Die Schöpfung (The Creation): Haydn’s Crowning Masterpiece
By Thomas May
Following his triumphant trips to London in the 1790s, it would have been easy enough for Haydn to rest on his laurels. His music, after decades of obscurity, was now internationally renowned, and he had already achieved an enviable degree of financial security. The mere fact of his longevity made the composer a statistical anomaly for the era.
Yet several factors prompted Haydn to take up new challenges after his return to Vienna in 1795. The London experience had exposed him to stirring performances of several of Handel’s oratorios (in particular, Israel in Egypt and Messiah). “He was struck as if he had been put back to the beginning of his studies and had known nothing up to that moment,” wrote an early biographer. Haydn was deeply impressed not only by the music but by Handel’s ability to move a diverse audience. So when the opportunity to try his own hand at English-style oratorio arose, it’s not surprising that Haydn became determined to crown his career with a glorious final flowering of choral music.
Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario who had organized Haydn’s series of London concerts, had provided him with an English libretto recounting the biblical creation story — a libretto allegedly once offered to the old master Handel himself (which may have added a competitive thrill to Haydn’s undertaking). The decisive catalyst was provided back in Vienna by the Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the music-loving aristocrat and artistic busybody we encountered earlier this season as the man who enlisted Mozart to “retool” several Handel oratorios (including Messiah) for their belated Viennese premieres.
Van Swieten not only arranged a handsome commission for Haydn but extensively tailored the original English libretto — whose authorship remains a matter of scholarly speculation. In translating The Creation into Die Schöpfung, the Baron generally shortened the original lengthy text but also elaborated or rewrote several numbers. He then retranslated the new version back into English and, as an amateur composer himself, couldn’t resist passing along specific recommendations as to how Haydn should handle certain passages. Some of these were followed by the composer, while others were simply ignored.
Haydn set both the German and English texts and — a first for musical publishing — had the two languages printed side by side in a bilingual edition. Even though the composer envisioned using the latter version for English-speaking audiences, there’s a good argument for keeping to the German version (as in this performance), since Haydn’s vocal lines are clearly patterned after the German word-sense and accentuation; moreover, van Swieten’s retranslation, though emended in later editions, made for numerous awkward phrasings in English.
Haydn had experimented with the oratorio in the 1770s, with mixed success, in his Il ritorno di Tobia, drawing on the genre’s Italian baroque heritage. But the ambition fueling The Creation, modeled on the English three-part oratorio, was altogether different in scope. Despite his status as Europe’s leading composer of instrumental music, Haydn suffered a remarkable degree of self-doubt while composing The Creation. He wrestled mightily with its score, which occupied him for at least a year and a half, between 1796 and 1798. “Only when I had reached the half-way mark in my composition did I perceive that it was succeeding,” Haydn reported to an early biographer, “and I was never so devout as during the time when I was working on The Creation.”
Still, The Creation won Haydn the most resounding praise of his career, beginning with the semi-private premiere, in April 1798, which was followed by the highly acclaimed first public performances in Vienna’s Burgtheater in 1799. The composer further explored his newfound mastery of choral music in his final series of Masses and in a “sequel” oratorio (this time unequivocally authored by van Swieten), The Seasons. But it was above all thanks to The Creation that Haydn spent his twilight years admired as a combination celebrity-sage. During his bombardment and occupation of Vienna, Napoleon (who himself had survived a bombing attempt on the night of the work’s Paris premiere in 1800) gave orders to protect the composer’s house, and one of his soldiers even paid a visit shortly before Haydn’s death in 1809, during which he sang Uriel’s aria from Part Two (“In native worth and honor clad”).
The libretto consists of 32 numbers (the total can vary somewhat, depending on how a few of the more elaborate numbers are subdivided in particular editions). Haydn transforms these into chains of interconnected musical structures. Recitatives — both “dry,” with mere continuo backing, and richly detailed “accompanied” settings — serve to introduce full-scale numbers for the soloists, ending with choral settings to celebrate each day of creation.
