Soprano Layla Claire will be among the soloists performing Haydn’s “The Seasons” at the Grant Park Music Festival. | Kristin Hoebermann Photo
At A Glace
♦ Franz Joseph Haydn’s
♦ 6:30 p.m. Aug. 10; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 11
♦ Grant Park Music Festival, Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Chicago
♦ (312) 742-7638;
Updated: September 11, 2012 6:09AM
When people in the classical music world talk about under-appreciated works, they usually mean an obscure score by some long-forgotten composer or a modern creation that never quite caught on.
Though it certainly qualifies as under-valued, “The Seasons,” doesn’t fit into either category. The 1801 oratorio happens to have been composed by one of the greatest composers of all time — Franz Joseph Haydn — and many musicologists consider it a gem that has simply suffered some unfortunate breaks.
“Unquestionably, I think it is on the same enormously high level as ‘The Creation’ and one of the very few undisputedly great choral masterworks, even if not everyone realizes it yet,” said James Webster, a professor of music at Cornell University.
Chicago listeners will get a chance to judge for themselves Aug. 10-11, when the Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus offer rare performances of the oratorio as part of the soon-to-end Grant Park Music Festival at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago.
Principal conductor Carlos Kalmar said he programmed “The Seasons” because he doesn’t think Haydn’s works are performed enough in general, and he saw it as an obvious follow-up to Grant Park’s 2002 performance of the composer’s much better-known late oratorio, “The Creation.”
“Even if you agree that it’s not so well known and not so often performed,” Kalmar said of “The Seasons,” “then it’s exactly the right piece for us here at Grant Park, because we have a name that grants that we, here and there, perform things that are maybe not rightly forgotten a little bit.”
Though known primarily for symphonies and other instrumental works, Haydn turned mainly to vocal works in his old age. Most promiment among them were two oratorios (extended musical settings of usually sacred texts), inspired in part, it is believed, by his attendance at performances of “Messiah” and other choral works by George Frideric Handel in London.
Soon after his return to Vienna in 1795, Haydn set to work on “The Creation,” an adaptation of the Book of Genesis. Its overwhelming success led almost immediately to a follow-up — “The Seasons,” which he completed in 1801 at age 69.
Baron Gotffried van Swieten supplied a text for “The Seasons” drawn mostly from James Thomson’s extended poem of the same title. Centered on three archetypal peasants, Hanne, Lucas and Simon (performed at these concerts by soprano Layla Claire, tenor Benjamin Butterfield and bass Ben Wager), it offers a celebratory look at the joys of country life.
The oratorio’s many highlights include Haydn’s sublime evocation of a sunrise and then a suitably bombastic thunderstorm in the “Summer” section as well as the so-called Hound-Dog Aria in “Autumn,” with its musical rendering of a gunshot and a bird’s fall to earth.
Although the piece was initially a success, it has always been significantly overshadowed since by “The Creation.” There are many reasons, starting with what Webster sees as an ingrained but misguided belief that the rural frolics in “The Seasons” do not live up to the “self-evidently high, noble, sacred subject” of the earlier oratorio.
It also hasn’t helped that the “The Seasons” runs more 130 minutes, a daunting duration especially for contemporary audiences. Nor did Haydn do himself any favors when he complained that a passage imitating frogs was not his idea. “I was forced to write this Frenchified trash,” he famously wrote.
But Webster argues in an essay in “The Cambridge Companion to Haydn” that “The Seasons” actually contains as balanced an interplay of the sublime and pastoral as “The Creation” and the two works can be seen as a kind of diptych.
However one ranks the two oratorios, it seems clear that “The Seasons” deserves to be much better known, and the Grant Park Music Festival is taking at least a small step this weekend toward that end.
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer and critic.