Finale: Haydn's Creation

Finale: Haydn's Creation

August 21 at 4:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church

Program Notes

Given his massive contributions to instrumental music, particularly in the genres of symphony and string quartet, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) does not immediately come to mind when one considers vocal music of the classical era. Mozart does, of course, for his incredible operas, masses, and the deathbed Requiem. Beethoven, too, earns plaudits despite writing very few vocal works, including one song cycle, the finale of the Ninth Symphony, and the Missa solenelle. By comparison, Haydn wrote a significant amount of music for voices, both secular and sacred. Chief among these are ten masses and two grand oratorios: The Creation (Die Schöpfung) from 1798 and The Seasons (Die Jahreszeiten), composed three years later. Although today’s program only involves The Creation, there are so many similarities between the two works that one can benefit from considering them in tandem.


The Seasons is a secular oratorio in four parts that, like Vivaldi’s famous violin concertos, attempts to capture the mood of the four times of year. By contrast, The Creation is a sacred musical depiction of the Genesis story. Both oratorios feature librettos by Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a significant player in 18th-century musical society and accomplished poet in his own right. However, the texts of both works do not originate with Swieten. He based his libretto for The Seasons on a poetic tetrology of that name by James Thomson, written between 1725 and 1730. A subsequent German translation was then further adapted by van Swieten prior to Haydn’s musical composition. Further, given Haydn’s commanding reputation in London, he wanted to accept offers to present this majestic work in the English capital – which necessitated a translation back into English. As such, numerous hands were involved; the final English version, almost unrecognizable compared to Thomson’s original, is less often performed than van Swieten’s German.

With our work, The Creation, a nearly identical process unfolded. Its text derives from combinations of the Bible (Genesis and The Book of Psalms, both in the King James Version) and Milton’s English epic Paradise Lost. At the beginning Haydn already had an anonymous text at his disposal, titled The Creation of the World, which he handed over to van Swieten for rendering into German. True, the literary baron took liberties with passages from Milton, but the style and imagery are uniformly compelling. However, once again Haydn reminded his friend that the work would need to also impress London audiences, who had come to adore Haydn’s symphonic works. That process of retranslation back into English, also undertaken by van Swieten, was not particularly well done. While it might provide greater accessibility to English-speaking audiences, van Swieten’s rudimentary knowledge of English means the message is stilted at times, metaphorically inept, and even further removed from the original power of the both the King James Bible and John Milton. Today’s performance returns to the German language version.

Further similarities between the oratorios pertain to instrumentation and scoring. Notably, both are scored for large orchestras and chorus (nearly 200 musicians at the public premiere, according to one source), but the leading roles can be covered by just three soloists: soprano, tenor, and bass. In the secular Seasons, these voices take the personae of three conventional rural individuals. In The Creation, the assignments for five vocal roles usually fall to just three singers: soprano portraying Gabriel and Eve; the tenor as Uriel; and bass covering Raphael and Adam. (In today’s production, these five roles will be presented by four artists.) Beyond the vocal forces, Haydn also favored the largest classical orchestra he could muster. Without doubt, his intent was to use sheer weight of sound to embody the gravity of the biblical topic. From primordial chaos to the creation of light, land and water, and life itself, The Creation in music would require a veritable army of strings, winds, brass, percussion, and human voices.


Haydn benefited immensely from being music master to the noble Esterházy family. His service began in the 1760s and continued, with a few notable interludes, until his death. During his last years Haydn was essentially a nominal employee, perhaps akin to an emeritus professor; his reputation added luster to the Esterházy dynasty, though health problems meant he could not offer much to musical life at court. Five years earlier, Haydn was far more active. He had recently returned to Vienna after several years of travel in England. Those years (1790-1795) mark the only real hiatus in his service to the Esterházy princes. He had the good fortune to work with Prince Nikolaus from 1762 to 1790, then sought out other opportunities during the downsized reign of Anton (1790-1795), only to be recalled to court and help reinvigorate musical life under Nikolaus II beginning in 1795.

