About the ProgramJoseph Haydn
Born in Rohrau, Lower Austria, 1732
Died in Vienna, Austria, 1809
Die Schöpfung (“The Creation”) (1799)
The two great oratorios Haydn wrote late in life—The Creation and The Seasons—are that rare thing: supreme masterpieces of optimism, celebrating universal harmony and rejoicing in a flawless world order with no conflicts or adversity of any kind. Usually, such overflowing happiness is reserved for the genre of comedy, not for works with serious philosophical and theological content. But in the Haydn oratorios, we can hardly find any dark moments at all. The forces of evil are disposed of in the very first aria of The Creation in a matter of seconds. Unlike Voltaire in his Candide, another 18th-century classic, Haydn never entertains the shadow of a doubt that this world is the best of all possible worlds. The fact that he was able to present this philosophy convincingly, without ever falling into clichés, is an act of genius unparalleled in history.
The world view expressed in The Creation was entirely consistent with Haydn’s own outlook on life. Georg August Griesinger, who conducted extensive interviews with the composer before writing his invaluable biography, reported:
Haydn was very religiously inclined, and was loyally devoted to the faith in which he was raised. He was very strongly convinced that all human destiny is under God’s guiding hand, that God rewards good and evil, that all talents come from above. . . . 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.Even as he was writing it, Haydn thought of The Creation as the summit of his entire life’s work, and certainly, that is how many generations of music lovers have perceived the oratorio. As Haydn told Griesinger: “I was never so religious as during the composition of The Creation. Daily I fell on my knees and asked God for strength.”
The story of how this work came to be—the creation of The Creation—began several years before Haydn actually started writing it. During his first London sojourn in 1791, he attended a Handel festival at Westminster Abbey. He was not entirely unfamiliar with the music of the Baroque master, since he was well acquainted with Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the Austrian diplomat, scholar, and music lover, who had been promoting both Bach and Handel in Vienna for years. Yet Haydn had never heard anything like this London event, which featured as many as one thousand performers, singers, and instrumentalists presenting a wide selection of Handel’s music, including several of the greatest oratorios either in full or in excerpts. It was said that, upon hearing the “Hallelujah” Chorus from Messiah, Haydn burst into tears and exclaimed: “He is the master of us all!”
Haydn, honored in England as the greatest living composer, was presented with a libretto for an oratorio titled The Creation, which had been intended for Handel but that he never set to music. Haydn took this libretto, whose author is not known, back to Austria and showed it to Baron van Swieten, who proceeded to make a German version for him. (The original English libretto has since been lost.) Haydn composed the work in German, but both he and van Swieten wished to provide an English version as well. The problem was that the original English words did not always fit Haydn’s music, so van Swieten had to retranslate certain lines into English. Since his command of the language was less than perfect, this resulted in numerous infelicities that editors have been trying to correct over the years—not an easy task due to the very special flavor of the libretto, which combines biblical quotes and near quotes with passages derived from, or influenced by, John Milton’s great 17th-century epic poem, Paradise Lost.
In the oratorio, the Creation story is told by three angels who comment on the work of God as it unfolds. In van Swieten’s manuscript, the angels are nameless: only in the first edition did they become the archangels Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor), and Raphael (bass). With the different voice types came differences in the nature of their comments: Raphael chronicles the major cosmological events, often accompanied by mighty upheavals, and the appearance of large animals such as whales and lions. Gabriel strikes a more lyrical tone, celebrating flowery meadows and soaring birds in arias that make ample use of coloratura. Uriel appears gentle but resolute as he tells of the defeat of the forces of darkness and rejoices in the appearance of Man and Woman as the crowning glory of Creation.
The Creation is divided into three parts, like Messiah, which was Haydn’smost important model. Handel’s tripartite design (Nativity—Passion—Resurrection) corresponds to the creation of the inanimate world, the animate world, and the humans in Haydn.
Part I of Haydn’s oratorio begins with one of the most astonishing introductions ever written, “The Representation of Chaos” (No. 1). The unformed world, to Haydn, is a harmonic labyrinth in which the tonal rules guiding classical composition are nonexistent. The music uncannily anticipates the 20th century in the way it refuses to settle in any key or to conform to the conventions of phrase structure. Utterly unpredictable woodwind solos (a rapid scale in the clarinet, a lightning-like ascent in the bassoon) flit by like comets in a dark sky. At the end of the recitative for Raphael and the chorus (No. 2), a spectactular outburst in C major greets the words “Let there be light—and there was light.”
Uriel’s aria with chorus (No. 3) starts out as a lyrical commentary on the First Day. At the mention of Hell’s Spirits, a sudden shift of mood occurs with a modulation into a startlingly remote key; but by the end of the movement, the blissful feelings are restored, along with the home tonality.
