HAYDN The Creation, Hob. XXI/2

Text by Gottfried, Baron van Swieten

This work will be performed in 3 parts with an intermission between Part 1 and 2.

Program notes by Jennifer More Glagov

The Creation, Hob. XXI/2


Born March 31, 1732, Rohrau, Austria

Died May 31, 1809, Vienna

In 1791, Franz Joseph Haydn traveled to London for the very first time—a journey that was not only a personal and professional success, but which eventually led to one of the most popular oratorios of all time. From May 23 to June 1, Haydn attended the Handel Festival held in Westminster Abbey, where he heard Israel in Egypt and Messiah, as well as excerpts from Esther, Saul, Judas Maccabaeus, and Deborah. While he was doubtless already acquainted with Handel’s music, there was something special about these concerts. As Haydn’s friend Giuseppe Carpani recounted, “When [Haydn] heard the music of Hendl [sic] in London, he was struck as if he had been put back to the beginning of his studies and had known nothing up to that moment. He meditated on every note and drew from those most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur.” Haydn’s own reaction was slightly more self-centered—as he admitted, the majesty of Handel’s music stoked his own desire to “write a work that will give permanent fame to my name in the world.” His friend J. P. Salomán offered him precisely such an opportunity. During Haydn’s second visit to London in 1794–95, Salomán gave him an anonymous libretto in English entitled The Creation. Compiled from sources that included the first two books of Genesis and Milton’s Paradise Lost, the text had reportedly been written for Handel, but had never been set to music. Although he was intrigued, Haydn did not immediately accept the offer. As his biographer Dies explained, “Haydn had doubts about his knowledge of the English language, did not undertake it, and finally left London on August 15, 1795.”

Upon his return to Vienna, Haydn shared the libretto with Baron Gottfried van Swieten, an important patron of music. In a letter to the periodical Allgemeine musicalische Zeitung published after the first performance of The Creation, van Swieten describes what followed:

At first sight the material seemed to him 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 Vienna, and he reserved the right to announce his decision from there, where he wanted to take a closer look at the poem. [On his return] he then showed it to me, and I found myself in agreement with the verdict he had given. But 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; I therefore encouraged him to take the work in hand, and in order that our Fatherland might be the first to enjoy it, I resolved to clothe the English poem in German garb. In this way my translation came about. 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 that much should be made more prominent or brought in greater relief, and much placed more in the shade. . . .

In addition to working on the libretto in both languages, van Swieten also found wealthy patrons to defray the costs of performance and supply Haydn with an honorarium. In 1796, Haydn began setting the German version of The Creation (Die Schöpfung), probably keeping the English in mind as he did so. Even in its earliest stages, the piece had a profound effect on the composer. “I was never so devout as when I was at work on The Creation,” the composer later recalled. “I fell on my knees each day and begged God to give me the strength to accomplish the work successfully. Under the direction of its composer, Die Schöpfung made its debut on April 30, 1798, at the Schwarzenberg Palais. The première was thrilling; as Haydn later recounted, “One moment I was as cold as ice, the next I seemed on fire; more than once I was afraid I should have a stroke.” The impact on audience members and critics alike was equally powerful. The work received several subsequent performances in the same year, and soon became the second most frequently performed oratorio after Handel’s Messiah. In 1800, The Creation was published in both English and German, and Haydn reportedly preferred that the oratorio be performed in English when performed in English-speaking countries.

In keeping with Handelian tradition, The Creation is organized into three sections. The first and second depict the process of creation itself, introducing each day with a recitative based on biblical text, highlighting picturesque moments with arias or arioso settings of Milton’s words, and punctuating the day’s end with a jubilant chorus. In the third part, Adam and Eve contemplate their miraculous existence and the wonders of the garden in lyrical and descriptive verse. Opportunities for musical depiction abound in the work, and Haydn capitalizes on the richness of these moments in grand
style. One obvious example is the opening “Representation of Chaos,” in which Haydn uses ambiguous harmonies and pungent chromaticism to paint a vivid picture of a world “without form and void.” The unsettling atmosphere prevails throughout the opening recitative, illustrating the spirit of God moving over primal waters with ghostly chorus and eerie orchestral accompaniment. Darkness is abruptly and unequivocally dismissed in thrilling style with the bold eruption of C Major at the words “Let there be light.” This remarkable moment apparently overwhelmed all who first heard the work; as one of Haydn’s
friends later wrote, “ . . . at that moment when light broke out for the first time, one would have said that rays darted out from the composer’s burning eyes. The enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes.”

One of the most wonderful aspects of The Creation is the way in which Haydn uses music to unite the grandeur of one of history’s greatest stories with wonderfully evocative, tangible details of the natural world. In Part I, the orchestra brings winds, clouds, fire, rain, hail and snow to life in the archangel Raphael’s recitative, “And God made the firmament.” The chorus and soprano solo “The marvelous work beholds amaz’d” immediately follows this tempest of weather effects, throughout which resounds praise of God’s “marv’lous work.” Subsequent sections paint vivid portraits of other natural
phenomena, including the boisterous sea and limpid brooks; rugged rocks and majestic mountains; open plains and silent vales through which serpentine rivers wind; verdant fields filled with fragrant herbs, ripe fruits and tufty groves; and the splendid sun, silver moon and “azure sky, a countless host of radiant orbs.” After enacting the first four days of the creation, Part I concludes with the chorus and trio, “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” which celebrates the creation of the earth in a blaze of operatic glory. The fifth and sixth days are the subject of Part II, in which the creation of living creatures provides Haydn with even greater opportunity for inventive and humorous wordpainting. In Gabriel’s opening aria “On mighty pens,” for example, soloist and orchestra bring an entire aviary to life, including the soaring and swooping eagle, merry lark, cooing dove and the nightingale’s delightful notes, unaffected by grief or “mournful tales.” The tawny lion, agile tiger and nimble stag inhabit Raphael’s recitative “Straight opening her fertile womb,” which closes with the particularly memorable musical image, “”In long dimensions creeps/ With sinuous trace the worm.” After the advent of man and woman, described by the archangel Uriel, Part II concludes with two jubilant choruses surrounding a lyrical trio for the archangels. The concluding chorus includes a double fugue (a fugue based on two subjects) brilliantly illustrating the phrase “Glory to His name forever.”

After the majesty of the creation itself, the third and final part of the oratorio focuses on the day of rest, allowing Adam and Eve to take center stage. In solos, duets and choruses, they revel in the paradise before them – and in their love for each other. Particularly striking is their final love duet, “Graceful consort.” After a slow and elegant opening in triple meter, the pair make a sudden shift in tone at the words, “The dew dropping morn,/O how she quickens all!” The faster tempo, duple meter and rustic horns signal an écossaise, a dance popular in Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth
century. The momentary intrusion of a musical element so patently secular, particularly in contrast with the previous duet and chorus “By Thee with bliss, O bounteous Lord,” might even be interpreted as a fleeting reference to the pair’s immanent fall from grace. With its triumphant choral close, however, The Creation steadfastly resists any hint of darkness, putting the final touches on an orderly, optimistic, and truly Enlightenment portrait of the world. – Jennifer More Glagov, ©2014