Franz Joseph Haydn
DIE SCHÖPFUNG (THE CREATION)
Franz Joseph Haydn was born in Rohrau, Lower Austria, almost certainly on March 31, 1732-he was baptized on April 1—and died in Vienna on May 31, 1809. He composed his oratorio Die Schöpfung (The Creation) between autumn of 1796 and autumn of 1797, with alterations continuing through the following March. The libretto is by Gottfried van Swieten, based on earlier, anonymous English text derived from the Bible (the books of Genesis and Psalms) and Milton's Paradise Lost. The oratorio was first performed at the Palais Schwarzenberg, in Vienna, on April 29 (open rehearsal) and April 30 (official premiere), 1798. Haydn conducted the performances, Antonio Salieri played the piano continuo, and the soloists were soprano Christine Gerardi, tenor Mathias Rathmayer, and bass Ignaz Saal. Portions ofThe Creationreached American shores in 1810, when they were performed at the Moravian community in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; the first complete American performance (with each of the three parts of the oratorio presented on separate days) was given in Boston by the Handel and Haydn Society in April of 1817. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the work in May 1960 with Josef Krips conducting and with soloists Maria Stader, Richard Lewis, and Yi-Kwei Sze, and with the Stanford University Chorus. The only subsequent performances, in May 1982, were conducted by Edo de Waart and featured soloists Sheri Greenawald, John Aler, and John Cheek, with the SFS Chorus. The score calls for three vocal soloists—a soprano (as both Gabriel and Eve), a tenor (as Uriel), and a bass (as Raphael and Adam)—in addition to a four-part chorus (with soprano, contralto, tenor, and bass soloists) and an orchestra comprising three flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons and contrabassoon, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings, in addition to keyboard continuo.
Asked to describe Franz Joseph Haydn's principal legacy to music history, most listeners today would probably cite his contributions to the evolution of the symphony and of chamber music—especially, in the case of the latter, to the two most exalted chamber-music combinations, the string quartet and the piano trio. This would not be off target: He was the first great master of all three of these genres, and in his hands they moved from their mere infancy to a point of enduring sophistication. But the mind also leaps to his sacred oratorios, thanks to his two late masterpieces in that genre, The Creation (1796-98) and The Seasons (1799-1801).
In fact, Haydn was a very busy fellow when it came to sacred music. There is almost no time in his career when he went for more than a few years without producing some sacred piece for the Roman Catholic Church—a Mass or a motet, a Salve Regina, a Te Deum. Several of his sacred works helped disseminate his renown throughout Europe. In his final years, after his two trips to England in the 1790s confirmed his position as Europe's most famous and respected composer, he essentially retired and confined his professional activities to what (by that time, at least) he loved doing the most, composing string quartets and sacred music. This should come as no great surprise inasmuch as those two genres distill the two musical domains that seem to have most pervaded his character and his outlook: the rather abstract intellectual delight of the string quartet and the profound spiritual expression implied by sacred music.
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In the last ten years of his life, Haydn came to befriend a gentleman named Georg August Griesinger, an educator by trade, who first approached the composer in 1799 as a representative of the music-publishing firm of Breitkopf & Härtel. Over the course of that decade, Griesinger made a habit of setting down a record of all the conversations he had with Haydn, which he then published as a book just after Haydn died. Here's what Griesinger says Haydn told him about his Catholic faith:
| ||Haydn was very religiously inclined, and was loyally devoted to the faith in which he was raised. He was very strongly convinced in his heart that all human destiny is under God's guiding hand, that God rewards the good and the evil, that all talents come from above. All his larger scores begin with the words In nomine Domini [In the name of the Lord] and end with Laus Deo or Soli Deo gloria [Praise to God; Glory to God alone]. "If my composing is not proceeding so well," I heard him say, "I walk up and down the room with my rosary in my hand, say several Aves, and then ideas come to me again."|
| ||In religion also he found the greatest comfort for his physical infirmity. He was thoroughly reconciled in his last years to the thoughts of his death and made ready for it every day. Without speculation about the principles of faith, he accepted the what and the how of the teaching of the Catholic Church, and his soul found comfort therein. Thus in 1807 and 1808 at the Feast of St. Peregrinus, the patron saint of diseased limbs, he had himself taken to the Servite Monastery and had a Mass said.…
| ||Haydn left every man to his own conviction and recognized all as brothers. In general, his devotion was not of the gloomy, always suffering sort, but rather cheerful and reconciled, and in this character, moreover, he wrote all his church music. His patriarchal, devout spirit is particularly expressed in The Creation, and hence he was bound to be more successful in this composition than a hundred other masters.…A natural consequence of Haydn's religiosity was his modesty, for his talent was not his own doing, rather a gracious gift from Heaven, to whom he believed he must show himself thankful."
