(This essay was published in the 2014 Salzburg Festival programme for a concert in which Bernard Haitink conducted the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. I reviewed the concert here.)
Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Die Schöpfung Hob XXI:2
The seeds of Die Schöpfung were sown during Haydn’s visits to England in the early 1790s. Though Haydn was acquainted with a surprisingly large number of Handel’s oratorios through the Sunday morning performances given by his librettist, Gottfried van Swieten, nothing had prepared Haydn for the Handel Festival ‘by command and under the patronage of their Majesties’ held at Westminster Abbey in 1791, which boasted over a thousand performers. Haydn resolved to write a successor work at the first opportunity.
According to a letter from Swieten to the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung:
Now a few words on the poem that you choose to call my Creation. My part in the work, originally written in English, was certainly more than translation; but it was far from being […] my own. […The libretto] is by an unnamed author who had compiled it largely from Milton’s Paradise Lost and had intended it for Handel. What prevented the great man from making use of it is not known, but when Haydn was in London, it was sought out and handed over to him with the request that he set it to music. […] He then showed it to me and […] I recognized immediately that so exalted a subject would allow Haydn the opportunity […] to express the full power of his inexhaustible genius; I therefore encouraged him to take the work in hand and […] I resolved to clothe the English poem in German garb.
The ‘original’ author has never been identified. We can certainly see, however, a fortunate similarity of outlook between mid-18th-century England and later-century Austria, offering a splendid opportunity, wondrously taken, both to reach summation in and, as war ravaged Europe, to bid farewell to a vision of Enlightenment religion Swieten had long attempted to propagate. That he did as Joseph II’s education minister – his policies often coming into conflict with the Emperor’s more utilitarian concerns – as custodian of the Imperial Library and as librettist for both of Haydn’s late oratorios, this and Die Jahreszeiten (derived also from an English source, James Thomson’s The Seasons).
The opening ‘Vorstellung des Chaos’ is justly the most celebrated number in the oratorio, its chromatic extremity approaching Wagner. Sketches render clear Haydn’s unprecedented pains over its composition. ‘Chaos’ does not begin in C minor but with an emphatic unison C: length and tonality indeterminate. Such is the earth ‘without form and void’ from which tonality evolves and which the deed of Creation will change in the twinkling of an eye. As Haydn’s musical conception develops, so do intimations of life. Such was recognized in contemporary reviews, for example that in the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung: ‘single notes come forth, spawning others in turn. […] Movement begins. Powerful masses grate against each other and begin to gestate. […] Unknown forces, swimming and surging, […] bring tidings of order.’ As the Spirit of God moves upon the waters, life figurations multiply and subdivide themselves, the seeds of order sown before we return to the void, awaiting the first words of this sacred drama.
Soon sotto voce choral chanting of the chorus (‘Und der Geist Gottes schwebte auf der Fläche der Wasser’) engenders a further, crucially verbal sense of expectation and tension. A generation before the choral Finale to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, we have impressed upon us the necessity of the word – and the Creator’s primal, enlightening Word at that. The groundwork is thus prepared for Haydn’s greatest coup de théâtre, ‘Und es ward Licht’ (And there was light). This conception of courageous simplicity, the famous fortissimo C major chord, is entirely Haydn’s own: he ignored Swieten’s advice that the darkness should ‘gradually disappear’. It is a passage whose stunning effectiveness has never palled. Of the London premiere, on 28 March 1800, Charles Burney observed that ‘the generality of the subscribers were unable to disentangle the studied confusion in delineating chaos’. Yet ‘the composer’s meaning was felt by the whole audience in this passage; there followed an instant interruption of rapturous applause’. Light was a symbol that few in Haydn’s first audiences would have failed to recognize at some level; it was not simply a representation of the sublime, but also the quintessential symbol of Enlightenment. Swieten had written in 1774 of the need for ‘light’ in politics; a ‘blind’ people could readily be put to bad use. Haydn edified, enlightened his audience through musical means.
Such splendour cedes to radiant A major in the second number, ‘Nun schwanden vor dem heiligen Strahle’. Milton is not completely expelled from this new (or old) heaven, the central section plunging us back into distant, ‘chaotic’ C minor, an abrupt tonal wrench, as Hell’s spirits sink into endless night. Yet unlike Paradise Lost, that is the sole reference made in the work to the fallen angels; the abiding memory is of restitution of unsullied A major: ‘Und eine neue Welt entspringt auf Gottes Wort’ (A new created world springs up at God’s command). Disorder once again yields to fair ‘order’, stressed throughout, as befits a persistent Enlightenment preoccupation. ‘Order is Heav’n’s first law’, Alexander Pope had written in his Essay on Man; here it is firmly, eternally established. Milton returns, but to evoke idyllic nature.
