Sunday, December 20, 2009

Landmarks (42)

Joseph Haydn: Die Vorstellung des Chaos from Die Schöpfung (Hob. XXI:2)(1796-98).

The overture to this oratorio, the "representation of chaos", takes the form of a fantasy. In late 18th century concert music, a fantasy was an improvised solo keyboard genre, a showpiece for a virtuoso composer-performer, and often characterized musically by bold harmonic experimentation. (The fantasies left by Mozart are the best examples of the genre, if necessarily tamed and edited in their notated form.) In this case, however, the fantasy is through-composed and orchestrated, which is entirely appropriate for a composer who was not himself a popular virtuoso performer, but rather a Tonsetzer and orchestrator of spectacular skill and invention.

The function of chaos within the oratorio's narrative, "representing" a state which is not representable, and in ambiguous relationship to any eventual representable state, is that of presenting maximum contrast to the defining event it anticipates. To this end, Haydn uses and sustains every harmonic trick, turn, misdirection and ambiguity at his disposal for the entire length of the overture so as to delay a difinitive arrival at a simple cadence to the tonic c minor.

Haydn's Chaos would provide a critical point of reference for musical landmarks to come: the Vorspiel to Tristan und Isolde, certainly, with its parallel use of ambiguity and delayed definition of a tonaliy, but certainly, also, in Schönberg's Prelude to the Genesis Suite, Op. 44, in which the undefinable pre-creation state is "represented" by an atonal fugue, a paradoxical if not chaotic construction, given the importance of tonal function to the identity of a fugue.

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