Haydn seems to have set the “big bang” to music in the agitated storm music between the phrases of Raphael’s recitative telling about the separation of heaven and earth amidst thunder, lightning, rain, and snow (No. 4). Yet the next moment, the skies are already clear. Gabriel’s jubilant aria, accompanied by the chorus, resounds with the praise of the Second Day (No. 5). The fanfare-like melody reaches a glorious high C just before the end of the aria.
Dramatic contrast is provided as Raphael, in a recitative (No. 6), recounts the separation of the waters and the continents and, in the following aria (No. 7), evokes the savage power of the elements at sea and on land. The “dramatic” key of D minor with its attendant syncopations evokes Mozart’s “stormy” piano concerto in the same key; yet, true to the work’s unconquerable optimism, the elements are tamed soon enough. As our glance shifts from the wild seas to the “limpid brook,” the key changes to D major and the world, once again, is a calm and peaceful place. It becomes even more so when vegetation appears: Gabriel proclaims the creation of green grass and fruit-bearing trees in a recitative (No. 8) and elaborates on it in an aria that begins in simple pastoral style but soon erupts in virtuosic coloratura passages (No. 9). A brief tenor recitative (No. 10) introduces a choral movement (No. 11) that was clearly inspired by Handel: the words Denn er hat Himmel und Erde bekleidet in herrlicher Pracht (“For he the heavens and earth has clothed in stately dress”) inspires a massive fugue, armed with the full arsenal of Baroque contrapuntal techniques such as augmentation (the theme sung at half its original speed) and stretto (the successive entrances following upon one another as closely as possible).
There is, however, no time to relax after this intense moment, as another highlight follows immediately. Uriel makes us see the sun, the moon, and the stars appear in the sky: a simpler recitativo secco or “dry” recitative (accompanied only by “dry” chords, No. 12) is followed by a recitativo accompagnato (No. 13) in which the flutes and violins play a slowly ascending scale, with dynamic crescendo, symbolizing the sunrise. A slower, more introspective passage, with a quiet motion in the strings, announces the moon. The stars of the firmament prompt “the sons of God” to sing a song of praise even more exuberant than the two that have preceded it. In Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (“The heavens are telling the glory of God,” No. 14), the three soloists are reunited for the first time as an ensemble, which alternates with the chorus as the smaller and larger groups do in a concerto grosso. After a brief contrapuntal episode, the movement—and Part I— concludes in a blaze of sound in the triumphant key of C major.
Part II opens with a brief recitative in which Gabriel announces the creation of birds (No. 15). The subsequent aria (No. 16) is, above all, a showpiece for soprano, as No. 9 was earlier. But the orchestra is at least an equal partner. The lengthy introduction is almost like the orchestral exposition of a concerto. The first clarinet and first flute vie with the singer in rendering the song of the lark and the nightingale, respectively. A pair of bassoons, doubled by violins, represents the cooing dove. After the birds come the whales: Raphael’s recitative (No. 17) turns into an arioso at the words “Be fruitful all and multiply,” in a regular tempo and accompanied by a polyphonic string texture (with divided violas and no violins!). He continues by announcing the Fifth Day in a recitative (No. 18) followed by a grandiose trio with chorus (No. 19) in which everything created thus far is surveyed again. Each of the three archangels admires different aspects of creation, according to their own personalities: Gabriel sings about the beauties of nature, Uriel about songbirds, and Raphael about the giant Leviathan. Then they (with the chorus) all join their voices in a lively trio praising all the wonders of the world.
More wildlife appears in the following scene: in his recitativo secco (No. 20) Raphael announces the creation of animals on the dry land and, in his accompagnato (No. 21), he literally brings them alive: the energetic figures of the orchestra evoke, in turn, the lion, the tiger, the stag, and the steed. The cattle and the sheep prompt another pastoral episode with flute and bassoon solos, and the crawling worm sends the singer into the lowest part of his range. In a quiet and dignified Maestoso aria (No. 22), Raphael rejoices in seeing “heaven in fullest glory,” yet in the second half of the same aria notes that “all the work was not complete,” since there were no knowing creatures as yet who could give God the praise that was His due. This provides the logical connection to Uriel’s recitative (No. 23) and aria (No. 24) in which the creation of the first human couple is retold. Mit Wu?rd’ und Hoheit angetan (“In native worth and honor clad”) is perhaps one of the most famous arias in the whole oratorio. It has often been noted how, in its two sections, Haydn characterizes Adam with “masculine” music (energetic melody, bold modulations) and Eve with “feminine” softness and grace. In his book-length essay about The Creation in the Cambridge Music Handbook Series, Nicholas Temperley comments on the “Eve” section: “Like the text, the music reflects man’s feelings about her rather than her actual character; but it is a superb example of Haydn’s ability to fashion conventional forms to the needs of his text.”
