Both Daniel Hege and Michael Hanawalt put Joseph Haydn’s “The Creation” in the highest echelon of choral-orchestral works, alongside the likes of Handel’s “Messiah.”
“It is really considered to be one of the ‘big three’ oratorios ever written, alongside Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah,’” said Hanawalt, chorus director for Wichita Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of “Creation” this coming weekend. “You look at those three works at the great triumvirate of choral oratorio literature.”
“It’s one of the real seminal choral-orchestral works in our repertoire,” said Hege, Wichita Symphony conductor and musical director.
Both Hanawalt and Hege consider the piece, believed to be composed in 1797-1798, as groundbreaking.
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“He started to garner a lot more public attention,” Hanawalt said. “It was there that he heard some of Handel’s oratorios, including the ‘Messiah.’ He was extremely moved, and thought his world had been upended by these grand works by Handel. When he was given the libretto to ‘Creation,’ he saw this as an opportunity to further that tradition a little bit.”
Haydn had recently moved to London, Hege said, and was influenced by the composers he heard there.
“It’s almost like modern music for a classical composer,” Hege said. “It’s a very forward-looking work. I think he had great vision, almost a precursor to Beethoven.”
Beethoven indeed studied with Haydn for a short time, Hege added.
“Basically, Beethoven was standing on the shoulders of Haydn, and you can hear it in this music. It’s almost like hearing some early Beethoven,” he said. “It has that kind of power to it.”
The libretto for “Creation” was influenced not only by the book of Genesis, but John Milton’s poem “Paradise Lost,” Hege said.
It’s one of the rare choral pieces that was written simultaneously in German and English, Hege added.
“A lot of people have found that original English version was a little clumsy, because it wasn’t his first language,” he said.
The Wichita Symphony chorus will feature a 20th-century revision of the text, written by Robert Shaw and Alice Parker.
“Creation,” both Hege and Hanawalt say, gets the audience’s attention immediately with its overture.
“The overture is almost like a big bang,” Hege said. “It’s very mystical, about how in the very beginning there’s this moment when the chorus sings, ‘And then there was light.’ It’s very radiant.”
“The opening movement was really revolutionary,” Hanawalt said. “Up until this point, overtures had always been instrumental in their construction and orchestration. Haydn spends a good amount of time trying to fix this chaos before God created the world. You’ve got this fragmented opening with little segments of melodies and things that are difficult to latch onto.
“It’s supposed to be this depiction of a formless void,” he added.
Hanawalt directs a 150-voice chorus, a non-auditioned group of community members who gather for two-hour rehearsals every Thursday night.
“It’s really a thrill to work with them, doing something because they love it,” he said.
“Creation” features three soloists: soprano Cristina Castaldi, a voice instructor at Wichita State, where Hanawalt is director of choral activities; tenor Steven Tharp, a voice instructor at University of Missouri; and bass Tim LeFebvre, a faculty member at Oberlin College in Ohio, who was soloist in WSO’s “Messiah” in 2015.
Hege says Haydn was a genius in the way he constructed “Creation.”
“It unfolds dramatically, kind of like an opera,” he said. “The music tells a story, literally tells a story in the text. And the music tells a story.
“Haydn was a master of knowing how drama should unfold. You can’t have too much slow music and you can’t have too much fast music,” Hege added. “He just keeps the variety going with different keys and different moods and different singers.”
What: With a 150-voice chorus, Wichita Symphony presents epic choral work
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18 and 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 19
Where: Century II Concert Hall, 225 W. Douglas
How much: $20 to $65, available at wichitasymphony.org, by phone at 316-267-7658 or at the symphony box office.