Friday, September 14, 2012

Haydn: Three Choral Fugues

The choral fugue has long been the crown with which composers consummate their greatest works.  From the leaping dances of Bach's B minor Mass to the flashing fugatos of Handel's Messiah, these choral coronations become the most memorable moments of the works. Such is in part due to their functions within the pieces as celebratory climaxes, but we need look only as far as Theodora for a finale grand and sombre.

Bach and Handel have in these pieces, with their expressive harmonies and vigorous rhythms which threaten to break free from all restraints, the perfection of their geniuses. For this good reason the music is much and well commented upon. Yet Haydn's genius too saw in the choral fugue's counterpoint not just the frame for a grand finale but the potential for depicting and amplifying an idea. Haydn would find for the nature of the fugue, with its many contrapuntal variations, ideas which themselves would flourish in such development. In his oratorio The Creation he found some ideal subjects and set to work.

I. The first of the three great choruses of the oratorio concludes the Third Day of Creation.
Stimmt an die Saiten, ergreift die Leier!
Lasst euren Lobgesang erschallen!
Frohlocket dem Herrn, dem mächtigen Gott!
Denn er hat Himmel und Erde
bekleidet in herrlicher Pracht.
Haydn's choral fugue for, "Denn er hat Himmel und Erde / bekleidet in herrlicher Pracht," is not simply a ride over thrilling rhythms, but the many entrances are appropriate to the logic of the text: the draping of magnificent garments. With each entrance we feel the hand of the Maker twirling pure splendor around his creation.

II. The choral finale to the Fourth Day is well-known to English speakers as "The Heavens Are Telling" and it fares translation better than other movements. By what better way to display the myriad wonders of creation than by counterpoint's manifold arts of inversion, diminution, augmentation. . .
Die Himmel erzählen
die Ehre Gottes
und seiner Hände Werk
zeigt an das Firmament.

III. Effective though it is, Haydn's conclusion does not seem to live up to the previous movements, at least with respect to putting the counterpoint to inventive pictorial use. Perhaps the concept of praise doesn't admit to much development or lend itself to any contrapuntal expression other than, "every which way, forever," perhaps it's simply a perfect, if obvious, fit. 
Des Herren Ruhm,
er bleibt in Ewigkeit.

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