The Sixth Day is now over, the work of the Creation complete, and it is time—after a bass recitative (No. 25), which states that God found everything “very good”—for Haydn’s great “Hallelujah” chorus. Vollendet ist das grosse Werk (“Achieved is the glorious work,” No. 26) is cast in a large ABA form. Between two exuberant choral sections, each making ample use of contrapuntal development, comes an introspective trio for the soloists in a slow tempo. The duo of the soprano and the tenor, though still “officially” embodying Gabriel and Uriel, begins to sound a little like a love duet, foreshadowing Adam and Eve in Part III. They sing about God’s blessings, while Raphael, amidst remote modulations and extreme vocal depths, describes (but only for a moment) what happens if God hides His face. The bass solo forms the middle section within a middle section, followed first by a trio in which Raphael joins his two fellow archangels in their gentle song of praise, and then by the return of the chorus “Achieved is the glorious work,” even more powerful than before.
Part III opens with a graceful introduction scored, most unusually in Haydn, for three solo flutes. The setting is the Garden of Eden, where Uriel, in an affecting accompagnato (No. 27), introduces the new protagonists, the human couple. (In most performances, the singers performing the roles of Raphael and Gabriel take on the roles of Adam and Eve, respectively, though occasionally, new singers are engaged for these parts.) Adam and Eve’s first duet, accompanied by the chorus (No. 28), begins as a heartfelt song of thanksgiving. It continues with an Allegretto that sounds simple on the surface but is in fact extremely rich in modulations, as Creation is examined under its various aspects once more: the panorama includes the sun, the moon, the stars, inanimate nature, plants, and animals. In other words, Haydn offers, near the end of his monumental work, a summary of the ground that has been covered. There are plenty of musical references to past movements, but no literal repeats—and nothing ever sounds repetitive or redundant.
The final portion of the movement brings a personal touch to the praise that was missing earlier: the transition from angelic to human voices may be felt in the special warmth of Adam and Eve’s vocal lines. The concluding choral section, with its long-held notes on Ewigkeit (literally: “eternity”—in the sung text: “evermore”) and the unmistakable excitement throughout, also indicate the new human dimension, which continues in Nos. 29 and 30, the recitative and duet in which Adam and Eve turn from God to each other and affirm their love. To our modern sensibilities, there is certainly something chauvinistic about a libretto in which he says “I’ll guide you,” and she says, “Your will is law to me; from obedience grows my pride and happiness.” Yet Haydn’s music renders these latterday charges quite irrelevant: it shifts the attention to the great love these two people share, and makes their feelings sound totally sincere. The first half of the love duet, in a slow tempo, is an affecting declaration of love; then Adam and Eve give voice to their bliss in a lively and playful Allegro.
In his short recitative (No. 31), Uriel briefly, and somewhat obliquely, warns about “false conceits” and the misguided desire to know “more than you should.” But the story of the apple—like anything negative—is entirely outside the purview of this masterpiece of optimism, which ends in a great hymn of praise (No. 32) with a monumental fugue filled with Handel’s spirit. The three soloists are briefly joined by a fourth, an alto, usually selected from the ranks of the chorus (though on Herbert von Karajan’s recording of the work, no less a star than Christa Ludwig was engaged for this rather small task). No “Amen” at the end of a piece of music has ever sounded happier or more powerful.
The first public performance in 1799 was awaited in Vienna with the greatest anticipation. Audiences were so excited that Haydn had to make a specific request that they not demand any movements to be encored so as not to disrupt the dramatic flow. In the course of the next decade, The Creation was presented some 40 times in Vienna alone, with the rest of Europe not far behind. One particular performance—conducted by Antonio Salieri in March 1808—deserves special mention, for this occasion marked Haydn’s last appearance in public. According to eyewitness descriptions,
Haydn, sitting in an armchair, was borne along aloft, and at 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! . . . ” The greatest nobility of that palace and from afar had chosen their places in Haydn’s vicinity.
When Haydn heard the thunderous applause interrupting the performance at the words “And there was light,”
tears streaming down his pallid cheeks and as if overcome by the most violent emotions, raised his trembling arms to heaven, as if in prayer to the Father of Harmony.
A year later (on May 31, 1809), Haydn passed away at the age of 77. The world he left behind was hardly the Paradise he had described so eloquently in his great masterwork: 19 days earlier, on May 12, Vienna had been invaded by Napoleon’s army. Yet despite the wars that continued to ravage Europe for six more years, the message of Haydn’s two oratorios did not get lost. The world has been thirsty for this enthusiastic affirmation of life ever since.
—Peter Laki, Visiting Associate Professor of Music