A new-created world!" It's an intimidating phrase when Sir David Willcocks suddenly pulls you out of the choir to declaim it solo in front of everyone else. We, the chorus of the Ernest Read Concerts for Children, were rehearsing Joseph Haydn's oratorio The Creation for a Royal Festival Hall performance, around 1981. Sir David, our revered conductor, was trying to instil an appropriate sense of wonder into his gaggle of sleepy, spotty teens so that we might convey the delight Haydn evokes when he imagines observing the beauty of nature for the very first time. Goodness knows if we managed it, but the danger of being pounced upon to speak the words alone certainly woke us.
It must have worked. Since then, The Creation has been "my" piece, the one I turn to whenever the going gets tough. This Enlightenment masterpiece can strip away all the layers of disillusionment and doubt and remind you that there is something profoundly extraordinary about our existence. It literally makes you feel glad to be alive.
Famously, the work was inspired by a performance the composer attended in Westminster Abbey in 1791 of Handel's Messiah, presented by 1,069 musicians and singers. But Haydn's response could only have sprung from his questing and humane creativity, not widely appreciated enough in his time and still deserving greater acclaim.
Belated fame was always the order of the day for Haydn. After spending most of his life as a court kapellmeister, he was astonished when the impresario Johann Peter Salomon introduced himself, and announced: "I am from London and have come to fetch you." Haydn duly went to London — and there discovered, aged 58, that he was a superstar.
Haydn had endured a difficult childhood as a chorister at St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna — not the cushy number you might imagine, for the boys often went hungry and, when their voices broke, they were simply thrown out, often with nowhere to go. He was no exception. Fortunate to be taken in by friends, he survived as a jobbing musician until he was able to win his first posts as a kapellmeister. In this capacity he was employed for nearly three decades in the grand households of successive Counts Esterházy — while this essentially made him a servant, it also provided valuable security. He had a fine orchestra at his disposal and wrote many of his 104 symphonies for it — operas, string quartets, piano sonatas, piano trios, choral works and more flowed from his pen. He was unhappily married, but always popular with women and had a secret mistress. His musicians — among them, the father of Franz Liszt — nicknamed him "Papa Haydn".