Along with chorus and expanded orchestra (including a third flute, contrabassoon, and trombones), Haydn scores for three soloists: soprano, tenor, and bass, who appear, respectively, as the archangels Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael (not present in the scriptural account but a significant part of the epic cast from Milton’s Paradise Lost); in the third part, the soprano and bass take the parts of Eve and Adam. The final number calls for the addition of an alto to make up a solo quartet, whose sonority is contrasted with that of the full chorus.
The pressure Haydn felt in composing The Creation is easily understandable considering the extraordinary task he sets himself: no less than to depict the formation of the narrative. The most imposing challenge of all occurs right at the beginning — or rather, before the beginning, in the orchestral prelude titled “The Representation of Chaos.” Here, Haydn the symphonist comes to the fore, but with an uncannily original instrumental language in which he had to distort all his instincts for classical clarity of form: cadences deceive, dynamics astonish, and tonalities wander unresolved. The human voice enters in a subdued bass recitative (in the angelic role of Raphael), followed by a hushed chorus which then famously blazes into white-hot C major with the appearance of light. This single ploy — the sudden eruption of triumphant major after painful wandering in the minor — established a paradigm that Beethoven would later revisit in his Fifth Symphony.
What Haydn also illustrates in the opening pair of movements is one of The Creation’s guiding musical principles: in the beginning was the tone, as it were, which precedes the word, the verbal image conjured by the singers. With remarkable consistency, the score offers us musical depictions in advance of the things described by the text — before the objects they describe are identified, that is. The Creation is especially famous for such gestures of musical imitation, which are scattered throughout the accompanied recitatives (as in the delightful calling forth of the creatures of the land) and developed in more detail in the solo arias (Gabriel’s hymns to flowering vegetation and to the variety of birds, for example). Indeed, this trait has even been seen as a liability, derided as “naïve” by later romantics and modernists.
Yet to listen to these imitations as The Creation’s main interest itself reveals a naïve approach. Haydn’s music transcends local details of clever representation and generate its own structures of tension and release. The libretto’s retelling of the creation story encodes an Enlightenment-inspired focus on rational order — one girded by hints of the Masonic image of God-as-architect with which the composer very likely sympathized. Haydn’s own careful architecture includes gestures of reenactment to reinforce the most significant patterns of the created universe. Thus the opening refinement of chaos into light is echoed twice more: in the rising of the sun in Part Two and in the first human dawn that opens Part Three (thus setting up a neat symmetry with the orchestral introduction to Part One). The Masonic faith in enlightening reason serves as a compass, though Haydn does not stint on drama and emotion. The rhetoric of Sturm und Drang returns in Uriel’s number (with chorus) at the end of the First Day, which mixes praise for creation with acknowledgment of darker forces. Together, both elements generate a powerful miniature tone poem of contrasts.
With the shift toward the human perspective in Part Three (note that it is Eve who has the honor of singing first), Haydn writes the score’s most extensive number as Adam and Eve’s song of thanksgiving is amplified by the chorus. The act of conscious praise is, after all, what Haydn himself is aiming for through his own creative effort, and which we as listeners are invited to share. Mirroring the diversity of creation, Haydn weaves a whole history of music into his score: along with the Handelian texture of his choral double fugues, we hear Haydn as the up-to-date classical symphonist, as well as heroic arias from opera (the great numbers by Raphael and Uriel proclaiming the creation of humans) and the popular idiom of the Singspiel in Adam and Eve’s duet, when they discover love; programmatic romanticism is meanwhile foreshadowed. Past, present, and future thus become entangled in the score as Haydn infuses the familiar story of creation with a sense of new wonder.
— Thomas May writes frequently about the arts and is the program annotator for the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
Structure of The Creation
The oratorio’s three-part libretto traces the six days of creation, culminating in a day of paradisiacal rest. Its text draws on the first and second chapters of Genesis (originally from the King James Bible) and includes poetic meditations on the biblical narrative, rendered as paraphrases from Milton’s Paradise Lost (especially Books VII and VIII).
Part One depicts the first four days (light, the separation of heaven, the earth and the seas, the heavenly bodies); days five and six make up Part Two (the creation of animals and finally of humans). In Part Three, only the Miltonic source is used to depict the first day for Adam and Eve, who first offer thanksgiving to the Creator and then discover love.