I’m always delighted and amused by what the eighteenth century — one of the most mannered and formal periods in Western history — considered “lacking in artifice.” However, whatever my personal opinion (coming, as it does, from a casual and fairly spontaneous contemporary American Midwesterner), that was one of the major points of praise by his contemporaries for Joseph Haydn’s oratorio, The Seasons.
I have to admit of the probability that much of the input into this oratorio undoubtedly stems from Haydn’s own rural — or at least, semi-rural — childhood, which I’m sure added to the “rustic simplicity” aura. He was born and raised in a small market town, Rohrau, in the Lower Austrian countryside. Although strictly speaking his family were “townsmen,” it was indeed a small town, and the milieu was agricultural. (As someone who also grew up in a small town in the middle of farmland and forests, I can vouch for that.) And, as anyone who has spent time on a farm will tell you, the seasons are the markers of the year.
Haydn has taken it one step farther here. Not only do the seasons mark the passing of the year, they become in this work the stages of life: the bright promise of spring, also the bright promise of youth; the fullness of summer, the season of growth and maturity; the bountiful harvest of autumn, when one (ideally) enjoys the fruits of one’s life’s labors; and the chill of winter, when one sits by a crackling fire and looks back on life. These are, in Haydn’s view, the rewards of hard work. It’s not by chance that the voices we hear — Simon, Lukas, and Hanne — are farmers, who work hard all day and all year, and whose enjoyment and understanding of the world are immediate and unmediated by the stresses and restrictions we city-dwellers face.
However, keep in mind that this was what I call “court music,” although it was performed in concert halls as much as in palaces: it’s rather a different order of creature than, say, John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera or even Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, both of which were popular entertainments. It is, like anything else from the late classical period, very formal, highly ornamented, and only tenuously connected to the popular culture of the day. So, expect the great climaxes, the bel canto solo passages, and the stirring chorales. But then again, this is a great composer at the height of his powers, with a full arsenal at his command: we get the telling details, the onomatopoeic effects, the bits of “local color,” small solos, duets and trios notable for their simplicity — with a concomitant magnification of effect. There is a lot to delight the ear here, whether you are looking for grandeur or something slightly smaller.
And, as we might expect, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the Concentus Musicus Wien, the Arnold Shoenberg Chor, and the soloists — Genia Kühmeier, soprano; Wener Güra, tenor; and Christian Gerhaher, baritone — are well up to the task. (I’ve become convinced that Harnoncourt and the Concentus Musicus couldn’t turn in a bad performance if they tried — not that they would.) Kühmeier and Güra, in particular, are notable for a limpid, transparent quality to their voices that adds immeasurably to the “lacking in artifice” quotient here.
So, there you have it: a great work by a great composer in a wonderful performance. What could be better?
(Deutsche Harmonia Mundi [Sony Music Entertainment], 2008)