Such evocation takes up the bulk of the narrative passages, as opposed to the great, neo-Handelian choruses of praise, prior to the creation of man. The loving care with which Haydn depicts the ‘limpid brook’, the ‘healing plant’, the ‘nightingale’s delightful notes’ and the ‘nimble stag’ possessed definite theological content for his audience. God’s Creation is extolled, just as in ‘natural philosophy’, or what we should call ‘science’. This naive tone painting, at odds with 19th-century sensibilities – it made Berlioz ‘want to murder somebody’ – is no crowd-pleasing extra; it is an integral part of the composition and its message. Haydn’s audience was to be improved as well as entertained.
Without man, though, Creation would remain incomplete. For however heavily the Augustinian tradition might weigh down upon the Church, it had never been able to deny that ‘God created man in his own image’. The scene is thus set for Uriel’s aria, ‘Mit Würd’ und Hoheit angetan’, in which God’s quickening breath and man, the most astounding progeny of that breath, stand as almost equally worthy of praise and wonder. One feature of Haydn’s setting is particularly noteworthy in this context. Instead of returning conventionally from the dominant, G major, as he had done the first time around, Haydn uses the chord at the moment of God’s ‘breath’, as an augmented-sixth pivot to modulate, quite breathtakingly, to the distant key of A flat major. Far from coincidentally, this number is in C major, the key of Light. Having employed this tonality extensively during Part I, it is the first and only example of its use in Part II.
Having thus been created, it remains a human duty, indeed the greatest such duty, to praise the Creator. Thus Adam and Eve, having investigated the wonders of Paradise, join with the Heavenly Host in the great hymn, ‘Heil dir, o Gott!’ (Hail, bounteous Lord!). For the final time, Haydn’s long-range tonal plan has elevated the music to the key of Light, having previously taken us as far away as possible, to G flat major, so as to heighten the tonal drama and climax of restoration. Interestingly, this third and final part of the oratorio no longer quotes from the Bible. Indeed the hymn’s conclusion, chanting obeisance ceding to rapturous acclamation, harmonizes remarkably well with various contemporary outlooks. We stand close to the inhabitants of Voltaire’s Eldorado, who ‘have nothing to ask of God’, yet nevertheless ‘thank Him unceasingly’ for everything He has given them and ‘worship God from morning till night’. We stand close to the mystical, Masonic world of Die Zauberflöte. Yet we also stand close to the world of Haydn’s late Te Deum, also in C major. All those worlds and their concerns focus upon praise for the Creator and His Creation.
But then the angels take their leave and we are left with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This second half of Part III has often elicited adverse criticism for providing an anti-climax. The somewhat dampened tone is, however, an integral part of the drama. For the listener is immediately plunged back to earth with the only recitativo secco of any length in the entire work. There follows a lengthy duet: charming, yet definitely between mortals. To underline this, the music falls to the key of E flat major. This is the world of commedia dell’arte – as Siegmund Levarie has suggested, the hymn’s action is repeated in parody, the realm of Singspiel. Indeed the opening horn duo of the final Allegro exchange exhibits almost every characteristic of contemporary Viennese popular song. Phrases are symmetrical groupings of four bars, in stark contrast to the hymn’s more complex phrase structure. Horns and fiddling response are rustic. Rhythm is that of the écossaisse. Following a brief recitative, pointing with haste, suggesting near embarrassment at the serpentine temptation that is to come, Haydn concludes with a final chorus of praise in B flat major.
But why, in a work whose overarching tonality is that of C major? The central issue here is not, as in Milton, original sin, but man’s distance from God. Man may possess attributes of the divine, yet falls far short. That is made clear in Pope’s Essay, itself most likely an important influence upon the ‘original’ libretto, as well as a celebrated work in later-century Austria. The Heavenly Host has left the scene, the final chorus of praise left to mortals. Soloists are not the previous three archangels, but merely soprano, tenor and bass, joined for the first and last time by an equally anonymous alto. Die Schöpfung ends as it does at least partly so as to emphasize the enduring gulf between human and divine. Such is the lesson of the second Biblical account of man’s creation (Genesis 2:ii–viii): God rested from His works and created man that they might be perpetuated. Yet continue to create though man may, the Creation would remain a unique event. Die Schöpfung remains perhaps its uniquely impressive musical depiction.
(To read, and/or to download as a PDF, my essay published in the 2008 Austrian History Yearbook: 'Haydn's "Creation" and Enlightenment Theology, please click here.)