The Creation - Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)


Creation and the six days act they sung, Great are thy works Jehovah, infinite thy power.

(Paradise Lost, book 7)

Until the year 1790, Haydn was probably the least cosmopolitan amongst the major composers of the eighteenth century. His employer, the music-loving Prince Nicolaus Esterházy, kept him very busy, and on an extremely short leash, in his provincial outpost of the Austrian Empire. However, the succession to the Esterházy principality in 1790 of his rather less cultured son, Prince Anton, had, for Haydn, the fortunate effect of reducing his obligations to his employer, so that he was at last free to visit some of the musical centres around Europe where his music had already earned him the reputation of being, with Mozart, the greatest living composer.
In 1791, during the first of his two visits to London, Haydn attended the Handel festival at Westminster Abbey, where performances of Messiah and Israel in Egypt, given by enormous choral and orchestal forces, made a huge impression on him. When his London promoter Johann Peter Saloman subsequently presented him with an oratorio libretto entitled The Creation of the World, which was said to have been written for Handel in the 1740s, Haydn was inspired to turn his own creative energies towards composing an oratorio. On his return to Vienna, Haydn gave the libretto to the prominent music-lover and littérateur Gottfried van Swieten, who translated it into German, and also adapted the English version – it is impossible to be sure how much, as the original libretto is lost. The process of composing the music lasted from late 1796 until the spring of 1798, when it was first performed. Haydn conceived the work bilingually, and it was published, most unusually for the time, with both English and German words. It was performed with great success all over Europe, and quickly became Haydn's most popular work.
There are three main sources for the text: Genesis chapter one, the book of Psalms and Milton's Paradise Lost . The structure of the libretto is modelled on book 7 of Milton's epic poem, in which the archangel Raphael describes to Adam and Eve how God the Son set out from heaven, accompanied by hosts of angels and archangels, to create the world in six days. The part of Raphael in Haydn's oratorio is played by the bass soloist. To achieve more musical variety, Haydn's librettist re-allocates parts of the narrative to two more archangels, Uriel, played by the tenor soloist, and Gabriel, played by the soprano.
Before Creation, there was Chaos, which Milton describes as “a vast, immeasurable abyss/ Outrageous as a sea, dark, wasteful, wild”. The orchestra depicts this in the Introduction. Archangel and chorus use the words of the book of Genesis to describe the creation of light – the Big Bang. The tenor, Uriel, describes the frightened reaction of the evil spirits to God's first act of creation, then the chorus of angels proclaims what they have witnessed: “A new-created world springs up at God's command.” The first day ends.
This pattern continues: at the beginning of each day, an archangel announces, “And God said…”, quoting the book of Genesis. The text and music elaborate on God's creative acts on that day, often using Milton's memorably picturesque words (the “serpent error” of the rivers on day two, the fields “in verdure clad” on day three, the earth “opening her fertile womb” on day six), before the angels mark the end of each day in celebratory chorus. After the climax of the sixth day, the creation of humankind, the angelic chorus announces the end of the process of creation: “Achieved is the glorious work”. The concluding section of the oratorio is a description of life in paradise, with the Soprano and Bass soloists now playing the roles of Adam and Eve, which ends with a final chorus of praise.
Haydn was both inspired and moved by his subject matter. In a letter he wrote:

The Creation has always been considered the sublimest and most awe-inspiring image for mankind. To accompany this great work with appropriate music could certainly have no other result than to heighten these sacred emotions in the listener's heart, and to make him highly receptive to the goodness and omnipotence of the Creator.

Haydn's music in the oratorio is many-faceted. He delights in picturesque musical descriptions: thunder and lightning as the sky is created, the foaming billows of the sea, the roar of the lion and the bounding of the flexible tiger. Despite the work's instant popularity with audiences across Europe, these literalistic descriptions attracted stern censure from music critics, who felt that music should express the sensations and feelings aroused in man by the natural world, not simply imitate the noises it makes. In between these passages, both the angelic and earthly creations unite in hymns of utmost sublimity to the creator. Both of these aspects reflect the world view of Haydn's time: the beauties of nature were a preoccupation of many artists, while Enlightenment philosophy held that the universe was an orderly place, whose natural laws were an expression of the divine creator, as well as being the proper focus for scientific inquiry. Haydn had been fascinated on his first visit to London by the forty-foot telescope of court astronomer William Herschel (who was a keen amateur oboist, as well as the discoverer of the planet Uranus). When, four years later, Haydn came to set the words of Psalm 19 in “The Heavens are telling”, the image of the stars and planets joining with the mountains, rivers and seas of the earth in song to the creator, was as consonant with the discoveries of Newton, scientific hero of the Enlightenment, as it was with Haydn's own Catholic faith.

It was Darwin's scientific work which posed fundamental questions about a literal acceptance of the creation story told by Genesis, Milton, and Haydn, and it is a quirk of history that the year of Haydn's death was also that of Darwin's birth. The closing paragraphs of The Origin of Species recapitulate themes from the Enlightenment when they allude to “..what we know of the laws impressed on matter by the Creator”, then, as a final coda, present a sketch of

…this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

It may lack the poetry of “How many are thy works O God! Who may their number tell?” But the meanings are not too far apart.



Peter Foster