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Haydn's involvement with music was professional from the outset. He began his career, in fact, as a church musician, entering the choir school of Vienna's Saint Stephen's Cathedral in April or May of 1740, shortly after his eighth birthday. Of the six boy sopranos in the hard-working choir, Haydn seems to have been the star. His singing was so admired, in fact, that he frequently was “borrowed” for concerts at the Viennese court. He was typically tapped to sing solo passages when they arose—at least until he was rivaled by his brother Johann Michael, his junior by five years. Haydn remained in the group until his voice broke, after which he was unceremoniously dismissed "on a humid November evening in the year 1749" (according to the precise account by the composer's nineteenth-century biographer C.F. Pohl).
Needless to say, by the time he reached the end of his tenure at Saint Stephen's, Haydn knew a thing or two about sacred music.
He struggled for another ten years as best as an unemployed musician could in a Vienna that hardly lacked for musicians, living in a cheap garret apartment, borrowing money from a relative, and eking out a livelihood as an accompanist, music teacher, and street musician. He managed to receive composition lessons from the eminent composer Niccolò Porpora in exchange for providing menial services, and gradually increased both his skill and his reputation. In 1759 he secured his first official post, a short-lived appointment as Capellmeister for Count Ferdinand Maximilian von Morzin, whose country estate was based in Lukaveč, Bohemia. That job served as a stepping-stone to the position that would shape Haydn's entire career, his appointment in 1761 as Vice-Capellmeister to Prince Paul Anton Esterházy (who would die less than a year later). For the next three decades, Haydn remained attached to the Esterházy Court, making the rounds of the family's palaces in Austria and Hungary. Within a few years he was elevated to become full Capellmeister, and he proved a devoted, exorbitantly productive servant of his employer (who, beginning in 1762, was Nicholas Esterházy, Paul Anton's brother). Prince Nicholas died in 1790 and was succeeded by his son, another Paul Anton. The new prince, it turned out, did not care for music, and Haydn's services would prove largely unnecessary to his court. As a result, Paul Anton granted Europe's most admired composer a pension of a thousand florins a year; and though he kept the composer on staff as his musical director, he made it clear that no particular duties or even attendance would be required. For the first time in decades, Haydn was free to explore.
NUMEROUS INVITATIONS were forthcoming. In the end, the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, a German expatriate living in England, prevailed among competitors to secure a tour from the eminent composer. Haydn arrived in London on January 1, 1791, and embarked on a leisurely schedule of music-making and social appearances that included dinners with the Royal Family and the acceptance of a doctorate from Oxford University. It was during that residency that Haydn became closely acquainted with several oratorios by Handel. He attended a 1791 Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey in which more than a thousand musicians performed programs that included the complete oratorios Messiah and Israel in Egypt, as well as selections from Saul, Judas Maccabaeus, and other Handel oratorios. The festival performance of the "Hallelujah" Chorus from Messiah reportedly elicited tears from Haydn, as well as a frank assessment of its composer: "He is the greatest of us all." Haydn returned to Vienna in the summer of 1792 (stopping en route in Bonn to inspect some works proffered by a young composer named Beethoven, who would soon become his pupil).
