen angels into hell.

The Age of Enlightenment also saw increased interest in science and philosophy across Europe; many thinkers were fascinated by the study of nature and how it could help human society. The French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, for instance, famously argued that nature was fundamentally good and that human society needed to be reformed in accordance with natural law.

The Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel.

In this context, the Edenic paradise depicted in Haydn’s The Creation isn’t just a look back at a world that has been lost forever, but a reminder of the possibility humans have of living in harmony with nature. Haydn’s The Creation ends before the unfortunate business with the snake and the forbidden fruit. Instead, The Creation focuses on the wonder and beauty of the natural world, insisting that despite the problems of society, the world is fundamentally good, if only we strive to perfect ourselves and live in harmony with nature.

Today, in an era where the natural world is constantly under threat and violence frequently ravages communities both near and far, Haydn’s message of hope could not be timelier. Ultimately, however, it is the emotional power of his score that makes this one of the great masterpieces of music history. After a long career of composing over a hundred symphonies, dozens of string quartets, numerous operas, masses, concertos, sonatas and other pieces, Haydn knew the art of music as well as anyone ever had.

He poured all of his skill into this, the most ambitious project of his life. The music’s melodic inventiveness, originality and contrapuntal richness are dazzling; the orchestral writing is full of wit and color; the choruses full of grandeur and majesty; and the vocal solos truly soar. In the end, all of this musical genius serves to create a feeling of joy and optimism in listeners. Like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, it reminds us of the power of art to renew our appreciation of the world in which we live.

Hear Haydn’s The Creation live at the Houston Symphony! For tickets and more information, click here.

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The Future of Orchestral Music is Now

Victor Agudelo

Victor Agudelo, one of the winners of the Houston Symphony Young Composer Competition. 

Have you ever wondered what it takes to be a composer? Picture a blank manuscript page, whether on a computer screen or old-fashioned paper, with endless sets of five lines marching across the page…empty. Now imagine filling that space with notations that define sounds, melodies, harmonies, dissonances and instrumental effects.

You must make thousands of decisions: Which instruments play when? How long is a note? How loud should it be played? How many instruments play at the same time? Will this music be fast and driving with spiky harmonies, or will it be lyrical and melodic? Will it use familiar harmonies, or will it explore new sound combinations? Is an instrument even capable of making the music you’ve written for it? Can a musician play that fast or will she end up in a twisted and tortured pile of flesh? Is there a story to the music, or is it a pure exercise in sound?

Imagine you are responsible for providing all of this musical information to 90 musicians in an orchestra, and somehow it all has to make sonic sense. Sounds pretty intimidating, right? Now you can begin to imagine the task of a composer writing for an orchestra.

Success as a composer definitely requires skill, talent, imagination, a point of view and perseverance. Then there are the factors of opportunity and luck. At least one of these factors—opportunity—is being provided by Music Director Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Houston Symphony during the first Classical subscription concerts of this season.

Benjamin Krause

Benjamin Krause, Co-winner of the Houston Symphony Young Composer Competition

After sifting through 51 outstanding scores submitted by 40 composers associated with five universities in Houston, Bogotá and Medellín, Musical Ambassador/Assistant Conductor Carlos Andrés Botero and Senior Artistic Advisor Aurelie Desmarais selected four finalists. Andrés Orozco-Estrada then chose the two winning compositions: Pathways by Benjamin Krause (Shepherd School of Music, Rice University) and El Sombrerón by Victor Agudelo (Universidad EAFIT).

The composers will each have these works performed on the first half of the opening Classical series program on September 23, 24 and 25, 2016. The second half of the program is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1—impressive company for these young composers, if a bit daunting.

“I wanted to give a chance to young composers who have been studying and working very hard to have their music performed,” says Andrés. “One of the most important things for composers is to have their music played for as many people as many times as is possible. For the Houston Symphony’s Young Composer Competition, I chose to concentrate on supporting and rewarding the work of composers in three cities that have been very
important in my musical life: Medellín, Bogotá and Houston.”

Emerging composers from five music schools in these three cities, who are currently studying or have recently completed their studies, were invited to submit scores for consideration. The schools are Pontificia Universidad Javeriana and Universidad
Nacional in Bogotá, Colombia; Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia; and, in Houston, Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and University of Houston’s Moores School of Music. The compositions would be between six and 12 minutes in length and
make use of an orchestra no larger than is being used for Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.

