Chant sur la mort d’Haydn for soprano, tenor and orchestra
(b. Florence, 14 September 1760 — d. Paris, 15 March 1842)
Chant sur la mort d’Haydn (1805)
Just as modern celebrities often have stories of their deaths reported erroneously, eighteenth-century celebrities were not immune to death hoaxes either. It is in this context that we find Luigi Cherubini’s funeral cantata, Chant sur la mort d’Haydn [Song on the Death of Haydn], composed in January 1805. Joseph Haydn would not die for another five more years, but that premature London newspaper report published in late 1804, which Cherubini read, prompted him to compose the work. Once Cherubini realized his mistake, he requested the destruction of all copies of the score that were printed. The work would not actually be performed publically until after Haydn’s actual death.
According to D. Kern Holomon (2004: 146), the first, possibly second, performance of the work would occur at The Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. The frontispiece of the score bears the dedication to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, the monarch for whom Haydn spent music of his life working. The dedication letter in the score itself, written by Cherubini, remarks on Haydn’s musical genius and notes that he was prompted to dedicate the work to Esterházy because he appreciated Haydn’s talents. He remarked that despite this, Esterházy was missing from any other tributes to the composer.
The text of the piece comes from a pre-existing funeral text written by Louis Guillemain de Saint-Victor, who, like Haydn, was a Freemason. The cantata was commissioned by a French Masonic lodge called The True Measure of Masonic Society on the occasion of Haydn’s presumed death. The piece was based on a prominent musical motive in Haydn’s oratorio, The Creation, and the orchestration was similar to that found in Haydn’s twelve London Symphonies, consisting of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, three horns, trombone, percussion, two violins, two violas, four cellos, double bass, and piano. The piece also featured three solo voices—a soprano and two tenors. The text is based on the story of a swan who is dying on the banks of the Danube River.
The work is divided into five sections prefaced by a slow, polyphonic introduction reminiscent of the slow introductions of Haydn’s symphonies. It is comprised of three short orchestral recitative sections culminating in a five-part finale in which the orchestra plays an introduction and then the French text is sung. The text of the piece is often dramatically intensified through the orchestration, or lack thereof, as some parts of the work feature the singers singing a capella. The orchestral introduction leads into a tenor lament, which is followed by a tenor aria, a soprano aria, and then a trio. The finale of the work features such drama that it could have been easily lifted from one of Cherubini’s own operas or, or even one of Haydn’s.
Reba Wissner, 2017
For performance material please contact Boccaccini & Spada Editori, Rome
160 x 240 mm