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Inside the Music

One Creation Story Among Many

Drawn from "Codex Becker I," a Mixtec manuscript, showing an "orchestra" of instruments. Photograph by Scott Chamberlain.

In preparation for their performance of Haydn’s The Creation, Minnesota Chorale members and guests explore creation stories from around the world.

On March 30-April 1, the Minnesota Chorale will join the Orchestra for performances of one of the best-known oratorios in Classical music: Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Creation. With a typical duration of nearly two hours, the epic three-part work depicts the creation of the world as described in the Book of Genesis, which begins both the Christian Bible and the Hebrew Torah. 

Just as The Creation has become a familiar work for choral singers across the Western world, the Genesis creation narrative—where God speaks light into darkness, creating heaven, the Earth and all forms of life over the course of six days—will also be recognizable to many readers. Haydn’s composition follows this timeline, with Parts I and II marking each of these generative days, followed by a blissful Part III that evokes a seventh day of rest. Now 225 years after its premiere at a Viennese palace, The Creation stands as a monumental testament to both Haydn’s craft and convictions (he was a devout Catholic). 

Despite a definitive “The” at the beginning of the composition’s title, Reverend Rick Wagner, a section leader with the Chorale, is quick to point out that the creation story to be performed at Orchestra Hall later this month is one among many. His remarks opened Creation Stories from Around the World, a virtual conversation hosted by the Chorale on February 28, amid the ensemble’s rehearsals.

Recording of the Minnesota Chorale's February 28th "Creation Stories from Around the World" conversation.

Reverend Wagner noted how, in writing The Creation, Haydn pulled primarily from Genesis, while also incorporating excerpted biblical Psalms and aspects of the 17th century poet John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Beyond this blending of Haydn’s source material, Reverend Wagner also called attention to the idea that Genesis itself is not a singular text, but the result of collaboration and communion. Highlighting that the book likely had many contributing editors, and that its verse is steeped in wordplay and repetition, he observed, “It has the hallmarks—Genesis does—of a story handed down by oral tradition.” He continued:

What we think of as our creation story in the Judeo-Christian tradition is really a blending of multiple stories drawn partly but not entirely from the Bible—because, well, after all, there is no containing a good story.

Following his comments were a series of other good stories, the first offered by Scott Chamberlain, a singer in the Chorale’s bass section since 2002. In addition to his life as a vocalist, Chamberlain is also a scholar on ancient Mexican writing systems. His presentation introduced another creation story: that of Mexico’s Mixtec people. Chamberlain shared excerpts from the Codex Vienna, a manuscript with a shorthand name deriving from its storage in the Austrian National Library, where it has been housed since Spanish colonization. “This is a wonderful text that, for the Mixtec people, is essentially the written account of what we would think of as the story of Genesis,” he said. “It tells about the creation of the world, the creation of the cosmos—it moves into the ordering and the organization of the world, and then finally leads into a more traditional human history.” 

Much like how a music score becomes fully legible when played, the same is true for the Codex Vienna. “Although it is a written text, the actual practice of this story would have been to be performed—and I like that parallel with what we’re doing with Haydn’s creation story,” Chamberlain remarked. “In ancient times what would have happened is there would have been the equivalent of a cantor, who would have had the manuscript before him, who would then sing the narrative to the assembled group.” 

Likely unbeknownst to him, when Haydn arranged the orchestration of his oratorio, he would be undergoing the same process as ancient Mixtec authors. “[The cantor] would be accompanied by a small orchestra essentially, of various instruments—of reed whistles, flutes, shell trumpets, and a whole barrage of percussion instruments that would help give the story life and help highlight its dramatic sense.” 

An image of the stage at Orchestra Hall; vocal soloists fill the first third of the image, with the Orchestra behind them, and a number of chorale singers behind them.

The Minnesota Chorale performs Gustav Mahler's "Symphony of A Thousand" with the Orchestra in June 2022. Photograph by Greg Helgeson.

The fact that Hadyn’s The Creation has been performed in concert halls around the world for more than two centuries, while the Mixtec creation story has been kept in a European museum for over 400 years is evidence that some creation stories have been privileged above others in modern history. Jim Bear Jacobs, a Presbyterian minister and member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, drew the audience’s attention to this fact. He reflected that, as he grew up and learned more about the state-sponsored mechanisms through which Indigenous knowledges were marginalized, he began to question how dominant scholarship—largely promoted by “white, European, male voices”—has narrowly interpreted Judeo-Christian traditions, of which the Book of Genesis is a pillar. “As I became more immersed and entrenched in my own Indigenous culture and tradition, it became evident to me that the way we sometimes read the...scripture is really missing out on some of the rich indigeneity of these stories.” 

Jacobs proposed moving the epicenter of theological thought away from Europe, and towards a plurality—the sort of plurality that might give equal weight to the Book of Genesis and native Pan-American traditions. Adding a culminating origin story to this conversation was Dr. Kelly Sherman-Conroy, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and a Native American Theologian. While Haydn’s composition expresses an admiration of nature, Dr. Sherman-Conroy offers the grounding reality that “Indigenous people have really been protecting and loving the natural world—God’s creation—for thousands and thousands of years.” She moved forward with sharing the creation story of the Dakota people—which, in her words, expresses that “we as human beings are not put above or before creation.” 

Like The Creation, the February 28 conversation was a blending of voices and stories. There was no debate about which theologian or scholar “had it right,” but rather a keen interest in learning from one another. Coming out of such a conversation, it may be impossible to hear Haydn’s oratorio in the same way again, as other creation stories explicitly and implicitly make their way into the score. And that will surely make these performances all the richer. 

Don’t miss these joyful concerts, taking place at Orchestra Hall March 30-April 1.

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