In an age of science, does The Creation still matter?
How, we wondered, might the experience of 21st-century audiences compare with that of audiences in Haydn’s time? Would audiences that know about the Big Bang and the Double Helix hear The Creation with a diminished sense of awe? We put that question to Kenneth Miller, professor of biology at Brown University, who has written, lectured and debated questions of science and religious belief. His answer: Not at all.
Franz Josef Haydn wrote his great oratorio The Creation near the conclusion of the 18th century. Although the work of Charles Darwin was more than half a century in the future, scientific rationality had already begun to undermine many of the certainties in the core of the creation story that Haydn brought to life. The earth had long been displaced as the center of the universe, and the early stirrings of experimental science had begun to provide physical explanations for natural phenomena that, in ages past, had been taken for miraculous.
John Keats captured the unsettling feeling that nature was being robbed of spiritual mystery and meaning in these lines from his final book of poems:
Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow ...
Lamia, II, 1820
If Keats could be driven toward melancholy merely by Newton’s explanation for the optics of the rainbow, one can only wonder what dark lines he might have written in response to Darwin’s work on the origin of species. Although Keats and Haydn did not live to see a world in which evolution would displace the Eden of his oratorio, we most certainly have. Does this mean that today’s scientific worldview requires us to regard The Creation as a cultural museum piece, a work — however beautiful — that has nothing to say to the modern world?
Not at all. Haydn’s narrative, inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost, addresses themes that, if anything, have been made more relevant by today’s science. To Haydn, evidence of the Creator’s magnificence was to be found in heaven and on earth, in the stars that lit the nighttime sky, and in the majesty of our planet’s landscape. Two centuries later, what has happened to that vision? In space, our horizons have been expanded to reveal a universe far more intriguing than even the grandest artistic visions of the 17th and 18th centuries. By the same token, although the biological sciences may have provided an answer to how living species arise, they have also shown us that our own bodies, our own cells are universes in themselves. So remarkable is the stuff of which we are made, that we can say with confidence that a new age of exploration is just beginning as we take our first halting steps into the landscape of the human genome.
Against this backdrop, the sense of magnificence that is manifest in The Creation is more relevant than ever. The questions it addresses — our place in the universe, our relationship with eternity, our wonder at the grandeur of life itself — are more profound today than they were 200 years ago, and in many ways, they carry a greater sense of urgency. In the final analysis, it is only in an age of scientific discovery that the artistry of Haydn’s work can be fully appreciated, taking center stage in the grand play of creation that continues to amaze and delight our senses and our minds.
Professor Miller wrote this essay for performances of The Creation
given by the Providence Singers in October 2004.