Haydn’s “The Creation”: Program Notes

Program notes by Michael Driscoll

Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)

The second of 12 children, Joseph Haydn spent his early childhood living in a dirt-floored farmhouse in Rohrau, a little village about 35 miles southeast of Vienna. As a young child, he took violin, organ, and harpsichord lessons. In 1739 or 1740 he was recruited to sing at the Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) in Vienna. For the next ten years he remained at the cathedral choir school, where he sang soprano to great acclaim. At the choir school he was taught the art of singing, the harpsichord, and the violin. Haydn’s soprano voice ‘broke’ in his late teens, and shortly thereafter he was dismissed from the choir school. Haydn wrote:

When my voice finally broke, for eight whole years I was forced to eke out a wretched existence by teaching young people. Many geniuses are ruined by this miserable [need to earn their] daily bread, because they lack time to study. This could well have happened to me; I would never have achieved what little I have done, had I not carried on with my zeal for composition during the night. I composed diligently, but not quite correctly, until I finally had the good fortune to learn the true fundamentals of composition from the famous Porpora (who was in Vienna at the time).[1]

In 1757 Haydn was appointed Kapellmeister (music director) at the court of Count Morzin, where he led the small court orchestra. Haydn also composed his first symphonies for this ensemble. In 1761 Haydn was appointed Vice-Kapellmeister at the court of Prince Paul Anton, head of the immensely wealthy Esterházy family. Paul Anton died in 1762 and his brother Nicolaus I, a lover of opera and grand musical productions, inherited the title of Prince and became Haydn’s employer. Upon the death of Kapellmeister Gregor Warner in 1766, Haydn was elevated to Kapellmeister. Although the duties were immense, the position provided an outstanding opportunity for a young musician. Haydn remained in the employment of the Esterházy family for the remainder of his life.

Under Nicolaus I, Haydn focused on the composition of operas, symphonies, and chamber music. Prince Nicolaus I died in 1790 and was succeeded by his son Anton, who dismissed most of the court musicians. Although Anton retained Haydn at a reduced salary, he had little need for Haydn’s services and agreed to let Haydn travel. Haydn’s music was already hugely popular in London, and in 1791 Haydn made his first trip to England, staying until 1792. English audiences received Haydn enthusiastically. While there he composed and conducted a number of works, including the first six of his 12 “London” symphonies. Haydn returned for a second London visit in 1794. Haydn’s two stays in London were immensely happy ones; he was greatly admired and appreciated by audiences there. The trips also proved to be quite lucrative: During his time in London, Haydn earned the equivalent of more than 20 years’ salary at the Esterházy court.[2]

When Prince Anton died in 1794, Haydn became entirely free of the Esterházy court. Although Haydn considered remaining in London, Anton’s son, Nicolaus II, revived the Esterházy musical establishment and asked Haydn to return as Kapellmeister. Haydn took up the position in 1795 on a part-time basis. His primary duty to Nicolaus II was to compose a Mass each year to celebrate the nameday of Nicolaus II’s wife, Princess Maria. In all, Haydn composed six of these late Masses, that is, Masses composed toward the end of his life.[3] During this final period of his life, Haydn spent his summers with the Esterházys in Eisenstadt, but he lived primarily at his private residence in Vienna. Over the 77 years of his life, Haydn composed over 750 works, including 14 Masses, three oratorios, 53 piano sonatas, 108 symphonies, and over 80 string quartets.

The Creation

The Creation was the second of Haydn’s oratorios, the first being The Seven Last Words of Christ composed in 1786 as an orchestral work and then adapted in 1796 as an oratorio for soloist and chorus.

The oratorio as a form originated in Italy in the early seventeenth century and is closely related to opera, but without action, scenery, or costumes. Oratorios were often performed during the Lenten season when performances of opera were considered unsuitable. Because of this origin as a Lenten alternative to opera, oratorios were usually based on sacred subjects, but they were typically performed in theaters and concert halls rather than in churches. Like opera, oratorios are extended works for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, and they consist of arias, duets, recitatives, choruses, an orchestral overture, and interludes.

The English oratorio, essentially a creation of George Frideric Handel, was a synthesis of Italian opera and oratorio with English ceremonial and cathedral music. Under Handel the chorus assumed a prominent role, typically commenting on or adding to the drama, and often conveying a sense of glory. In addition, Handel expanded the role of the orchestra, increasing the orchestra’s size as well as the types of instruments accompanying the chorus. Handel used the orchestra to heighten the drama, and the additional instrumental colors provided many opportunities for orchestral tone painting.

