Monday, January 9, 2012

Haydn Seasons Concert and Background Information

The Fredericton Choral Society and the Fredericton Chamber Orchestra will be combining forces this spring to present Franz Joseph Haydn's last oratorio, The Seasons. The performance will take place on Sunday, April 29, 2012, at Wilmot United Church in Fredericton. Richard Hornsby, conductor, and Heather Dunham, choirmaster. Soloists include soprano Sally Dibblee, tenor Derrick Paul Miller, and baritone Paul Bustin.

Born in Rohrau, Austria, Haydn (1732-1809) attended St. Stephen's Choir School in Vienna where he learned a great deal about music. His education helped him become one of the leading composers of the Classic period. Haydn was prolific, writing over 100 symphonies, numerous string quartets, string trios and keyboard works, most of them composed while he was employed by the wealthy Prince Esterhazy estate as music director for 30 years.

"Papa Haydn," as he was affectionately known, had a cheerful disposition and the gift of humour. He was known to have pulled a number of clever pranks, and one of these was written into his music. As the story goes, the members of the Esterhazy estate orchestra were working at the prince’s summer palace for some time, and they wanted to go home to their wives. It was Haydn's job to represent the players' interests to the prince. The prince said no, so Haydn wrote a new "Farewell" symphony for him. The symphony ended anti-climactically with the musicians leaving the stage one by one until a single violin and Haydn were left playing the last note. The prince understood, and he allowed the orchestra to return home the next day!

Toward the end of his life Haydn turned his attention to choral music. This was the result of two trips to England where he was particularly influenced and affected by the oratorios of George Frederick Handel. The Creation was Haydn's first oratorio, performed in 1798 with the composer conducting. The work was so popular that librettist Baron Gottfried van Swieten convinced Haydn to write a second oratorio. He suggested using text from the epic poem "The Seasons" by Englishman James Thomson (1700-1748) first published in 1730. Van Swieten translated and adapted the English text to German for Haydn.

Unfortunately, Haydn, now in his late sixties and aging prematurely, was struggling to concentrate when composing. For stretches of time he could not work at all, but he wanted to produce a fresh work that lived up to his own standards.  Setting Van Swieten's libretto to music was an added challenge. The insistent Baron, in attempting to advise Haydn on how to compose the music, tested the composer's patience even more.

But Haydn delivered! He completed The Seasons in about two years, conducting the premiere performance in 1801. Amazingly, The Seasons exhibits none of the weariness or frustration that the composer endured while he was writing it. On the contrary, it is brilliant, joyful, imaginative, and replete with Haydn's well-known skill and sense of humour. The general response was once again one of great enthusiasm, with praise for the "power of expression with which the artist (Haydn) very vividly describes nature in all its guises surpasses description."

Perhaps the greatest marvel about the oratorio is that it provides no evidence of the increasing frailty and exhaustion of its composer. For example, the exuberant sections of "Autumn," that are devoted to the thrill of the hunt and the drinking song that ends it, show such energy and vitality that listeners can find no words to describe it, let alone understand how he could have written this at the end of his life. There is a wonderful liveliness in Haydn's depictions of roosters crowing, frogs croaking, and spinning wheels whirring. Even the abstract concept of diligence in work has been masterfully set to music by this great composer.

Among the achievements portrayed in The Seasons is that Haydn proved he could still perform as expected under difficult circumstances, that he could effectively combine sacred and secular verse, and that he was a progressive composer who was fully prepared for the beckoning Romantic period.

The Seasons will be sung in English. Singers who choose to join in learning and performing this great work with the Fredericton Choral Society will surely be rewarded, as will the orchestra! The Seasons will challenge us, but it is a great new work for us to learn. This joyful oratorio, with its catching and cheerful melodies promises to delight all who participate! And I might add that Haydn's harmonies are not unfamiliar to any of us who have been singing,  playing, and listening to the music of Mozart, Handel, Fauré, and others for years.