Subscription Concert No.840 B Series

Haydn: Die Schopfung (The Creation), Hob.XXI:2

Franz Joseph Haydn: Born in Rohrau, Austria, March 31, 1732; Died in Vienna,May 31, 1809

The inspiration for Haydn’s Creation goes back to the composer’s first London sojourn, when he observed the great Handel Commemoration in 1791. Handel had been dead for over thirty years, but so enduring was his fame in England (especially for all those English oratorios!) that the commemorative events marking the centenary of his birth in 1785 were repeated four more times over the next six years. It was at the final presentation of these commemorative concerts in 1791 that Haydn was awed by the power and majesty of Handel’s music, especially Messiah. Now Haydn too wanted to write something that would fire the spirit of a whole nation, something that would rally the Austrian population ? at least the musically inclined portion of it ? around a single composer as Handel had done with the English.

While about to depart London at the end of his second sojourn there, Haydn received a text on the subject of the creation story from the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who was hoping that Haydn would create for London a success on the order of the Handel oratorios. This text, from an unknown source going back to Handel’s days (he died in 1759), was an adaptation of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Genesis and a few Psalms from the Bible. Back in Vienna, Baron Gottfried van Swieten ? director of Vienna’s imperial library, diplomat, impresario, patron of the arts, poet and amateur composer ? translated it into German for Haydn, trimmed it down to manageable proportions, added bits of his own, and made various musical suggestions. The score was published with texts in both German and English (possibly the first such case in history), and to this day performances are regularly given in both languages.

There were few works on which Haydn lavished as much time, care and attention as he did for The Creation. Numerous sketches and drafts were made, a practice in which Haydn did not usually indulge. “I spend as much time over it because I intend it to last a long time,” the composer explained. (We must recall that the idea of music written for posterity scarcely existed in Haydn’s day.) But its outcome was never in doubt. Halfway through its composition, the composer wrote: “I could see it was going to come out well. I have never felt so devout as when I was working on The Creation. Every day I fell on my knees and prayed to God to give me strength to finish the work successfully.” Haydn may well have derived additional impetus to write The Creation as a result of his acquaintance with the renowned English astronomer (and oboist) William Herschel, who invited the composer to view the heavens through his telescope. “So high … so far ...” Haydn is reported to have said in tones of awe.

Haydn completed The Creation on April 6, 1798. Three weeks later it received its first performance, a private affair at the palace of Prince Schwarzenberg in Vienna. The date, April 29, was marked by special preparations and festivities. All of Vienna’s aristocracy and social elite were there. Joseph Braunstein tells us that “to avoid traffic congestion, flour and vegetable vendors removed their stalls and the market was cleared. Twelve policemen and eighteen men on horseback directed the movement of the state coaches of the exclusive audience.” Haydn conducted and Antonio Salieri, the influential court conductor, sat at the piano to play the secco recitatives. A poem honoring Haydn was distributed among the audience.

There were two further private performances of The Creation during the next few days, but strangely enough, the first public performance waited until almost a year later, on March 19, 1799. The venue was scarcely less distinguished than the one for the premiere: the Burgtheater, which had seen the Viennese premieres of Gluck’s Alceste and Orfeo ed Euridice and of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, The Marriage of Figaro and Cosi fan tutte. It is scarcely necessary to say that Haydn’s oratorio was a sensational success. Performances sprouted up all over Europe. Throughout much of the nineteenth century, it was one of the two or three most frequently performed oratorios in the repertory, one of those works that could always be counted on to draw the crowds, much as Beethoven’s Ninth does today.

The 34 musical numbers (the 32 musical numbers by Oxford University Press version, which is used in today’s performance) assembled into three large parts present an enormously rich and wonderfully varied account of the creation story. Parts I and II relate the events of the first six days, with the establishment of the plant and animal kingdoms as portrayed in Genesis. Part III is more reflective, focusing on the story of Adam and Eve but stopping short of their Fall. The nobler aspects of mankind and God’s good deeds are here much in evidence. Into this “musical picture book written for all ages” (Leopold Nowak) Haydn incorporated numerous examples of picturesque imagery, some subtle, some not so subtle. These include the famous opening depiction of chaos, the blast of sound announcing the arrival of light, a storm, clouds, lightning, thunder, hail, rain, snow, a sunrise, the moon, lion (a growl from the contrabassoon), tiger, stag, cattle, sheep, even the lowly worm.

Among these musical pictorialisms, the “Representation of Chaos” calls for special comment. A composer today would have no trouble depicting chaos in music. He or she would simply ask the musicians to play a particular configuration of pitches in a random manner. Haydn had to follow the dictates of style and good taste of the age, and he succeeded magnificently. From the opening unison C he allows the music to wander in continuously modulating harmonies, arriving at one dissonance after another without aim or direction. The effect is disorienting, mysterious, perfectly depicting a place “without form and void.” Shortly thereafter, when God says “Let there be light,” the orchestra blazes forth with a fortissimo chord in C major, an effect that was to have reverberations across the next century. The continuing use of C major as a symbol for light, sunrise, enlightenment or the dawn of a new era is seen in such passages as the final chorus of Beethoven’s Fidelio, the conclusion of Wagner’s Meistersinger, the opening of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, and the conclusion of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.

Sir Donald Francis Tovey’s succinct account of the oratorio’s action and meaning can be quoted here:

“The words of the Bible are divided among three archangels, Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel, and a chorus which, throughout the whole work, may be considered as that of the heavenly hosts. The list and description of created things is not distributed haphazardly among the three archangels. Uriel is distinctly the angel of the sun and of daylight; his is the tenor voice, and his is the description of man. Raphael sings of the earth and the sea, of the beginning of all things, and of the Spirit of God moving upon the face of the waters. His is also the description of the beasts, the great whales and ‘every living creative that moveth’; and it is he who reports God’s blessing, ‘Be fruitful and multiply’ in a measured passage which is one of the sublimest incidents in Haydn’s recitatives. Gabriel, the soprano, leads the heavenly hosts and describes the vegetable kingdom and the world of bird life. Lastly, Adam and Eve (bass and soprano) appear and fulfill the purpose announced by Raphael.”

Robert Markow's musical career began as a horn player in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He now writes program notes for orchestras and concert organizations in the USA, Canada, and several countries in Asia. As a journalist he covers the music scenes across North America, Europe, and Asian countries, especially Japan. At Montreal's McGill University he lectured on music for over 25 years.

Program notes by Robert Markow

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