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Haydn had enjoyed his time in England enormously and happily accepted a second invitation to visit London in 1794-95. At the end of that second visit to England, probably in August of 1795, Salomon gave Haydn a copy of the libretto The Creation of the World, which was said to have been written at least half a century earlier for Handel, though that composer never set it to music. Although various candidates have been suggested as its author, it remains steadfastly attributed to that profligate figure Anonymous. In this case, Anonymous's principal sources were the story of the creation as related in Genesis I and II (in the King James translation), the same story as related in Milton's Paradise Lost (specifically, the 1674 revised edition), and the book of Psalms (particularly Psalm 19). "At the first sight," reported Baron Gottfried van Swieten, "the material seemed to [Haydn] indeed well chosen, and well suited to musical effects, but he nevertheless did not accept the proposal immediately; he was just on the point of leaving for Vienna, and he reserved the right to announce his decision from there, where he wanted to take a look at the poem."
Upon arriving home, Haydn had shown the libretto immediately to van Swieten, the imperial librarian, the former president of the court Commission on Education and Censorship, a sometime composer, and esteemed as an authority on literary matters. He was also the head of the Gesellschaft der Associirten, a group involved with patronizing large-scale compositions; it was for this organization that van Swieten had arranged for Mozart to create new performing versions of Handel's Messiah, Alexander's Feast, Acis and Galatea, and the Ode for Saint Cecilia's Day. He had also been the one who convinced Haydn, in 1796, to create a choral cantata out The Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross, composed a decade earlier as an odd sort of string quartet to be played at a religious ceremony in Cádiz, Spain.
Van Swieten enthusiastically endorsed the idea of Haydn's pursuing the "creation" project. "I recognized at once that such an exalted subject would give Haydn the opportunity I had long desired, to show the whole compass of his profound accomplishments and to express the full power of his inexhaustible genius," he wrote. Through his graces, the Associirten proffered Haydn a commission of 500 ducats for the new work and pledged to cover expenses for copying the parts and mounting the eventual production. Haydn envisioned it from the outset as a bilingual composition, whose text setting would serve equally well in German and English. Van Swieten himself set to work creating a German version of the text and then adapting the original English libretto to match the contours of his German. As he wrote, "[I] resolved to clothe the English poem in German garb.… It is true that I followed the plan of the original faithfully as a whole, but I diverged from it in details as often as musical progress and expression, of which I already had an ideal conception in my mind, seemed to demand. Guided by these sentiments, I often judged it necessary that much should be shortened or even omitted, on the one hand, and on the other hand that much should be made more prominent or brought into greater relief, and much placed more in the shade."
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It therefore seems clear that, notwithstanding the immediate English origins of the text and the composer's intent of bilingual equality, the German version of The Creation was the primary one, at least in practical terms of composition. It is a delightful libretto, and it was admired from the outset. The English version is also a laudable piece of work, but neither van Swieten nor Haydn spoke the language fluently, and a few awkward curiosities did manage to make their way into the retro-translation. Those could be more-or-less easily rectified, but more problematic was the general tone of the English libretto, which, derived as it was from older texts, already sounded quaint to English audiences in the last year of the eighteenth century. Both versions carry the imprimatur of the composer and the librettist, and there is a strong argument to be made for performing The Creation in English when it is offered to English-speaking audiences. But in terms of the ideal blending of text with music, the German version—Die Schöpfung—is the clear winner.
THE CREATION falls into three sections. The first two are of approximately equal length, of forty-odd minutes each, while the third is considerably shorter, lasting about ten minutes less. Each section ends with a grand chorus that, at least in spirit, is redolent of Handel's choral finales. The first section (Numbers 1-13) relates the first four days of the creation of the universe, as related in the book of Genesis: on the first day, the creation of heaven, earth, and light; on the second, the division of the waters; on the third, the establishment of land, sea, and plant life; and on the fourth, the positioning of the sun, moon, and stars. In Part Two (Numbers 14-28), we hear the unfolding of the fifth day—the creation of birds and fish—and the sixth day—the arrival of beasts of the land and the first two human beings. Those primordial persons, Adam and Eve, take center stage in the third section (Numbers 29-34), at first gaining consciousness and then expressing their mutual love.
