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Haydn: “The Creation”

The work many consider Haydn’s masterpiece is a direct descendent of Handelian oratorio. From his earliest days in England, Haydn admired the great Handel oratorios; above all Israel in Egypt, with its frogs, flies, and hailstorms, influenced Haydn as he worked on The Creation. It had long been the impresario Salomon’s plan to induce him to compose an oratorio for the English, and it was Salomon who brought him the libretto—one which had, in fact, originally been intended for Handel himself.

For each day of the week of creation, the English libretto suggested biblical recitative, commentary based on Milton, and a concluding chorus paraphrasing one of the psalms. Haydn carried the English text back to Austria, where he asked Baron Gottfried van Swieten to provide a German version. This was a good choice: Swieten, a former ambassador to Berlin and the keeper of the Imperial Library, was an enthusiastic promoter of Baroque music, and thus knew the territory well. He followed the English plan closely, and as he went along, suggested to Haydn in the margin of his manuscript the sort of music he thought would be most appropriate. (“Because of the last three lines,” he wrote of the aria, no. 16, “only the joyful twittering, not the long held tones, of the nightingale can be imitated here.”) Swieten cut and altered his English source—though always leaving the King James biblical citation untouched—to fashion an English text that for the most part sits comfortably alongside his German. Die Schopfung The Creation  is, then, for all intents and purposes bilingual. (This is trickier than it looks: if one is to write, as Haydn did, worm music, the English “worm” and German “Wurm” must fall in the same place, despite the grammatical differences between the two languages.) The English we use today was spruced up by Vincent Novello when the vocal score was published, but is still thick with Miltonian allusions.

Haydn excelled at word painting, such that the illustrative devices are apt to seize your attention early on. They begin subtly in the wondrous first bars of the overture, called by Haydn “Representation of Chaos,” where life seems to stir for the first time with the bassoon arpeggio. At the word “light” of “And there was light” (no.2), there blossoms an enormous C major from the full performing force. From there, you will doubtless note, among others: the boisterous sea (no.7); the “cheerful host of birds” and “th’ immense Leviathan” (no.19); and of course the tawny lion, flexible tiger, nimble stag, and noble steed of no. 22. Likewise, the choice of keys, instruments, and harmonic events is often dictated by particulars of the text.
For all its Baroquish picture-music, The Creation is emphatically a work of the nineteenth century. This, too, is announced in “The Representation of Chaos,” Haydn’s most erotic and extended slow introduction, of advanced harmonic idiom and forward-looking use of the orchestra. (Note, for example, the astonishing clarinet run and its consequent, some bars later, the descending chromatic scale in the flute.) “Chaos” is as successful an evocation of the mysterious void of the universe as you will find anywhere, comparable to the opening of Beethoven’s Ninth and that of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

There is one further symbolism to be noted as well, and that is the tripartite nature of things: the three parts of the oratorio as opposed to the usual two, the use of three soloists (the angels Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael) rather than the conventional four, and the recitative-aria-chorus structure that describes each of the days of creation. These reflect the deity in what is probably a nod toward Masonic ideals. The great trios and choruses with trio are indeed the focal points of the oratorio: “The Heavens are telling” (no.14), “Most beautiful appear” and “The Lord is great” (nos. 19 and 20); and “achieved is the glorious work” (no.27).

The trouble with long pieces that begin so dramatically as The Creation is that the composer sometimes has difficulty sustaining the precedent. People often find part III, on Adam and Ev in the Garden of Eden, anticlimactic -even silly-by comparison with the celestial material that has come before. This view denies Haydn one of his fundamental premises: that Man is the most perfect creation of God. It is true that the love duet, “Graceful consort, at thy side” (no. 31), uses the rhetoric of the village band and pleasure garden. But the fall of Man only reconfirms the grandeur of God.

Creating a work of such dimensions drove Haydn, for once, to the limits of his legendary stamina. “I fell daily to my knees and asked God for strength to finish it,” he said. He struggled through the first performance: “Sometimes my whole body was ice cold, sometimes a burning heat overcame me, and more than once I was afraid that I would suddenly have a stroke.” Yet the magnitude of the achievement was clear to everybody. “For the life of me,” wrote one listener after the 1799 public premiere, “I wouldn’t have believed that human lungs and sheep gut and calf’s skin could create such miracles.”

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