During Haydn’s two trips to London, he heard productions of several of Handel’s oratorios, including Israel in Egypt and Messiah, which became the stimulus for The Creation. The London performances of Handel’s oratorios revealed a new world of possibilities for Haydn. Performances of Haydn’s music in Viennese society were typically small, private events intended for and appreciated by members of the upper class. Handel’s oratorios, however, were performed by large vocal and instrumental forces and were attended and enjoyed by large masses of middle-class citizens. Haydn experienced the overwhelming emotional effects of Handel’s oratorios and studied them intensely.

At the end of Haydn’s second trip to London, he received a poem entitled The Creation of the World by an unknown author. The poem, written in English, draws from the Book of Genesis, the Book of Psalms, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The extended length of the poem, however, made it unsuitable for setting to music. In addition, Haydn’s lack of facility with the English language made it difficult for him to use it as musical inspiration. Upon returning to Vienna, Haydn gave the poem to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a Viennese diplomat, amateur musician, and patron of music who had previously collaborated with Haydn on a libretto for Haydn’s oratorio The Seven Last Words of Christ. Van Swieten set to work translating the poem from English to German, editing it to make it suitable for musical performance, and providing Haydn with suggestions for the setting of individual movements.

Haydn likely began composing The Creation in the fall of 1796 and completed it in the spring of 1798. The German version, directed by Haydn himself, was first performed on April 30, 1798 for a private audience in the Vienna palace of Count Schwartzenberg. The performance received an ecstatic reception among aristocratic circles, resulting in two additional performances on May 7 and 10. The first public performance was given at the Burgtheater on March 19, 1799 – nearly a year after the first performances. The Burgtheater performance was on a much grander scale, with 180 performers on stage (probably 120 instrumentalists and 60 singers). The resounding success of these performances convinced Haydn to publish the work himself. The February 1800 publication of the score in both German and English made it the first large-scale musical work published in two languages.[4]

Haydn used van Swieten’s German translation to compose The Creation. Once Haydn finished composing The Creation in German (Die Schoepfung is the German title), van Swieten then translated the text back into English so that the work would be accessible to audiences in England. While van Swieten attempted to create a translation that fit Haydn’s music, the result is frequently less than successful. In some cases, the English translation is completely nonsensical. In other instances, when van Swieten’s English translation is placed on Haydn’s music, textually unimportant words are frequently highlighted and unaccented syllables become accented. Today’s performance incorporates a number of English text changes, particularly in the choral movements, that make the English translation more intelligible and better match Haydn’s German setting.

The original version of the poem and van Swieten’s adaption are structured in three parts: Part One covers the first four days of creation, Part Two covers the fifth and sixth days, and Part Three represents Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The structure of each day follows a basic pattern: prose from Genesis, in past tense, for recitative; commentary in verse, in present tense, for aria or solo ensemble; and a concluding choral hymn of praise. Of the closing choruses, all but the first are hymns of praise and several are paraphrases from the Book of Psalms.

Haydn struggled with how to depict chaos within the accepted confines of musical style of his time. How does one depict nothingness in sound? Haydn begins with a giant burst of sound with all of the instruments playing C in octaves, which gradually fades away to nothing. Haydn’s choice of the pitch C, the most commonly seen and heard of all pitches in western music, represents infinite, empty space. Two pitches, seemingly the beginnings of a C minor triad, begin to timidly emerge, but rather than gradually adding the third pitch of the triad as one would expect, Haydn instead shifts to a completely different and unexpected harmony. As Haydn himself noted to one listener, “I avoided the resolutions that you would most readily expect. The reason is that there is no form in anything [in the universe] yet.”[5]

The bass recitative begins the creation story, describing the first day: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” The chorus enters as the “Spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters.” As the chorus sings “let there be light,” the chorus and orchestra join on a brilliant fortissimo C major chord that depicts the creation of light. Haydn’s friend Frederik Samuel Silverstolpe wrote that “at that moment when light broke out for the first time, one would have said rays darted from the composer’s burning eyes.”[6] The airy tenor aria (2. “Now vanish before the holy beams”) comments on God’s introduction of light from darkness. Haydn depicts the flight of hell’s spirit, sung by the chorus, with angry minor mode fugal entries, which contrasts greatly with the cheerful hymn of praise for the “new created world [that] springs up at God’s command.”