The pleasure of experiencing Haydn and van Swieten's The Creation lies less in the inevitable trajectory of the plot—we all know the story, and it contains no real sense of conflict—than in the wide-eyed wonder with which the composer visits its familiar contours. A childlike quality pervades The Creation, as if Haydn were relating the narrative to young listeners who had never heard it before. There is reverence in his account, to be sure, but no stultifying piety. Instead, Haydn seems to be having the time of his life, truly celebrating the mystery of creation, translating it into the most human of terms, infusing it with grace, delight, wit, and humor. Even the three angels who deliver most of the narration are anything but awe-inspiring. In their earthly lives, they might have been cast in The Marriage of Figaro or The Magic Flute.
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The opening depiction of chaos is hardly terrifying, but its thematic fragmentation and chromatic brooding leave no question that nothing is yet on terra firma. Raphael, the first of three angelic messengers we will meet, launches the story, and the choir joins in to depict the first act of creation, the generation of light. The sudden fortissimo of chorus and orchestra on the work Licht (light), perhaps the most famous C major cadence in the history of music, has made a powerful effect on every audience since the premiere, as Haydn knew it would. The composer's friend Frederik Samuel Silverstolpe reported of the premiere: "No one, not even Baron van Swieten, had seen the page of the score wherein the birth of light is described. That was the only passage of the work which Haydn had kept hidden. I think I see his face even now, as this part sounded in the orchestra. Haydn had the expression of someone who is thinking of biting his lips, either to hide his embarrassment or to conceal a secret. And in that moment when light broke out for the first time, one would have said that rays darted from the composer's burning eyes. The enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes."
After nearly six decades of gauging audience responses, Haydn's timing had grown impeccable. The tale unrolls at a lively clip, with soloists singing recitatives (both unaccompanied and accompanied), arias, and ensembles, and with alternating choral numbers to paint a canvas full of musical variety. The score is liberally peppered with "hit tunes." Number 8, the angel Gabriel's limpid aria Nun beut die Flur became a standard concert staple in English-speaking lands under the rubric "With Verdure Clad." Haydn's admiration of Handel, and his interest in emulating him in this context, becomes clear with Number 10, the chorus Stimmt an die Saiten (Awake the Harp), although following its imposing, Baroque fugal writing it romps to a conclusion with the glee of a Classical opera buffa. In Uriel's accompanied recitative In vollem Glanz (In Splendor Bright), Haydn seems to glance back nearly fifty years to 1761 and his own Symphony No. 6 (Le Matin), one of the first pieces he wrote for the Esterházy court; its opening sunrise greatly prefigures the gradually intensifying glimmer of rays of this first sunrise ever—and then Haydn trumps himself by proceeding to another of the oratorio's highpoints, the festive and intricate chorus Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God).
The scene thus laid, Haydn launches into Part Two, and with it a series of irresistible musical depictions of newly created life forms. In Gabriel's aria Auf starkem Fittige (On mighty pens), we hear eagles soar (violins ascending circuitously), the lark chirp merrily (triplets in the clarinet), the doves coo (wavering bassoons and violins), and the nightingale emit "delightful notes" (an ornamented flute line, of course). In Raphel's ensuing recitative Und Gott schuf grosse Walfische (And God created great whales)—specifically its section Seyd fruchtbar alle (Be fruitful all)—we hear the sluggish movements of the huge sea creatures. (Haydn would have been astonished to learn how high-pitched whales' voices really are, but that information lay for future generations to discover and for George Crumb and Alan Hovhaness to place in serious musical contexts.) Haydn's depictive devices would fall flat, or quickly wear out their welcome, if they didn't appear in such sophisticated musical surroundings. So it is that we smile broadly at the roaring of "the tawny lion," the leaping of "the flexible tiger," and the prancing of "the nimble stag" in Raphael's recitative Gleich öffnet sich der Erde Schoss (Straight opening her fertile womb), and practically burst out laughing at the rude eructations of the bassoons and contrabassoon (low B-flat, fortissimo) in his aria Nun scheint in vollem Glanze der Himmel (Now heaven in fullest glory shone"), when "by heavy beasts the ground is trod." At such moments Haydn lets his periwig down entirely; but then he follows up with such a glorious aria as Mit Würd' und Hoheit angetan (In native worth and honor clad), where he not only draws on subtle musical symbolism to illustrate what his era considered the varying characteristics of man and woman, but also ends up developing his orchestral writing into a sort of unanticipated sinfonia concertante for flute, oboe, bassoon, and cellos, weaving around the tenor soloist. And who else would have dreamed up the musical structure of Part Two's finale, the two portions of the chorus Vollendet ist das grosse Werk (Atchieved [sic] is the glorious work)—the first a simple Handelian fugato, the second a more virtuosic and extensively developed double fugue—separated by spacious interweaving of the angels' elegant lines?
