excerpt from 'Letter from Anna Seward to Thomas Park, Esq., 27 September 1802' pp. 45–49 (675 words)

excerpt from 'Letter from Anna Seward to Thomas Park, Esq., 27 September 1802' pp. 45–49 (675 words)

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Letter from Anna Seward to Thomas Park, Esq., 27 September 1802

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I came home for one day on Sunday se’ennight, but took wing on the next, allured by a grand harmonic festival at Birmingham;—by the opportunity it afforded me of observing how Haydn had shot in the strong bow of Handel; in being able to compare his emulative powers closely, by listening to the Creation one morning, the Messiah the next. Shall I presume to speak to you of my resulting conviction? 

By the overture to the Creation I was charmed. The subject is so happy; the imitative harmony so inevitably suggested itself, that a very inferior composer to Haydn must, if possessing any genius, have made a grand affair of it. No wonder then that his genius and science should have produced, in succession, effects so awful, and so exhilarating in this harmonic exordium. First, by that wild and complex dissonance which sublimely represents the tumult of chaos; next, by the low, soft, tremulous, sweet sounds, which arise when that tumult has gradually subsided; instrument after instrument stealing in, and exquisitely picturing on the ear the dawning, expanding, and gradually strengthening light, till suddenly the sun blazes out by the instant fortissimo of the whole orchestra, and by the burst and cannon-exultation of the double drums. 

Not one of Handel’s overtures suggested, or could properly allow of so picturseque (sic), so dazzling an overture.

But there ended, in this emulative attempt, all approach to the excellence of that peerless master. The recitatives, and their accompaniments, are almost entirely imitative of other sounds, and of motion, and are without sentiment; while to those instrumental imitations all which Handel has given us in that style are infinitely superior. How poor, in the Creation, are the strains which imitate the lark and nightingale, compared to those of similar aim in L’Allegro and Il Penseroso! How inferior Haydn’s plumy concert to that given in the prelude and accompaniments to “Hush ye pretty warbling choir,” in Acis and Galatea! 

We find an attempt in Haydn’s oratorio to represent the soaring of the majestic eagle; but the strains more resemble the darting evolutions of the swallow. 

The songs are opera-airs, sweet and ornamented; but they breathe no devotion; they excite no sympathy; they have nothing to do with the passions. 

The chorusses are all impetuous, swift, and similar; bursts of harmony, skilful as to science, but, compared to Handel’s, unmeaning, with little discriminated melody, and no contrast.

It is little wonder that the words translated from the German almost literally into English, should be neither sense nor grammar, nor that they should make wicked work with Milton; yet we meet poetic beauty in two of the lines, thus, 

“With softer beams, and milder light, steps on

“The silver moon through silent night;” 

and the corresponding air is one of the happiest efforts in the composition. 

It was with increased veneration for the powers of Handel that we listened, on the ensuing day, to the sublimities of the Messiah; expressing, in turn, every varied passion of the human soul; that we observed the contrasted pathos and energy, sweetnes and dignity, serenity and scorn, supplication and triumph, in the recitatives and songs, in the duet and chorusses of that stupendous work; to the decided air that winds through the fugues of every separate chorus lingering on the ear, and haunting the fancy through successive days; to the hallelujah and amen, that ravish the spirit, and seem to pierce the vault of heaven by their sonorous grandeur. Haydn, great master though he be, sinks eclipsed, like Dryden, when, in his alteration of the play of the Tempest, he puts on the armour of Shakespeare. 

It will gratify me if the ideas I have ventured to express meet those of Mrs Park, who is a mistress, where I am so shallow a student. Such as they are, I have not borrowed them. No stricture on Haydn’s Creation ever met my eye, or my ear.

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excerpt from 'Letter from Anna Seward to Thomas Park, Esq., 27 September 1802' pp. 45–49 (675 words)


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