The impetus for The Creation owes a great deal to those years abroad. In London Haydn enjoyed several chances to hear and study the music of his great predecessor, George Frederick Handel. We need not rehearse the details of Handel’s journey from Germany to Italy and eventually to London circa 1712, but key similarities in their backgrounds may have struck Haydn as more than coincidental. Handel pioneered a genre known as oratorio – describing musical works akin to dramatic opera, usually referencing Biblical or classical texts, but lacking the elaborate staging and choreography of opera. Oratorios in English proved immensely influential on all subsequent choral edifices constructed on Albion shores.

The music unfolds across three large parts; such Trinitarian symbolism may or may not have been intentional. As a whole it encompasses the six days of God’s creation described in Genesis. Part One covers the evolution from chaos and nothingness to the appearance of light, heavenly bodies, earth itself, and plant life. In Part Two animals and humans come onto the scene. The third and final part centers on the blissful existence of the first man and woman in Eden. Haydn concludes the oratorio before the Fall, thereby closing in tones of radiant joy and harmony.

When he set out to compose this magnum opus, Haydn can have felt secure in his abilities. He had been composing music essentially for his entire life. At age six he left home to develop precocious talents already in evidence. The following sixty years – not to overly simplify the matter – involved years of apprenticeship and chorister training, study of various instruments and technical matters (such as theory and fugue), and gradually widening fame as a teacher and composer. Haydn’s big break, of course, came when he received royal patronage in the early 1760s. He now had a resident orchestra at his disposal, as well as weekly demands for occasional music. When the musical and music-loving Nikolaus became the head of Esterházy affairs in 1762, Haydn’s output blossomed further, and the defining works of the high Classic style of composition seemed to flow from his pen like water.


From a vantage point of both many years and many accolades, Haydn was ready to attempt a sacred oratorio to rival Handel. The rich libretto provided numerous opportunities for musical experimentation, dramatic changes of mood/affect, and word painting. First impressions are often the most memorable. He chose to begin in a murky C minor to depict primordial chaos; bare octaves represent empty space, subsequently to be filled with gradually more instruments, rising figuration, and a brightening tonal palette accessed by delicious chromaticism. The use of the minor mode and a burgeoning approach to musical motives and ideas will surely call to mind examples from Beethoven, namely works like his Coriolan and Egmont Overtures and Ninth Symphony, none of which had not yet been written when The Creation took shape in 1797. For many, in fact, this opening depiction of chaos is the highlight of the entire work. But let that judgment go; there is still so much to hear and discover that one should embrace the introduction for what it is: Haydn’s exordium for a great oration to come.

The tonal ploys and basic motives presented in chaos continue to influence the following recitative by Raphael, which gropes ever closer to the first dramatic highpoint. After dwelling in C and F minor, Haydn turns back toward the home key which arrives in resplendent, fortissimo C major for the crucial text: “and there was Light.” Such attention to detail is not itself the mark of a master, but Haydn’s ability to pace the arrival of these moments is what continues to earn our sympathetic response. Subsequent arias and choruses joyously celebrate this truly seminal point in the biblical narrative. With light, evidence of God’s involvement and interest in Creation, all things become possible. On almost every page Haydn takes numerous liberties to respond, moment by moment, to the text, composing in a gestural manner that merges operatic splendor with touches of programmatic sound effects. A prime example is the tempestuous D minor aria “Rolling in foaming billows,” passages of which call to mind Don Giovanni.

These few observations must suffice to whet the appetite and remind us of how thoroughly invested Haydn became in this project. Perhaps too they can remind us how catholic were this man’s musical interests. Indeed, he composed over 80 string quartets and 100 symphonies; dozens of superlative piano sonatas and trios. Yet sacred music continued to exert its pull even as the general culture dealt with recent upheavals caused by the French Revolution and the Enlightenment. Haydn’s Creation oratorio, I’d like to think, would have made Handel himself proud, maybe even a touch envious. It may not be heard as often as the elder man’s Messiah, but it yields no ground in terms of musical sophistication, religious significance, and poetic grandeur.

© Jason Stell, 2022