On the second day, God creates weather: storms of wind, thunder, rain, hail, and snow. The orchestra introduces each of these meteorological events followed by an explanation from the bass soloist (3. “And God made the firmament”). The day concludes with a chorus of praise, begun by the soprano soloist and joined by the chorus.

On the third day, God divides the water covering the earth to create seas and land, followed by the creation of plants and trees. These two sets of events continue the musical form found earlier: biblical narrative sung in recitative form followed by a lyric commentary. With the bass aria, “Rolling in foaming billows,” Haydn depicts the churning waves of the sea with rapid, undulating figures in the violins. Haydn creates a new orchestra accompaniment to portray each of God’s subsequent creations: mountains and rocks emerging from the earth, rivers flowing through plains, and brooks rushing through valleys. With the creation of plants and trees, Haydn turns to the soprano soloist who sings a delightful pastoral aria (8. “With verdure clad”) that features rapid melismatic[7] passages accompanied by birdlike calls from the woodwind instruments. The chorus of praise of that follows (10. “Awake the Harp”) – the only chorus that does not feature soloists – concludes the third day.

On the fourth day, God creates the stars, sun, and moon. Haydn’s brief setting of this day begins with an orchestral sunrise: the moon and stars slowly fade away and fanfare-like motives herald the emergence of rays of light from the rising sun. The grand chorus (13. “The Heavens Are Telling”), drawn from Psalm 19, celebrates the glory of God and concludes Part One of The Creation.

God creates animals on the fifth and sixth days. Haydn structures the fifth day as two sets of recitatives and arias, beginning with a “bird” aria for soprano soloist (15. “On mighty pens uplifted soars”) that features a number of birdlike calls from the orchestra. Following the first private performance of The Creation, Haydn revised the bass recitative (16. “And God created great whales”), adding divided violas and cellos playing long legato lines that vividly illustrate enormous creatures gliding through the depths of the ocean. The solo trio is structured in a simple verse form with the soprano, tenor, and bass soloists celebrating the creation of verdant hills, flocks of birds, and schools of fish, respectively. The trio then joins together for a final verse in praise of God (“How many are Thy works, O God…”), which segues into a brilliant concluding chorus of praise (18. “The Lord is great”). Haydn uses the solo trio to augment the choral texture, creating a seven-part vocal texture that is decorated with dazzling coloratura lines for the soprano and tenor soloists.

The sixth day sees the creation of a great number of animals, including humans. A veritable parade of creatures is first introduced by the orchestra, then verified by the baritone soloist: the roaring lion, flexible tiger, nimble stag, sprightly steed, grazing cattle, bleating sheep, swarms of insects, and sinuous worm. Haydn’s vivid orchestral depiction of each of these creatures is marvelous and also, at times, rather amusing. The only tenor solo in the entire work (23. “In native worth and honor clad”) describes God’s creation of the most “wondrous” creature of all: mankind. The extended concluding chorus of praise consists of three semi-independent movements for chorus (25. “Achieved is the glorious work”), trio (26. “On thee each living soul awaits”), and chorus (27. “Achieved is the glorious work”). Where Part One and Part Two of The Creation libretto describe the works of God, Part Three is about two individuals: Adam and Eve. Today’s performance will skip all but the final chorus of praise for the whole work (33. “Sing to the Lord ye voices all!”). As one might expect, Haydn reserves the most glorious – and most technically demanding – music for the very final movement, an extended fugue for chorus and soloists.

[1] James Webster and Georg Feder. “Haydn, Joseph.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press, accessed April 15, 2015, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com (access 15 April 2015).

[2] Georg Feder  & James Webster, “Haydn, (Franz) Joseph,” Grove Music Online, (2001), https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com(accessed 12 January 2020).

[3] Two of Haydn’s “late” masses, the Missa in tempore belli (“Mass in time of war”) and Missa in Angustiis (“Lord Nelson” Mass), were performed by the Andover Choral Society in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

[4] Nicholas Temperley, Haydn: The Creation [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994], 19.

[5] Temperley, 32.

[6] Temperley, 35.

[7] A melisma is when multiple notes are sung to a single syllable of text.