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Writing words for oratorios – a nasty habit

The science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once observed: “A poet who reads his verse in public may have other nasty habits.”

This is undoubtedly true. I was present at a poetry reading only yesterday, and a swift glance round Walpole Old Chapel, in Suffolk, where the reading took place, revealed that here were people who had nasty habits. I don’t know what they were, but then they didn’t know what mine were.

The real question is whether reading poetry aloud is really a nasty habit. Clearly it can be, especially if the poetry is not very good. Pretty much all of the poetry read at Walpole was worth listening to.

And every single one of the poets there could have written better words to Haydn’s The Creation than those supplied for the performance at Norwich Cathedral a couple of weeks earlier. They were excruciating.

Someone said they were Victorian, and so should be accepted. I seem to remember there were Victorian poets who wrote good and beautiful English. (And anyway Haydn is pre-Victorian.)

Let me give you a couple of examples from The Creation:

RAPHAEL: “See flashing thro’ the deep in thronged swarms the fish a thousand ways around…. In long dimensions creeps with sinuous trace the worm.”

GABRIEL: “With verdure clad the fields appear delightful to the ravish’d sense; by flowers sweet and gay enhanced is the charming sight.”

Now that’s what I call a nasty habit, and whoever the writer or translator is (he may have gone into Haydn), we should not be singing his words out loud. How did he get away with it? Is it because lovers of classical music are notoriously careless – or should I say couldn’t-care-less – about words?

Or could they not afford someone who could write English?

In all fairness I have to say that the performance at the Cathedral was brilliant, by instrumentalists and choir. So why do they put up with rubbish instead of words? I may be particularly sensitive in that area, but it spoiled my evening.

Yours, etc. Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells.