It was Haydn's encounter with Handel's oratorios in London that sowed the seeds of his most famous and enduring masterpiece: The Creation.
At the 1791 Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey he was overwhelmed by the monumental sublimity of the choruses in Handel's Messiah and Israel in Egypt, performed by a gargantuan array of over 1000 players and singers.
In the words of an early biographer, Giuseppe Carpani, Haydn 'confessed that …he was struck as if he had been put back to the beginning of his studies and had known nothing up to that moment. He meditated on every note and drew from those most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur'.
While still in London Haydn expressed a desire to compose a work on a similarly exalted biblical theme that would appeal to a broad public.
For the time being nothing came of the idea. But just before he left England for the last time, in the summer of 1795, the impresario and violinist Johann Peter Salomon handed him an anonymous English libretto on the subject of The Creation which had allegedly been intended for Handel half a century earlier.
Haydn immediately saw the musical potential in The Creation text, whose main sources were the book of Genesis, Milton's Paradise Lost (especially for the animal descriptions in Part Two, and the hymn and love duet in Part Three) and, for several of the choruses of praise, the book of Psalms.
Back in Vienna, the composer asked the Imperial Court Librarian, the formidable Baron Gottfried van Swieten, for his opinion. In Swieten's own words, 'I recognized at once that so elevated a subject would give Haydn the opportunity…to express the full power of his inexhaustible genius; I therefore encouraged him to take the work in hand….'
Swieten made a highly skilled job of translating and adapting the libretto, omitting several passages he deemed unsuited to musical treatment. He then prepared a parallel English version that, for all its occasional absurdities (Swieten's English was less fluent than he liked to think), steers as closely as possible to Milton and the Bible.
The libretto was finished some time towards the end of 1796, by which time Haydn had already begun to sketch the visionary 'Representation of Chaos'. Never one to hold back, Swieten annotated the manuscript he prepared for Haydn with suggestions for musical setting – a fugue here, descriptive tone-painting there – some of which were adopted, others rejected by the composer. He was, though, adamant that the words 'Let there be Light' – 'And there was Light' should only be said once, thereby claiming a small share in one of the most elemental inspirations in all music.
The structure of The Creation has an ideal simplicity and strength.
In the first two parts the six days of creation are announced in 'dry' recitative by one of the three archangels, Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel; after each act of creation the archangels expatiate on its wonders in accompanied recitative and aria; and each day after the first (which ends with the chorus heralding the 'new created world') culminates in a jubilant hymn of praise by the heavenly hosts.
Part Three, depicting the first morning in Eden, Adam and Eve's praise of all creation and their mutual love, falls into two sections that similarly climax in a triumphant chorus. In the arias and accompanied recitatives Haydn reveals his genius for instrumental tone-painting, using techniques honed in his operas and his Italian oratorio of 1775, Il ritorno di Tobia, but with a new boldness and sophistication – above all in the wonderfully inventive treatment of the wind instruments. The climactic choruses – the epitome of what the 18th century termed 'the sublime' in music – deploy Haydn's ripest symphonic and contrapuntal mastery with a freedom, variety and sheer brilliance of effect that were obviously inspired by Handel's example.
With its picture of a benign, rationally ordered universe and its essentially optimistic view of humanity (the Fall is referred to only casually just before the final chorus), The Creation was perfectly in accord with the temper of the Enlightenment, both in Georgian England and in 1790s Vienna.
Its theological content, minimising conflict, guilt and retribution, also chimed in with Haydn's own personal faith – 'not of the gloomy, always suffering sort, but rather cheerful and reconciled', as an early biographer put it. Indeed, in composing the oratorio he felt he was performing an act of religious devotion. It is ironic, then, that the Catholic church was quick to take offence at its non-moralistic tone and alleged 'secularity' of expression, and banned it from places of worship.
But the church could not hinder the work's immediate success. The Creation received immediate acclaim when it was performed before a packed aristocratic audience in the Schwarzenberg Palace in Vienna, first at an open rehearsal on 29 April 1798 and then at its official premiere the following day. Haydn, who conducted, was as overwhelmed as his listeners. His first biographer, Georg Griesinger, reported that the composer ‘could not describe the feelings with which he was filled when the performance went just the way he wished, and the public listened in total silence. “Sometimes my whole body was ice-cold,” he admitted, “Sometimes a burning heat overcame me, and more than once I was afraid I would suddenly have a stroke.”’