Carlos Andrés Botero, who combed through thescores with Aurelie Desmarais, comments, “We were looking for pieces that are well-composed for the orchestra and have a point of view. As a young composer, you can concentrate so much on technique that the music sounds too academic. You can also be greatly influenced by music of other composers to the point your music sounds like theirs. We wanted to discover a composer who is developing his or her own voice—someone who writes original music with something fresh to say.”

Both composers will attend rehearsals as well as performances of their pieces in September. They will each receive a composition encouragement prize of $5,000 and, if the sheet music of their piece hasn’t been professionally printed, they will receive a full set of orchestra parts.

Aurelie, who works closely with the Symphony’s music director to select guest conductors, guest artists and repertoire for the Classical season, believes in the importance of performing music of today. “It’s wonderful to hear music written in this century. That it is influenced by what is happening in today’s culture can be very energizing. More and more, audiences are searching for genuine musical experiences that are relevant to them, whether the music was written in the last decade or 128 years ago, as was Mahler’s Symphony No. 1.”

Andrés will speak with both composers during the performances to learn about them and their hopes for the music the audience will hear. Although both pieces have been performed by orchestras, this will be the first time the Houston Symphony and Andrés will turn their artistry to this music. This is all in the hopes of discovering and supporting orchestral repertoire for the future. Perhaps the Houston Symphony is playing the music of the next great composer. After all, even John Adams, Igor Stravinsky and Gustav Mahler were at one time in the position of these young composers.

Join us at Jones Hall to venture into the future of orchestral music, courtesy of the winners of the first Houston Symphony Young Composer Competition, September 23, 24, 25, 2016.


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Cushney Roberts Tells the Story of Motown

Spectrum will appear with the Houston Symphony as part of our The Men of Motown concert this July at Jones Hall.

Spectrum will appear with the Houston Symphony as part of our The Men of Motown concert this July at Jones Hall.

On July 16, the Houston Symphony presents The Men of Motown Featuring Spectrum, a concert celebrating the rich musical legacy of some of Motown’s greatest artists. Headlining the concert will be the vocal ensemble Spectrum, one of the best Motown-style ensembles around. Spectrum vocalist Cushney Roberts took some time to share a bit of the remarkable history behind this music.

Well into the 1950s, music recordings by American black artists were classified as “race” records and were typically forbidden or severely restricted from radio airplay on “white” stations. Many of the songs were rerecorded, or covered, by white artists who often prospered from broader airplay and sales while the original artists struggled. Perhaps most notably, songs by Fats Domino and Little Richard were covered by Pat Boone (“Ain’t That a Shame,” “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally”); Big Momma Thornton’s “Hound Dog” was covered by Elvis Presley; and The Beatles covered Chuck Berry, the Marvelettes and Little Richard with “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Please Mr. Postman” and “Long Tall Sally,” respectively.

Since airwaves cannot be controlled, white audiences first heard these “forbidden” tunes on black-oriented radio programs. The demand grew, and white-orientated stations were pressured into playing recordings by the black artists. The “crossovers” moved into an arena where a larger, more lucrative audience awaited.

Spectrum I RCCL WR promo 2

“Groomed at Motown’s finishing school, well-mannered young black performers thrilled audiences with their flashy, yet classy, costumes and exquisite choreography.”

Paralleling the era of segregation in the 1950s and ’60s, Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, named for Detroit: Motor City. He envisioned a style and presentation of music that would capture the attention of all of America’s youth. By tapping into a deep pool of talented young performers, writers, musicians and producers, he mined great songs and presented them to an eager public. Groomed at Motown’s finishing school, well-mannered young black performers thrilled audiences with their flashy, yet classy, costumes and exquisite choreography.

Once on the airwaves, the music took root, and the cornerstone of the soundtrack of the 1960s and ’70s Vietnam and Civil Rights era found its place in American history. The Motown sound shared top rankings on the American pop charts with America’s British Invasion, while it made its mark on Britain and beyond. Gordy’s acts made regular appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and numerous TV specials.

An American institution and unique musical and entrepreneurial phenomenon, Motown stands as a shining example of a merger of American ingenuity and talent.

–Cushney Roberts

Don’t miss Cushney Roberts and Spectrum perform the Music of Motown at our concert on July 16! Click here for tickets and more information.

