Paul McCreesh

Haydn's The Creation is filled with good humour and a love of life, says Paul McCreesh, who conducts the oratorio at this year's Proms
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As part of this year's Haydn anniversary celebrations at the Proms you're conducting The Creation
At long last Haydn is becoming more popular. People realise he’s one of the indisputably great composers along with Mozart. I think there’s been a slow reassessment of Haydn; the period instrument movement is a help because Haydn is all style. If it’s played badly, it’s interminable, whereas on one level you can get away with playing Mozart badly and it still sounds like good music. There’s always more musical invention in Mozart, Haydn’s greatness lies in his directness. One of the things that moves me in The Creation is that here’s a 60-year-old man looking at the world like a little child again, enjoying the fun of creation – making lions roar and so on. There’s a sheer humour in this piece, a great joy in and love of life. It’s a wonderful achievement for a man in the autumn of his life.

And for this performance you'll be using a new version of the English text that you worked on for your 2008 recording. Why did you want to revise the libretto?
The original text for The Creation was almost certainly English. Haydn took it back to Vienna and had it translated into German and then back-translated into English. Crazy, but that’s what happened. The piece was published in two languages, the first to be so. Some of the translation – which I expect is some of the original – is fine, but some of it is complete gobbledygook. Since the beginning of the 19th century people have tweaked with it but I thought if we’re going to tweak, let’s do a proper revision. We didn’t change it where it worked comfortably but we changed it where it was bad English or not understandable, or didn’t work well with Haydn’s music. There are some howlers! ‘Their flaming looks express what feels the grateful heart,’ is a pretty bad example. Everything’s back to front. Or: ‘The wonder of his works displays the firmament,’ which does not make sense in English. It has to be ‘The firmament displays the wonder of his works’.

It was a real team effort; I worked in great detail with singers to get a really singable translation. It took a couple of years of tweaking and there was many a late-night text saying, ‘I just need a two-syllable word…’. Then we sent the whole thing to Ruth Smith, who’s a great 18th-century scholar – and said, right, if this was presented to you as a piece of 18th-century literature is there anything that’d raise your eyebrows? And she was very sweet and said you’re very good at this, and that there was only one word she’d correct in an 18th-century sense. Now the text is out there on the internet and everyone is free to use it.

Haydn died in 1809, the same year as Darwin was born, which you've described as a 'great irony'…
This is not a fundamentally religious piece. In the 21st century, even if someone is a devout agnostic, you would hope that they'd see the beauty of this piece as an 18th-19th-century view of the world. And what is so extraordinary about it is that it was written just after the industrial revolution, in the dawn of the industrial age, a very few years after the French revolution. Europe was in a time of political change. And one of the reasons I think The Creation was so popular was it reaffirmed the hierarchical society of man being superior to other animals, which I think was written into the psychology of western Europe. There was great comfort in re-viewing the world in this traditional way. So whether one believes in the reality of Biblical creation is neither here nor there. Haydn's Creation is the swansong for the pre-Darwinian age.

Why have you chosen to perform with such large period-instrument forces?
People think that period instruments means small, dainty and beautiful. Even in Haydn and Mozart’s day, large orchestras were relatively common. Part of the reason that we’re used to seeing period orchestras being so small is that no one has any money! So for example when Haydn did performances in Vienna, even though the rooms were quite small, he used triple wind and a big orchestra with 20 first violins and 20 second violins, so that’s the Haydn big band sound. It’s clear there was quite a lot of flexibility in the way the orchestra was used. The score is already amazing inventive, and this adds another level of colour.

What makes performing at the Proms special?
I don’t know how one could ever be cynical about performing at the Proms. Yes, we know what it’s like and we’ve done it before, but it is just a great occasion. It’s inevitably the date you most look forward to in the season. There’s something extraordinary about the acoustic in the Royal Albert Hall as it makes people listen in a particular way. I remember in the last Gabrieli Consort Prom there were a couple of very daintily scored songs with just one or two solo violins and a lute, and people were listening so intently you could hear a pin drop. It’s obviously a wonderful stage for a big oratorio, but also it focuses the audience in an extraordinary way, and I think that’s one of the reasons it’ll always be one of the great music festivals.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

Paul McCreesh conducts the Gabrieli Consort & Players in Haydn's The Creation in Prom 2, 18 July

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Related links:
Proms Diary: Welcome!
BBC Music Magazine Forum
Proms/August 2009 issue
Stephen Hough on performing Tchaikovsky at the Proms

CD details: Haydn: The Creation
Sandrine Piau (soprano), Miah Persson (soprano), Mark Padmore (tenor), Peter Harvey (baritone), Neal Davies (bass);Chetham's Chamber Choir; Gabrieli Consort and Players/Paul McCreesh
Archiv 477 7361

Audio clip: Haydn: The Creation – 'Now Heaven in fullest glory shines'

Image: Sheila Rocks