Owing to the huge demand, two further semi-private performances were arranged at the Schwarzenberg Palace in May. But it was not until the following year, with anticipation now at fever-pitch, that the non-aristocratic Viennese public were able to hear Haydn’s great oratorio for themselves.
The performance, in the Imperial Burgtheater on 19 March, was on a grand scale, though the proportion of players to singers was not what we would expect today: the most reliable reports suggest that some 120 instrumentalists (including tripled woodwind parts) were complemented by an all-male choir of around 60. Voice fanciers were also eager to hear the debut of the talented and eye-catching 17-year-old soprano Therese Saal.
The end result was the greatest triumph of Haydn’s career.
A Viennese journalist, Joseph Richter, wrote that ‘I wouldn’t have believed that mere human lungs and sheep gut and calf’s skin could create such miracles… I never left a theatre more contented, and all night I dreamed of the Creation of the World.’ Another eyewitness, Johan Berwald (cousin of the Swedish composer Franz), reported that ‘the whole performance went off wonderfully. Between the sections of the work, tumultuous applause; during each section, however, it was as still as the grave. When it was over there were calls, “Father Haydn to the front!” Finally the old man came forward and was greeted with a tumultuous applaudissement and with cries, “Long live Father Haydn, long live music!”’
The Creation became a regular feature of the Viennese musical scene. Within a few years it was being performed throughout the German-speaking lands, in Britain (the London premiere took place on 28 March 1800) and in France. With its effortless fusion of the popular and the ‘sublime’, the innocent and the sophisticated, the oratorio appealed to Kenner – connoisseurs – and Liebhaber – amateurs – alike. Rarely before or since has a musical masterpiece been so perfectly attuned to the spirit of the age.
There were, though, dissenting voices amid the general enthusiasm. In Britain the libretto came under fire for what the Scottish publisher George Thomson called its ‘miserable broken English’. And whereas most early listeners were charmed by the passages of descriptive tone-painting, the new Romantic generation soon began to deride Haydn’s lions, tigers and bleating sheep as laughably naive. In Austria the oratorio never lost its status as a national monument. But as the 19th century progressed the work’s stock fell steadily elsewhere, as ‘Papa’ Haydn was increasingly patronised as little more than a harmless old funster. In England The Creation repeatedly suffered from adverse comparisons with the all-conquering Handel. Attacks on the work here and in France became routine, with Berlioz, characteristically, outdoing all comers in vitriol: ‘I have always felt a profound antipathy for this work… its lowing oxen, its buzzing insects, its light in C, which dazzles like a Carcel lamp; and then its Adam, Uriel, Gabriel, and the flute solos and all the amiabilities really shrivel me up – they make me want to murder someone.’
The Creation’s gradual rehabilitation in the 20th century, especially after World War II, has mirrored the spectacular upturn in Haydn’s reputation generally. Comparisons with Handel became irrelevant. In a new, post-Romantic aesthetic even the most sophisticated listener could confess to enjoying Haydn’s naturalistic bird and animal imitations. And in Britain, Gottfried van Swieten’s ‘miserable broken English’ came to seem quaintly charming. Some still frowned on the love duet of Adam and Eve in Part 3 as too demotic for such exalted surroundings. But the duet’s popular dance rhythms and suggestions of Viennese Singspiel – even, perhaps, of Papageno and Papagena – are entirely in keeping with the subject matter: whereas in the previous number (the duet with chorus), Adam and Eve aligned themselves with the angels, here they are presented as everyman and everywoman, in all their humanity and sensuality.
Replying to a letter expressing admiration for The Creation, Haydn wrote in 1802 that ‘Often, when I was struggling with all kinds of obstacles… a secret voice whispered to me: “There are so few happy and contented people in this world; sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labour will become a source from which the careworn… will for a while derive peace and refreshment.”’ These words are typical of a devout, humble yet by no means naive man.
Haydn’s hopes were richly fulfilled in his lifetime. In our own sceptical and precarious age we can still delight, perhaps with a touch of nostalgia, in Haydn’s unsullied optimism, expressed in some of the most lovable and life-affirming music ever composed.
This article was first published in the print edition of BBC Music Magazine.