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Ima Hogg Competition Finalists Announced!

After many amazing performances at the Semifinal round today, our judges have after much deliberation decided on four finalists for the 2016 Ima Hogg Competition. We present them to you in alphabetical order:

Samuel Chan, marimba

Samuel Chan, marimba

Samuel Chan, marimba – Koppel Marimba Concerto No. 1

This 22-year-old marimba player is a graduate of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts (HKAPA) and New England Conservatory and currently attends The Juilliard School in pursuit of a Master of Music degree. Click here to learn more about Samuel Chan.

Luke Hsu, violin

Luke Hsu, violin

Luke Hsu, violin – Mendelssohn Violin Concerto

This violinist is currently a candidate for the prestigious AD program at the Royal Academy of Music in London, studying with Rodney Friend. Click here to learn more about Luke Hsu.

Christine Lee, cello

Christine Lee, cello

Christine Lee, cello – Schumann Cello Concerto

This 24-year-old cellist is a recent Master of Music graduate of The Juilliard School and an artist-in-residence at Queen Elisabeth Chapelle Musicale for the 2015-16 season. Click here to learn more about Christine Lee.

Brian Lin, piano – Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1

Brian Lin, piano

Brian Lin, piano

This 24-year-old pianist received his bachelor’s degree from The Juilliard School in 2014, where he is currently pursuing his master’s degree with Joseph Kalichstein and Yoheved Kaplinsky. Click here to learn more about Brian Lin.

See these talented young musicians compete for first prize and the $25,000 Grace Woodson Memorial Award Saturday at 7:00 pm at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music. Click here for tickets and more information.

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Meet Stephanie Zyzak: 2016 Ima Hogg Competition Semi-finalist

Stephanie Zyzak, violin

Stephanie Zyzak, violin

Meet Ima Hogg Competition Semi-finalist Stephanie Zyzak! This talented 22-year-old violinist currently studies with Miriam Fried at New England Conservatory. We recently got a chance to ask Stephanie a few questions about herself and her musical life.

Houston Symphony: Where did you grow up and how did that community affect whom you have become?

Stephanie Zyzak: I moved around a lot when I was young, and I think all the different communities and people I met gave me a well-rounded perspective on music and life.

HS: Are there other musical people in your family?

SZ: My brother and I are the only musical people in my family (he plays the cello). Both my parents are scientists and have always been supportive of our music. They always try to relate to music in their own scientific way, but sometimes they just pretend to understand 😉

HS: At what age did you begin playing your instrument and what memories do you have of your first rehearsals or performances?

"The first performance I remember happened at the Aspen Music Festival when I was around seven years old."

“The first performance I remember happened at the Aspen Music Festival when I was around seven years old.”

SZ: I was four years old. The first performance I remember happened at the Aspen Music Festival when I was around seven years old. Performing there gave me an amazing feeling, although I don’t remember how I played…hopefully it was okay!

HS: What has been the most exciting event for you in your musical career?

SZ: Always traveling to different places and meeting and performing for many people.

HS: Do you have any pre-performance habits or rituals?

SZ: I like to take a nap, read the news, and listen to music.

HS: Who are some of your most profound influences and what is the impact they have had on you?

SZ: Definitely my parents. Even though they aren’t musicians, their perspective on music gives me knowledge on how to connect with audiences that may not know that much about music.

Joshua Bell, violin

Joshua Bell, violin

HS: Who is the most famous person you have met or worked with?

SZ: Joshua Bell.

HS: What are the “top five” pieces or songs on your playlist or iPod?

SZ: Usually pieces I’m playing at the moment or works I want to play next. I like to listen to a lot of chamber music as well.

HS: Do you have any favorite TV shows?

SZ: Anything on Netflix or Hulu.

HS: Do you have any favorite sports teams?

SZ: The New England Patriots and the Boston Red Sox.

HS: Do you have any favorite kinds of food?

SZ: Korean, Pizza (any Italian), Chinese or a really good burger.

HS: Do you have any favorite cities or travel destinations?

SZ: North Carolina, Chicago, Boston or New York.

HS: Do you have any hobbies or interests outside of music?

SZ: Is eating a hobby? Cooking isn’t really a strength of mine so I turned to eating.

See Stephanie Zyzak perform for FREE at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music on Thursday, June 2. And don’t forget to get tickets to the Finals Concert!

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