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After these stentorian "Allelujas," underscored by rumbling timpani, the opening of the Third Part is all the more magical: three flutes—at least one more than the complement of Haydn's usual forces—paint the rosy mantle of "morning young and fair" appearing. But, as Uriel tells us, this sunrise witnesses something novel: humans male and female, walking hand in hand (and the soprano and bass soloists who portray them will not again revert to their earlier personas as Gabriel and Raphael). They launch into the stately duet with choir Von deiner Güt (By Thee with bliss), at nearly twelve minutes by far the longest number in the entire oratorio. The eminent musical analyst Donald Francis Tovey called this movement "the greatest thing in The Creation since the Chaos and the Light…the greatest movement, or pair of movements, that [Haydn] ever wrote, whether vocal or instrumental." It is a tenet of rhetoric that a speech-giver should tell his audience what he is about to say, then say it, then review what he has said. By this time, Haydn has told us through his title what he is about to say and has said it in the most charming way. Now, in this hymn of praise at the end of the sixth day (an adagio followed by an allegretto, unrolling as a sort of rondo), Adam and Eve provide a recap, refreshing listeners' memories of what God has created in the days preceding. All that remains is for Adam and Eve to discover that they love each other—again, beginning with a recitative that sounds sprung directly from The Marriage of Figaro—and sing a duet about it, Holde Gattin! (Graceful consort!), another spacious movement in two-part free rondo form (adagio, then allegro). Uriel, the only remaining angel, smiles approvingly from on high, though hinting that trouble may lie ahead, and the choir, this time enhanced by four soloists from its ranks, offers a stirring, fugal punctuation of praise.
THE OPEN REHEARSAL AND PREMIERE at the Vienna Palais of Prince Joseph zu Schwarzenberg, on April 29-30, 1798, were so rapturously received that two further performances were quickly scheduled, for May 7 and May 10. Given Haydn's illustrious position and reputation, all of these initial performances were "by invitation only" affairs, and hardly anyone but the aristocracy, the cultural elite, and the press got to hear them. That was finally rectified a year later, when, following another pair of private performances at the Palais Schwarzenberg, less exalted citizens of Vienna were able to crowd into the Burgtheater on March 19, 1799. For this occasion, the performing forces swelled to about 180—120 in the orchestra, sixty (boys and men) in the choir—and Haydn, who was again conducting, expanded his orchestration to include bass trombone, contrabassoon, and triple wind parts. Haydn continued to lead performances of The Creation in Vienna until the end of 1802, and he re-emerged from retirement on March 27, 1808, to attend a performance organized by the University of Vienna to mark his 75th birthday. Beethoven, by then a firmly established master, was in attendance, and honored the feeble, aging Haydn by falling to his knees and covering his former teacher with kisses.
