NOTES BY ROBERT STEVENSON
Josef Haydn (1732-1809) began composing The Creation in the fall of 1796 and finished it in the spring of 1798. Conscious that he was writing for posterity, he worked at it during those many months with an intensity and painstaking care for detail that made it his crowning masterpiece. The idea of writing such an oratorio and of choosing so grandiose a subject harked back to his two English sojourns. During the first he heard Handel's Messiah performed in Westminster Abbey on June 1, 1791, and was moved to tears. Several subsequent hearings of other oratorios as well as Messiah convinced him that Handel was "master of us all." Even when he heard mere excerpts from Joshua during his second London visit he listened with "rapturous astonishment." During this second visit, 1794-1795, the impresario J. P. Salomon (1745-1815), who had first enticed him to London, gave him the Creation libretto- which he said had been arranged from Milton for Handel's use.
On returning to Vienna in the summer of 1795, Haydn gave this libretto to the Imperial Court Librarian who was also a diplomat and musician, Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1734-1803). Not only did van Swieten translate the now lost English libretto into German, but also he gave Haydn various hints on how to set the text, some of them shrewd. Best of all, however, he gathered the patrons who underwrote the entire costs of the first performances on April 29-30, 1798, in the Schwarzenberg palace at Vienna, and who in addition gave Haydn 500 ducats for composing the work.
Rarely in music history has such a towering monument as The Creation been so enthusiastically received at first hearing. On May 7 and 10 the work had to be repeated at the Schwarzenberg palace, again under Haydn's direction and with the most select musicians in Vienna as performers. Again on March 2 and 4, 1799 he conducted what were still private performances in the Schwarzenberg palace, before the official public premiere March 17, 1799. The public premiere was so eagerly anticipated that already a month earlier every box in the Hoftheater was sold. Again van Swieten's Gesellschaft der Associirten paid all costs, leaving the entire proceeds of 4088 fl. 30 kr., an amount never before collected in a Viennese theater, to Haydn. Frequent repeat performances had to be given during the next season to satisfy public demand. For the December 22-23, 1799, performances, sponsored by the Tonkunstler-Societat, all entry prices were doubled. Four more performances followed at Vienna in 1800, in which year Haydn himself published a subscription edition of the full score with interlinear text in both English and German-the first such double-language publication in music history. In that same year The Creation began its victorious circuit of the world's capitals with rival performances at Covent Garden and at the King's Theatre in London, and a premiere in French at Paris December 24. The gold medal struck in his honor at Paris to commemorate its success and that Haydn bequeathed to Prince Nicholas II Esterhazy, reached him with a memorial signed July 20, 1801, by 142 leading French musicians, calling The Creation the grandest work "hitherto offered an astonished Europe." The Philharmonic Society at St. Petersburg was expressly founded in 1802 for its Russian premiere.
Of the five soloists in The Creation, three are angels. Raphael (bass) sings of earth and sea, Gabriel (soprano) sings of birds and vegetables, and Uriel (tenor) is the angel who sings of the sun, daylight and of human creation. The chorus represents the heavenly hosts. The biblical quotations come chiefly from Genesis: I, 1, 2, 7, 9, 10, 21, 22, 24, 31 for Raphael; I, 11, 20 for Gabriel; I, 4, 14, 16, 27, and II, 7 for Uriel. Psalm XIX inspired "The Heavens are telling," the chorus that ends Part I of the oratorio, Psalm CXLV the concluding chorus in Part II, "Achieved is the Glorious Work." The role of angels in the unfolding action is documented by Daniel VIII, 16 (Gabriel) and by Tobit III, 17 (Raphael). The roles of Adam and Eve are however developed only to the happy moment when they are in each other's arms.
The orchestral prelude to Part I depicting chaos has always been praised as one of Haydn's most proleptic strokes of genius. Van Swieten suggested the masterly way that Haydn handled the phrase, "Let there be light" that climaxes the opening number. Frequently throughout the oratorio, Haydn depicts the text instrumentally before giving it to his singers. The instrumentation itself, like every other aspect of the work, reveals the most careful and refined forethought. The orchestra consisting of paired flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, a double bassoon, paired horns and trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings, equals that for Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, composed in 1805-1807 (except for piccolo added in Beethoven's last movement.)
In maturity, Haydn knew as well as any how to write learned fugues. Nonetheless, he restrains himself. His sketches for The Creation surviving at the National Library in Vienna show that Adam and Eve's duet with chorus in Part III, "By Thee with Bliss," originally contained imitations, and was in C minor rather than C major. He himself had the courage to discard the sketch with a wry marginal comment that the original conception was too complicated. The architecture of the three parts reveals on the broadest scale the same careful planning that informs the smallest details. His concern for telling contrasts of keys, his shapely modulations, his exact timing, and his drive toward an uplifting close for each part, all help explain the initial and enduring success of this marvelous and sublime portrayal of a now long-vanished golden age.