PROGRAM NOTES by
Richard H. Trame, S. J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
When Joseph Haydn's The Creation received its first private premiere performances on April 29 and 30, 1798, the Princess Eleanore von Liechtenstein in attendance at one of them described the event very much in terms of a Hollywood movie premiere or a concert appearance of a popular rock star. By this time, indeed, Haydn, now lionized by the Viennese public, had become an internationally recognized composer, the proud recipient of an Oxford University Doctorate in Music.
These premieres took place in Prince Schwartzenberg's sumptuous palace in the Neuer Market. The populace crowded the approaches to the palace to see the arrival of "all the elegant Polish, English, and Viennese ladies." The press of onlookers required the removal of the wooden market stalls and bails of merchandise from the square while twelve policemen and eighteen mounted guards maintained order!
The reviewer for the newspaper Neuer teutscher Merkur reflected that "three days have passed since that enrapturing evening and still the music sounds in my ears and in my heart." How many of the original audience, we wonder, hastened back to the Schwartzenberg Palace for the two more private performances the following week on May 7 and 10?
The public had to wait until March 19, 1799 (Tuesday of Holy Week and feast of St. Joseph, Haydn's patron) when the greatest crowd ever seen there crammed the Burgtheater and box office receipts totaled an unprecedented 4088+ florins.
Bedlam appears to have prevailed outside and inside the theatre that day. By 4 p.m. the box office was already besieged by ticket seekers who had been in line, some of them since 1 p.m., for a concert scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. When the Oratorio commenced, the power of the music quickly quelled all the previous confusion of shouting and jockeying for places, so that, as a contemporary there wrote, "apart from the frequent applause you would have thought that the theatre was empty of people.'
The Creation was to be performed almost annually in Vienna from that time until the present, even when the adverse remarks of Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century critics chided respectable music lovers for listening to "arrant (literary) nonsense with which Haydn's music is associated."
Two rival impresarios, Salomon and Ashley, produced The Creation in London during March and April, 1800, while later in that year it was heard at the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester.
The French premiere occurred in Paris, Christmas Eve, 1800. If it had not been for his coachman's appreciation of Napoleon's scrupulous punctuality in arriving at events and thus speeding the First Consul's carriage through the narrow Rue Niçaise toward the Theatre des Arts, Napoleon would not have escaped assassination that evening. During the performance, the dazed and rattled Napoleon finally awoke to the power of Haydn's music as it describe a newly created work, a New Order. Its message struck a sympathetic chord in this founder of a New Order for France.
Five hundred ducats raised by Baron Gottfried van Swieten and noble friends, and Haydn's memories of his having heard Handel's Israel in Egypt and Messiah, easily persuaded the Master to commence work on The Creation early in 1797. Its composition followed shortly after he had completed his choral version of the Seven Last Words of Christ. It was interrupted during the year for the composition of his string quartets, Opus 76 and his great Volklied, Gott erhalte, the Austrian National Anthem, known to English listeners as the hymn "Glorious things of Thee are spoken." When his compositional inspiration flagged, Haydn resorted to prayer, often in the form of reciting the Rosary. He observed that this procedure never failed to rekindle his spirit.
However much the libretto was derived from the Bible and Milton's Paradise Lost, Baron van Swieten, that indefatigable promoter of Bach and Handel, fashioned a German libretto which, though catering to the enfeebled Viennese literary taste of the day, proved an ideal vehicle for Haydn's music.
Whatever Masonic symbolism Van Swieten incorporated into it, such as shaping the Oratorio into three acts instead of the more usual two, using three narrators as redolent of the "Three Symbolism" of Masonry, Brother Haydn could just as well see in it Christian Trinitarian symbolism. Any emphasis on God the Great Architect of the Universe did not inhibit Haydn from glorifying the Biblical Yahweh as Creator. Nor did the Oratorio's lack of a redemptive message, which contemporary clerics complained about, bespeak anything more than Haydn's overwhelming joy at God's creative activity before the advent of Original Sin made redemption mandatory. Nor were the Masonic and Eighteenth Century Enlightenment humanitarian ideals expressed by the Oratorio incompatible with Haydn's Catholicism. But, alas, Haydn too encountered that same prejudiced attitude from the Austrian clergy about the oratorio's viability which Handel had experienced from the Anglican clergy in London when the question of propriety of location arose for performance.
During his London sojourns, Haydn had been hugely impressed with the massive performances of Handel's oratorios. The immediate result of this contact was his choral arrangement of the Seven Last Words. But this work was more a series of contemplative choral meditations than a strict oratorio. Even with its desultory choral passages his work of 1774-5 Il ritorno di Tobia had been an unsuccessful foray into Italian-style oratorio. Thus The Creation was consciously composed with the massive choral manner of Handel's Israel in Egypt and Messiah in mind, two quite untypical Handelian oratorios.
Haydn, like Handel, now desired to write a work meant for the whole nation. Hence he insisted with Van Swieten on a German text, however well it might be fitted to English words. In accommodating him with the libretto, Van Swieten did not hesitate to furnish the Master with his insightful suggestions on the music. Haydn frequently accepted his librettist's musical ideas, particularly respecting programmatic details such as roaring lions, etc. Moreover, the orchestration exhibits such a colorful wealth of these details that the influence of Israel in Egypt is clearly felt. For all of his somewhat domineering character, Van Swieten proved to be an ideal collaborator with Haydn.
Not to be outdone by contemporary English practices respecting the presentation of Handel's oratorios, Haydn's forces at the first public presentation amounted to about 400 singers and instrumentalists. He scored the work for five soloists, chorus, and the largest orchestra he had ever used. It embraced a full complement of woodwinds, brass, timpani, and strings. Beethoven would not write for a larger ensemble. Moreover, Haydn used this orchestra in a way distinctly different from that of his earlier symphonies. We have, as Robbins Landon asserts, "a new kind of instrumentation" producing "a distinctly nineteenth century music." In his masses, Haydn had a new form that went further than the symphony, and here in the Oratorio was something fit to close the career of music's greatest craftsman."
The Creation comprises three parts. After the harmonically and instrumentally superb representation of Chaos, the Archangel Raphael announces the bringing of order out of Chaos as the first four days of Creation are presented. Gabriel announces Part II with the fifth day of Creation, the peopling of the verdant Earth and vast seas with their various inhabitants. Uriel proclaims the good news of the creation of Adam and Eve who in turn praise the Lord of Creation.
For appraisals of Haydn's Creation we turn to the respected Haydn scholars, H. C. Robbins Landon and Karl Geiringer: "... after its first recording in 1949," Robbins Landon notes, "the Oratorio has very quickly become a standard choral work and one of its composer's most admired and most loved compositions. That it brought real comfort, consolation, and joy to thousands of Viennese and very soon, other Europeans, is clear from every document quoted above. Never in the history of music, not even Handel with his Messiah ... had a composer judged the temper of his time with such smashing success."
And Geiringer: "The Creation testified to the breadth of Haydn's inner world. In this work, childlike naiveté, joy in the world of the senses and gentle humor are combined with profound faith, nobility of expression and hymn-like fervor. The diversity inherent in this spiritual landscape may account for the strong echo that the work, since its first performance, has evoked in the hearts of listeners."