In February of 1800 the oratorio was published in score, in a bilingual German-and-English edition issued in Vienna. Salomon assumed that he would present the first English performance, and to that end he ordered a dozen copies. But unbeknownst to him, John Ashley, one of his rivals in the concert business, managed to have a copy of the printed score delivered by special courier from Vienna and was able to give Londoners their first taste of The Creation on March 28, 1800. Ashley's ambush was so successful, in fact, that the embittered Salomon wasn't able to present the work until three weeks later, by which time Ashley's forces had already given three separate go-rounds. To compensate, Salomon at least offered the allurement of more stellar soloists. The oratorio swept the musical centers of Europe, and by 1810 it reached America, initially in a truncated performance given by the Moravians in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
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Notwithstanding the early adulation, The Creation proved to be too much "of its age" to curry continuing favor from the musical avant-garde and the critical establishment. For all his praise of Haydn and The Creation, Beethoven was assiduously changing the course of music history—and very quickly. With the rise of Romanticism, Haydn's innocent, literal depictions of fauna and flora became easy targets for those who subscribed to the new sensibility of personalized emotion. By 1859, Hector Berlioz reported in a letter that he had stayed away from a performance of The Creation at the Paris Conservatory. "I have always felt a profound antipathy for this work," he wrote. "Its lowing oxen, its buzzing insects, its light in C which dazzles one like a Carcel lamp, and then its Adam, Uriel, Gabriel, and the flute solos and all the amiabilities really shrivel me up—they make me want to murder somebody." (One wonders if the correspondent responded by asking Berlioz to explain his own nature-painting in the "Scène aux champs" from the Symphonie fantastique.) Even in England, the Land of the Choral Festival, The Creation had a hard time sustaining its popular appeal, in part because it was thought to pale next to favorite Handel oratorios, in part because proper Victorians claimed to find the Adam and Eve bits too racy.
In Austria and Germany The Creation remained a favorite with audiences and never lacked for performances, even if the cognoscenti could find little to admire in it apart from, as Hugo Wolf put it, "a spirit of childlike faith…sheer artlessness." Following the Second World War, the music of Haydn began a slow renaissance. The Creation, with its enduring spiritual appeal linked to a congenial pastoral language rather than to the potentially off-putting constraints of liturgical practice, stood at the forefront of Haydn's own rebirth. Its music stands as a summation of the eighteenth century, of the Handelian Baroque as well as of the later Classicism, and its optimism propels it into our own time without sacrificing an ounce of its relevance. Considered in relation to the primordial antiquity it so genially depicts, the span of two centuries separating the birth of The Creation from our own day does not even qualify as a twinkling of the eye.
—James M. Keller
On Disc and in Print
So many fine recordings of The Creation have been made since the very first one, in 1944, that it's hard to play favorites. Helmuth Rilling leads a performance featuring soprano Christine Schäfer, tenor Michael Schade, and baritone Andreas Schmidt, with the Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart and the Stuttgart Bach Collegium (Hänssler Classics). One also comfortably recommends the reading conducted by John Eliot Gardiner and the English Baroque Soloists (Archiv), and, for its distinctive approach to choral singing, Robert Shaw's interpretation with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus (Telarc). Connoisseurs of solo singing may want to follow their particular tastes to any of several recordings featuring cherished singers of past decades, including Irmgaard Seefried (with Igor Markevich conducting the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon), Judith Raskin and John Reardon (with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, on Sony), and the triple-threat cast of Agnes Giebel, Waldemar Kmentt, and Gottlob Frick (with Eugen Jochum leading the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and Vienna Boys' Choir, on Philips). A sort of perfection is achieved in Herbert von Karajan's performance, in German, with the Berlin Philharmonic and the splendid vocal lineup of soprano Gundula Janowitz, mezzo-soprano Christa Ludwig, tenors Fritz Wunderlich and Werner Krenn, baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and bass-baritone Walter Berry (Deutsche Grammophon Originals).
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The standard encyclopedic life-and-works is H.C. Robbins Landon's Haydn: Chronicle and Works (five volumes, Indiana University Press), of which Volume Four covers the years of The Creation's creation. A more approachable single-volume distillation for the lay reader is Haydn: His Life and Works, by Robbins Landon and David Wyn Jones (also Indiana University Press). Nicholas Temperley's lovingly crafted Haydn: The Creation provides succinct historical and analytical discussion as well as a complete German and English libretto (Cambridge Music Handbooks series). Howard Smithers' The Oratorio in the Classical Era (Volume Three of his A History of the Oratorio) considers The Creation in relationship to other works of its genre (University of North Carolina Press).