Saturday, December 01, 2007

Exalted Reigns

Last night I had a wonderful Haydn experience. It was a performance of the whole Seasons with a large chorus, some fine soloists, and a very small orchestra (a viola section of two). I was unable to go to the single rehearsal, but I spent some serious time wrestling with some of the many difficult passages, wondering what some of the more seemingly obtuse harmonic situations would be like with all the voices. I listened only to the "incipits" I found on Amazon, but otherwise knew nothing of what was going to happen. I have played the viola parts in many Haydn quartets and in a few symphonies, but this was was also my very first time playing the viola part (or any part, for that matter) in an orchestra for a Haydn oratorio. I knew my part, and was excited about the experience.

I call this post "Exalted Reigns" because of the passage "He sole on high exalted reigns" from The Creation. "Exalted reigns" is a "term" I use to describe Haydn's glorious choral contrapuntal writing. The Seasons is filled to the brim with exalted reigns. It is also filled with harmonic puzzles: surprising dissonances with even more surprising resolutions. Because I was hearing the piece for the first time, I felt like I was both audience and performer. Because the piece is performed relatively rarely (nobody in the orchestra had ever played it before), I felt myself part of a small community (or viola section, if you will) with members that had a similar ear-opening experience to mine, through the whole of the 19th and 20th centuries, and all over the world. It felt like a piece of "new music" because of its boldness, its invention, and its surprising ability to be conventional and unconventional at the same time. Haydn also manages to put a little Mozart in (some Magic Flute and Figaro), while still sounding like himself. There are hundreds of details I missed the first time: I have to get my hands on a score!

The oratorio is probably performed (in its entirety) so rarely because it is three hours long, and it requires constant playing (and constant attention) on the part of the string section. My section-mate and I split the recitatives (which were played by solo strings): she played the first two seasons, and I played the last two. The person who plays the recitatives plays and concentrates constantly for an hour and a half, so I can understand why she wanted a break.

We took a brief intermission while the conductor changed scores. I told him (meeting him for the first time) that I was really enjoying the performance. He was, of course, tired. Here's part of our exchange:

Me: I guess a year is a long time.
He: That's why I prefer The Creation: it only takes 7 days.

Clever man. Clever composer.

I was physically worn out by the end, but I was emotionally giddy, filled with exalted reigns. After The Seasons, the two Messiahs I'll be playing next week will be a relative piece of cake, but I would love to play more Haydn.


Lisa Hirsch said...

I've sung The Creation and three of Haydn's masses, and his choral music is among my favorite to sing, for the pure pleasure of it, along with Schuetz and Brahms. It is immensely gratifying to sing: it lies well, it's beautiful, he always finds ways to surprise you. FJ Haydn: most underrated composer of all?

Anonymous said...

The conductor's line cries out for a rimshot; I really hope there was a percussionist nearby to deliver one.