Notes on Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Creation
Although Haydn wrote The Creation in German, these performances will be sung in English, which Haydn himself recognized as the language of oratorio. He attended a 1784 performance of Handel’s Israel in Egypt in Westminster Abbey, marking the centenary of the composer’s birth, and is said to have burst into tears at the conclusion. He remarked of Handel, “He is the master of us all!”
On a later trip to London, Haydn acquired an English libretto. Haydn used Baron Gottfried van Swieten’s German translation to compose the work, but van Swieten restored the English text, laying it in under the German. Haydn included both languages in his self-published full score.
The following notes were prepared for the Singers 2004 performances.
Franz Joseph Haydn sustained a long and fruitful career. Having painstakingly mastered his art and developed a distinctive style within the musical language of his day, the composer wrote his greatest compositions during his final decade of productivity, when he was well past the age of sixty. A number of spectacular public triumphs crowned his last years. The greatest attended his oratorio The Creation.
Haydn completed this work in 1798, but the story of how he came to write it begins some time earlier, during his famous visits to England, in 1791-92 and again 1794-95. During his London sojourns, Haydn considered the possibility of writing an oratorio, a type of composition that has long enjoyed great popularity in England. He even found a libretto for such a work, a text that had been fashioned years earlier by an English poet named Lidley, reportedly for Handel’s use, embellishing the creation story given in the Book of Genesis. Haydn eventually decided that he was not sufficiently comfortable with the English language to set this text to music, but he took the libretto with him when he returned to Austria, in August 1795.
In Vienna, Haydn showed Lidley’s text to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a highly cultivated Austrian nobleman, part-time composer, and occasional poet. Swieten had some experience in adapting verses for musical purposes, and he now agreed to render Lidley’s libretto into German. Haydn spent much of 1797 setting his translation to music.
The Creation was performed for the first time on April 29, 1798, in Vienna. A witness wrote of the event: “[I] can assure you that I never saw anything like it in my life. The flower of cultivated society, both national and foreign, was gathered there. The best possible orchestra; Haydn himself at their head; the most perfect silence; and the most scrupulous attention; a favorable hall; the greatest precision on the part of the performers; an atmosphere of devotion and respect on the part of the entire assembly.”
The Creation proved immediately successful and soon became the most popular and famous of Haydn’s works. It was performed repeatedly, both in Vienna and other capitals, during the last decade of the composer’s life and brought many honors to Haydn during his declining years. An especially moving tribute came with a performance of The Creation given in Vienna in March 1808. On this occasion, the aged and frail composer was carried into the auditorium on an armchair. One account relates that “his entrance into the hall, to the sound of trumpets and timpani, was received by the numerous assemblage and greeted with the joyful cry, ‘Long live Haydn!’” Further demonstrations at length brought the composer to tears.
The Creation alternates excerpts from the first chapter of Genesis with verses from Milton’s Paradise Lost and several psalms. The juxtaposition of these different materials is reflected in the broad musical structure of the work. Haydn presents the biblical account of Earth’s creation in recitatives for solo soprano, tenor, or bass. Swieten, following Milton’s example, gave to these parts the names of the archangels Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael, but they serve merely as narrators. The only dramatis personae represented in the score are Adam and Eve, who appear in the last of the oratorio’s three sections. Interspersed between the verses of Genesis, those from Paradise Lost and the psalms provide gloss and commentary on the comparatively terse biblical story. Their more colorful language invites more elaborate musical treatment, and Haydn provides this with a wealth of melodic ideas and musical textures.
The oratorio opens with an orchestral prologue, the “Representation of Chaos.” It is one of the most remarkable passages by Haydn or any other eighteenth-century composer, with strange chromatic harmonies, abrupt shifts in volume, irregular phrase lengths, and lack of melodic continuity serving to portray primeval disorder. This is, however, only a portrayal of chaos, and a very Classical-period one at that. Haydn was no anarchist, even in conveying an impression of anarchy, and the music here is wrought with consummate skill and control.
The prelude establishes a premise that Haydn will pursue in a more specific and detailed manner during many of the vocal numbers that follow. This is the use of suggestive musical figuration to “illustrate” various aspects of the text, the type of composing often described as “tone painting.” A striking instance of this occurs in the initial recitative. Here Haydn suggests primordial darkness with hushed voices and somber harmonies, but God’s creation of light brings a burst of tonal radiance. Further examples can be heard throughout the oratorio: in the brief storm music during the second bass recitative; in the magnificent sunrise music; in tempestuous, billowing waves, galloping horses, and numerous other details. Of course, Haydn’s music is not merely illustrative. Rather, its descriptive details are imbedded in a fabric of melody, harmony, and counterpoint that command admiration quite apart from their pictorial purpose.
All this describes somewhat the first two parts of The Creation. The third, however, is a bit different. Here there is no narration from Genesis, nor any of the vivid tone painting we have heard thus far. Instead, Haydn imagines a stylized tableau of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Much of this portion of the score is cast as a duet for these characters, as they commend the beauty of the world God has made and the bliss of matrimony. The choir affirms their sentiments in choruses of joyous praise, the last of which closes the work.
The Creation is surely the most refreshing of the great oratorios. Its tone is ever pastoral and contented, its few dark moments fleeting and incidental. There is no serpent in Haydn’s Eden; the error of knowledge and the fall from grace are mentioned only in passing, and as a dim possibility rather than a terrible reality. H.C. Robbins Landon, the renowned Haydn scholar, notes that the work’s optimistic outlook mirrored that of its era. “Haydn is the true son of the Enlightenment,” Landon states, “[because he expresses] the idea that things will end well. The Creation was such a great success in the 1790s because it confirmed what that century had been saying all along.” He might have added that it speaks still to our sense that the world was once, and might yet be, a place of purity, beauty, and harmony.