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Haydn’s Creation Program Notes

by Dr. Justin Henderlight

In 1751, Joseph Haydn’s situation took a turn when his voice changed, and the choirmaster at the Vienna cathedral dismissed him not only for his shattered singing abilities, but also for his unruly behavior. Somewhat destitute, Haydn found work with Nicola Porpora as an accompanist for the latter’s singing lessons. In an uncanny coincidence, Porpora helped to ensure the rise of the English oratorio, Haydn’s dominant model for Creation (1798) many years before its—well—creation. Before Porpora arrived in Vienna, he had a stint in London, founding the Opera of the Nobility, a rival company to George Frideric Handel’s failed Royal Academy of Music, which also produced operas. Both composers had their work cut out for them, as the British had a love/hate relationship with Italian opera. Arguably a more wary people than the Italians, the British couldn’t, in the words of one commentator, “relish that perpetual singing.” Equally troublesome were the lewd plots full of amorous intrigue, but it was the presence of Porpora’s rival company that put the nail in the coffin for Handel’s Academy, necessitating his turn to other genres.

Handel effectively invented the English oratorio in 1718 with his Esther. He had experienced Italian oratorios in a visit to Rome in 1707, pieces whose style had little difference from opera. Both operas and oratorios in early eighteenth-century Italy were strings of recitatives (solo declamatory passages accompanied by harpsichord) and arias (songs usually accompanied by orchestra). Choruses were rare and were performed by the soloists together, not an actual choir, though earlier in the oratorio’s history, the chorus played a vital role to portray the multitudes of people commonly referenced in Biblical stories. Handel’s experience with the Anglican choral tradition led him to reintroduce the chorus to the oratorio genre. The vivid choruses, the use of the English language, and the pious subject matter ensured the success of Esther. After Handel’s opera companies failed, he had the foresight to produce further oratorios, which were vastly more popular than Italian operas. In fact, in an era when music more than a decade old was considered “ancient,” it is remarkable how popular Handel’s oratorios remained after his death.

Luckily for Haydn, his fortunes took an uptick after leaving Porpora’s service, and he found employment and gainful patronage from Prince Nikolaus Esterházy. His reputation flourished to the extent that, when Esterházy died in 1790 and his court musical activities were drastically cut back, Haydn had no difficulty finding interested recipients for his music. Haydn visited London in 1790 and 1794, where he witnessed performances of Handel’s oratorios, including Israel in Egypt and Messiah. An early biographer noted that Haydn felt as though he had been put back to the beginning of his studies when he heard Handel’s music. He was fascinated by the tremendous zeal that the British had for the oratorio, and also by the massive performance forces that had become customary to employ for them.

A German-born violinist, Johann Salomon, had extended the invitation to Haydn to visit England, and it was he who gave Haydn the anonymously authored libretto for Creation. The words were rumored to have been intended for Handel to set. The libretto took as its source both literal passages from the King James Version of Genesis, as well as adaptations from Milton’s Paradise Lost. The prefect of the Holy Roman Emperor’s library, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, was an ardent advocate of Handel’s music in Vienna and strongly encouraged Haydn to set the work. Haydn finished Creation in 1797, and its first performance took place in private on April 30th, 1798 in the Palace of Prince Schwarzenberg. The following year, a large public performance took place with an ensemble of 180 musicians to great acclaim. Performances in Vienna followed yearly during Lent and Advent. Van Swieten translated the libretto into German, and the first publication in 1800 featured both English and German texts. Haydn had used the German text during his composition, and Swieten thereafter adapted the English text to fit with Haydn’s music, though highly inexpertly. There are several problems with unimportant words (such as “am”) falling on a strongly accented beat, and Sweiten did not underlay the English text for all parts of the choruses, leaving the exact realization ambiguous. Today’s performance uses a critical edition edited by Nicholas Temperley, who has adapted the original English text to reconcile it with Haydn’s music.

Oratorios exhibit a wide range of drama: some are allegorical theological dialogues with little plot, others are stories told by narrators, and still others are full-on dramas with characters and choruses of multitudes of people. Creation sits midway between the latter two categories. Three archangels—Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor), and Raphael (bass)—act as the narrators of the story, at times directly quoting Genesis (mostly in recitative) and at others, filling in commentary in verse. Though they have names, they do not participate in the drama of the unfolding creation of the Earth; they merely watch as it happens. The chorus, too, functions as narrator and commentator, though it represents at times a choir of the heavenly host. Adam and Eve—the only true characters in a dramatic sense—sing to each other and describe their actions and surroundings, as of course the oratorio is not staged, so the listener must imagine all of the visual elements.
It is worth noting here, having come to the creation of man, that the libretto does not depict the Fall—that is, when the fruit from the tree of knowledge is taken. The only allusion is Uriel’s line in No. 33, “O happy pair…misled by false conceit…ye strive at more, as granted is, and more to know, as know ye should!” The utopian values of the Enlightenment are at work here to play down that element of the story, though Haydn alludes to it musically: The First Part begins and ends in C, before man is created. The Second Part begins in C but ends a tone lower, in B-flat, after man is created. The entire work also has this trajectory, beginning in C and ending in B-flat, so the tonal world has, in a sense fallen, representing the Fall. What is more, the Third Part begins in E after the conclusion of the previous section in B-flat that celebrates the creation of humanity. The interval between B-flat and E is a tritone, also known as “the devil in music”—a symbolic gesture pointing toward’s Satan’s presence.

In a much more palpable sort of symbolism, Haydn frequently calls upon the orchestra to depict the sounds of the natural world—of rushing water, for example, with cascades of undulating notes. Such pictorial literalism was expected in eighteenth-century music, and Haydn treats it masterfully, sometimes using ingenious orchestrations and effects. Listen for the wondrous transition from darkness to light with the simple, but incredibly effective change from a minor to a major key (No.1). A beautiful sunrise achieved through leapfrogging long notes shimmering with dissonance paints the sun’s rays emerging over the horizon (No. 12). Sometimes Haydn cannot disguise his boyish sense of humor (listen for some bovine flatulence). These sorts of text painting techniques encountered criticism as crudities by early nineteenth-century commentators, for whom the literalism and utopian qualities of the Age of Enlightenment were alien to the emerging Romantic aesthetic. However, the earthiness of the text setting has lost none of its effectiveness, and even the Romantics had to concede that the overall effect of the work was sublime.