Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) is perhaps best known as a composer of symphonies and string quartets,however throughout his lifetime Haydn composed a large body of vocal works including 51 songs, 17 masses, and 26 operas. Most of these have fallen into a state of obscurity despite Haydn’s status as one of the most important composers of the Classical era, his oratorios have avoided this fate. His final two, The Creation and The Seasons, have achieved such popularity that they have been performed every year in Vienna since their premieres in 1798 and 1801, respective
Haydn completed two oratorios before The Creation, Il ritorno di Tobia in 1775 and The Seven Last Words of Christ in 1796. It was not part of Haydn’s duties at the Esterhazy court to write oratorios, and therefore he did not explore the genre until receiving a commission from the Vienna Tonkünstler-Societät. The result, Tobia, is a perfect example of the Italian oratorio that was fashionable in Vienna at the time. It was a great success and the work was compared to the oratorios of Handel by many in the press.
It is unlikely that Haydn would have been familiar with the works of George Friedrich Handel until his monumental trip to London from 1791-5. Haydn was the first composer of international reputation to come to England since Handel and needed little help in speaking highly of his own work. Despite this, while attending the Westminster Abbey Handel Festival he admitted to feeling “as if he had been put back to the beginning of the studies and had known nothing up until that moment.”
Toward the end of his stay in England he received another commission for an oratorio from the Tonkünstler-Societät. Although the oratorio was to be performed in Vienna, Baron von Swieten, the leader of the Societät and personal friend of Haydn, chose a libretto in English, loosely based on the creation story as told by John Milton in Paradise Lost. Some controversy exists over the libretto, some sources claiming the original was at least fifty years old before reaching Haydn and had been originally written for Handel. Authorship has remained a mystery even today, helped by the fact that von Swieten lost the original libretto sometime between translating it into German and the Vienna premiere.
Haydn divides the story of the creation into three parts, following Handel’s pattern. Part One represents the first four days of the creation, Part Two discusses Days Five and Six, and Part Three deals with Adam and Eve’s mutual gratitude and love in Eden. Each day is presented in a similar manner, with a recitative from Genesis and an aria in iambic verse describing a single act of creation. At the end of each day’s work, a prose recitative leads into a choral hymn of praise.
A notable exception to this is the first day, that begins with a long instrumental introduction entitled “The Representation of Chaos”. Coming from a composer whose style is so defined by form, a sprawling depiction of formlessness is shocking both to audiences and music scholars. It was a difficult task for Haydn, as evident by the fact that more sketches exist for this movement than any of his other works. This movement is one of the clearest examples of Handel’s influence, since Handel also used instrumental sections, or sinfonia, to illustrate the passage of time.
Some of Haydn’s most brilliant writing comes immediately after this chaos with the introduction of the chorus. This movement, in particular, draws from Handel’s Messiah in its less than subtle but effective use of major chords to represent light. Haydn was fully aware of how power this passage was and hid the page until rehearsals began. An attendee of the first rehearsal described it as such:
“Haydn had the expression of someone who is thinking of biting his lips, either to conceal his embarrassment or to conceal a secret. And in that moment when light broke out for the first time, one would have said that rays darted from the composer’s burning eyes.”
The reception of the work was overwhelmingly positive. The proto-Biedermeier quality of the themes was popular in Austria and Germany while the epic scope of the work appealed to the burgeoning Romantic movement. The Societät wished to take the oratorio to London, so von Swieten prepared a new libretto in English based on the final German text set by Haydn. (Therefore, this evening’s performance is actually a translation of a translation.) The first publication of The Creation includes both the German and English text, making it the first large-scale work with an original bilingual libretto.
By combining the English and Viennese oratorio traditions, Haydn created a true vocal masterpiece in his own idiom. Even as the musical tastes changed from the Classical to the Romantic, The Creation‘s popularity never waned. Simply put, it is an exhibition by the greatest composer of his age.
Performed by Lincoln Abendmusik on 4/29/07
Edited by Elizabeth Seitz