Program Notes

The Creation

The Creation

In August, 1795, London impresario Johann Peter Salomon presented his departing visitor, Josef Haydn– Kapellmeister to the Esterházy family of Eisenstadt, Austria and Esterháza, Hungary — with a potential oratorio libretto describing ” …the Creation of the Earth and Human Kind”. According to Salomon, the libretto had been prepared by one Lidley (of whom nothing is known) for possible use by George Friedrich Handel. Handel, of course, had died 36 years earlier, and, if he ever saw the libretto, took no interest in it; it likely would not have appealed to Handel’s well-honed dramatic sense, in any event. The manuscript has since been lost, but was apparently based on Genesis, with a liberal dose of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a bit of pure fancy thrown in for good measure. However, the idea did appeal to Haydn. He had tried the oratorio form before; an allegorical work called Applausus, subtitled Jubilaeum Virtutis Palatium, written in 1768, was his first effort, and an Italianate work, “The Return of Tobias” appeared in 1775. His Seven Last Words of Christ was produced in a quasi-oratorio format in 1796, having also existed in orchestral form and as a cantata; but, for Haydn, these few efforts amounted almost to neglect of oratorio, against the multiplicity of other works. However, during a previous sojourn, at Salomon’s behest, in London– during an hiatus, in 1790-91, of his previous position with the Esterházys– Haydn attended performances of Handel oratorios in Westminster Abbey (where Handel is buried) and began thinking again about the oratorio challenge. It is probable that he mentioned that interest to Salomon, which may have led the latter to seize upon the manuscript as an opportunity to solicit Haydn’s participation.

Josef Haydn– his given name was Franz, but, like many Teutons, he went by his middle name– was the son of a wheelwright of Rohrau, in lower Austria. A talented choirboy at an early age, he nonetheless underwent a difficult existence in the 1750’s after his voice was no longer suitable for soprano parts. He managed to survive in no small part by his versatility– a talented pianist and organist, he also sang and played strings, especially the violin and viola– and his knack for forging useful alliances. This skill led him into the successive employ of three noblemen, the last, and lasting, employer being Prince Esterházy, whom he joined as vice-kapellmeister in 1761. He became kapellmeister (chapelmaster, that is, director of church music) himself in 1766. At the end of his long life in 1809, he was working for the grandson of the prince for whom he was first employed, the fourth prince during his tenure. Between the early 1750’s and 1809, his output of works was stupendous by any standard: 108 symphonies, 13 operas, a dozen masses, at least a dozen concerti for various instruments– of which the violin, cello and harpsichord occupy half– more than 60 string quartets, more than 150 trios (the bulk of them for viola, double bass and the obsolete instrument, the baryton); around 40 keyboard sonatas; and uncounted divertimenti, partsongs, duets, nocturnes, and songs, including folksong arrangements of several nationalities, and the tune known today as the Austrian Hymn– used for national anthems at various times by both Austria and Germany. But although he is often called the father of the symphony and of the string quartet– and he certainly initiated monumental changes in those forms– it comes as a shock that fully half his output was vocal music, and by no means was that entirely liturgical music. He attempted to capitalize on the success of The Creation with The Seasons, produced three years later with van Swieten as librettist; while it was an initial success, critical opinion gradually elevated The Creation to a superior position.

While Haydn certainly examined Salomon’s proffered libretto, he also promptly showed it to Baron Gottfried Bernhard van Swieten, Prefect of the Imperial Library in Vienna. Van Swieten had much in common with Salomon: Both were occasional composers, and both emigrated from their birth countries– Salomon, born in Bonn (where he met Beethoven), to London, and van Swieten, born in Leiden, to Berlin and then Vienna. Van Swieten was, as befitted his position, an erudite figure, trained as a diplomat, linguistically facile– and devoted to serious music. He was a friend of Mozart as well as Haydn, and an early Beethoven supporter– Beethoven dedicated his First Symphony to van Swieten. Most importantly for Haydn at this moment, however, van Swieten was the pivotal figure in the Gesellschaft der Associirten, an organization of nobles dedicated to supporting the arts. In short, while Salomon was explicitly a promoter, van Swieten was an implicit one, because he controlled some very impressive purse-strings. And van Swieten had a strong preference for “high-minded” art, an ecclesiastical subject like creation having an obvious appeal. Van Swieten endorsed the concept of the proposed oratorio– saying, rather pompously, that it was a suitable vehicle for the project he had been urging Haydn to mount– and tasked himself with turning the rough libretto into a finished product. It is interesting that he agreed early on– probably at Haydn’s suggestion– that The Creation would be released in both German and English, and he translated and adapted the texts. Haydn’s principal duties for his employer at this time focused on providing masses, at a rate of about one a year; he produced two masses– Heiligenmesse and Mass in Time of War— in 1796, which allowed a reduced schedule for the year following. He actually began the oratorio in the autumn of 1796, and returned to writing masses (the next was Missa in angustiis, known as the Lord Nelson Mass) after he finished the major work on The Creation in late fall, 1797; it took until the following March to get parts copied and production arrangements completed.

One cannot read the libretto of The Creation without recognizing that it differs vastly from a typical Handel libretto. The Creation has relatively little action, compared with, say, Israel in Egypt; the Genesis story is recounted in a few broad strokes of the Divine Hand, with the most dramatic touch the sudden appearance of light in the first chorus (Haydn’s own device– even van Swieten did not know his intent until the first performances in Vienna in April of 1798). What little dramatic action remains is as much Milton as Scripture, for example the fall of the demons in the second chorus number. The bulk of Haydn’s oratorio is descriptive and/or laudatory in nature, and some of the descriptive passages employ suggestive orchestration or even actual imitation– the cooing of doves imitated by the soprano in the aria “On Mighty Pens”, for example– devices which were common in 18th-century writing, but were, even in 1800, beginning to lose their appeal. Whether the emphasis on praise, to the exclusion of drama, was carried from the Lidley / Salomon manuscript, or whether it owes most to the moralistic van Swieten, we do not know. On the other hand, there is also here great wealth of lovely melody, luscious harmony, and grand, resounding outbursts of soaring solo and choral ecstasy, testifying to the glory of God; Handel’s works rarely maintain this musical richness throughout. For Haydn, a devout man, The Creation remained a milestone of personal inspiration. Listeners who allow themselves immersion in the tide of this music will find that it washes away the dramatic imperfections and will find themselves inspired as well.

J. R. Fancher