NOTES BY ROBERT STEVENSON
Haydn's superb oratorio The Seasons was first performed at the Palais Schwarzenburg in Vienna on April 24, 1801. The success was enormous, perhaps even greater than that of The Creation premiered in the same palace April 29 and 30, 1798. As Haydn himself wrote to Clementi at London in a letter dated April 28, 1801, "My Four Seasons has been received here with the same undivided approbation as was the Creation; in fact some prefer it to the Creation because of its variety."
In both oratorios, Haydn set librettos adapted from English poems by the Dutch-born Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1734-1803) to whom Beethoven dedicated his First Symphony and who from 1778 had been a leading figure in the cultural and intellectual life of Vienna. During the 1780's van Swieten had formed a small group of the Viennese nobility called the Gesellschaft der Associierten whose purpose it was to stimulate the performance of oratorios - especially Handel's, and it was for their concerts that Mozart had made arrangements of Handel's Acis and Galatea, Alexander's Feast, Messiah, and the Ode for St. Cecilia's Day. In 1796 the Associierten had sponsored a performance of Haydn's Seven Last Words, which although originally a collection of instrumental sonatas composed in 1785, became a choral work with the text adapted by van Swieten.
In 1798 van Swieten's adaptation of the now lost English libretto for The Creation was only a part of his total contribution to Haydn's oratorio, the other possibly more important part being his lining up noble backers at 50 ducats each to guarantee first performance costs, plus a handsome fee for Haydn. Van Swieten so highly appreciated Haydn's unparalleled success with The Creation that even before first public performance on March 19, 1799, in the National (Karntnertor) Theatre he handed Haydn the libretto of The Seasons, the oratorio (or series of four cantatas) that now absorbed his best energies for the next two years. The poem chosen by van Swieten was published by James Thomson (1700-1748) in four parts: Winter (1726), Summer (1727), Spring (1728), and Autumn (1730) - all four parts being collected in 1730 in the more logical order Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. So enormous was the success of The Seasons at home and abroad that Samuel Johnson compared Thomson with Milton, at least eleven editions of German translations were published between 1745 and 1789, twelve of a French translation between 1759 and 1788, in 1787 a Dutch translation, in 1786 an Italian version, and in 1801 a Spanish translation. Thomson's Seasons however lacks speaking characters-or overt drama, and instead pursues philosophical reflections on the beauties and tyrannies of Nature, the cyclical scheme of the universe, and the necessity of a beneficent Creator to break the bonds of the eternal cycle. Van Swieten changed all this. Simon, a farmer, his daughter Jane ( = Hanne in German), and Lucas, a peasant, individually, in ensemble, and together with the choruses of men and women countryfolk, meditate and comment on the beauties and contrarieties of the countryside.
The instrumental introduction to Part I depicts the passage from Winter to Spring. Simon, Lucas, and Jane comment on the breaking up of Winter, countryfolk then welcome Spring in a charming 6/8 G major chorus. Van Swieten wanted Haydn to introduce occasional operatic quotations to enliven his score. Instead Haydn quotes the Andante of his own Surprise Symphony in Simon's air (No. 5), telling how the farmer joyously goes out to plough. The seed having been sown, trio and chorus implore heaven's blessing on the land (No. 7). Jane invites the countryside maidens to wander carefree through the fields (No. 9). Spring terminates with a paean to the Almighty Providence (No. 10), which on van Swieten's suggestion bursts in with a sudden B flat major chord after the quiet ending of No. 9 on three D major chords.
Always working to van Swieten's order, Haydn did not so much appreciate the baron's line on the croaking frogs inserted in the closing trio and chorus of Summer (No. 22). Indeed he once remarked to the Leipzig musician who made the piano arrangement of The Seasons that he had been forced to set Simon's words about the croaking frogs very much against his will. This "Frenchified trash" was what Gretry might have set to music but not a composer of Haydn's more elevated taste. Nonetheless, all the specific allusions incorporated in the text, such as to the thunder in No. 20 and to the tempest in No. 21, the hunting scene in No. 31 (Autumn), and the merry drinking bout with which Autumn closes, all stimulated Haydn to consummate creative expressions.
Never did he orchestrate more painstakingly or more brilliantly. His contrapuntal genius shines all the more brightly because so effortlessly are his fugues contrived. The greatness of The Seasons reflects Haydn's own profound understanding of Life's upward, and then declining, surge. His own Youth, Flush of Manhood, Harvesting of the Years, and then Onset of Old Age are inimitably depicted in the procession of the four seasons. Van Swieten may have bound him like Ixion to the wheel of composing this sublime work- which the sketches reveal was worked over with intensity heretofore unknown in Haydn's long creative career (see "Ein Skizzenblatt Josef Haydns," Die Musik, XXXI, 211-222). But the result is a valedictory masterpiece to compare fittingly with Verdi's Falstaff, Wagner's Parsifal, or Franck's Symphony.