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The Creation, H. XXI:2

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Franz Josef Haydn
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Helmuth Rilling, conductor/Haydn's The Creation Apr. 30 - May 2, 2009
© J├╝rgen Hartmann
Sublime, Witty, Enlightened

Thoughts on Haydn's Creation
by Jürgen Hartmann
Translation by Christina Connelly

In 1985 the German literati made light of the weekly newspaper Die Zeit's editor Fritz J. Raddatz, who had mentioned Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and the Frankfurt train station in the same sentence. In doing so, he committed an obvious anachronism because the railway did not exist yet in Goethe's time. Raddatz lost his job, and he is grumbling about it still today.

In examining Joseph Haydn's Creation, it is easy to fall prey to a similar trap. When one hears the passage, "And God said, Let there be light: and there was light" (No. 1), one might assume that the composer was familiar with the blessing of electric lighting and especially the effect of "switching on" many lights all at once. Needless to say, such an assumption would be utterly unfounded: Heinrich (Henry) Goebel did not invent the incandescent light bulb until 45 years after Haydn's death—nor did this contested invention work reliably until much later.

Haydn said he felt particularly devout while working on The Creation. Thus, one could assume another paradoxical, yet intellectually enticing, link between the so brilliantly "lucid" God Almighty and the "enlightened" inspiration evident throughout the libretto (for example, when Gabriel and the chorus sing of the "Himmelsbürger," literally translated, "citizens of heaven"). After all, both the French and English terms for the era of the Aufklärung—"les lumières" and "the Enlightenment"—draw on the image of light.

Gottfried van Swieten, whom Haydn valued as a source of ideas, also from a musical standpoint, while working on The Creation, provided suggestions regarding the transition from the darkness to the light: "In the chorus, the darkness could gradually fade, but in such a way that enough of the darkness remains to make the sudden transition to light powerfully felt. 'And there was light,' etc. can only be said once," van Swieten noted in the margins of his libretto. That Haydn kept his composition of this passage secret—even from the libretto's author—until the first performance, as the composer's acquaintance Swedish diplomat Fredrik Samuel Silvestope claims, may just be the stuff of legend. Still, van Swieten himself presumably did not have as radical a solution in mind as Haydn ultimately composed. However, this daring move from darkness to light—or, musically speaking, from an intentionally confusing harmonic conglomeration culminating in C major—was not convincing to all Haydn's contemporaries or later listeners. The German chronicler Madame de Staël claimed she had to cover her ears and an anonymous Berliner described the passage saying, "It was still and quiet, but then, suddenly, there was a powerful noise."

Still, it is not surprising that such a major work of the genre did not just elicit bacchanal hymns of praise. Hector Berlioz, who was a bold champion of program music, would have had, at the very least, to appreciate the "outrageous" introduction 'Representation of Chaos,' which had been composed with aimlessly rambling harmonies and copious harmonic sharp tones. Yet even he had nothing good to say about Haydn's Creation. The work was "thoroughly disagreeable" to him, the Frenchman wrote in February 1859 and went on to say, "his roaring oxen, his humming mosquitoes, his sunrise in C, which blinds like a Carcel lamp, his Adam, his Uriel, his Gabriel, his flute solo, and all these conventionalities put me in such a sour mood that I would like to kill someone." The following reproach was most likely also directed at van Swieten: "Some naïveté is good, but not too much!"

By contrast, Hugo Wolf, a composer who did not particularly care for tone-painting or program music, judged Haydn's work very differently a quarter century later: "Haydn is such a grand artist that, when listening to his works, we do not even notice how elaborate they are, and yet what an abundance of musical structures envelopes his graceful tonal images! His extraordinarily refined artistic sense is also manifest in the field of tone-painting, so studiously practiced of late and yet already falling into disrepute." Even the excessive naïveté which Berlioz criticized is viewed differently by Wolf: "What a religious, child-like nature speaks from the heavenly pure tones of Haydn's muse!" It is pure nature, pure vision, feeling!"

Whether Joseph Haydn possessed a child-like nature is debatable. Moreover, one might also ponder whether or not such a child-like nature is consistent with the label "Papa Haydn," which was also widely used to describe the composer (and brazenly taken to the extreme in the title of a successful children's musical theater piece Papa Haydn's Little Animal Menagerie or How Does a Giraffe Sound?). But Joseph Haydn certainly was no childish old man. The man who, like no other composer, "hides behind his works," as Ludwig Finscher puts it, successfully moved from court composer to independent gentleman-composer, a transition that the young artist Mozart was not able to achieve in quite the same way. Haydn combined an enlightened awareness with religious faith, was intellectually agile, articulate, and had a sense of humor. Finscher spoke of the "intellectual aspect of Haydn's mature style," which did not express itself in "tangible musical banter" but in "sublime, witty play."

It is worth considering The Creation from this perspective, particularly since the characteristics "sublime" and "graceful," which had long been used to (positively) judge the oratorio have largely been lost to us. Even tone-painting and program music can be viewed today without any preconceived notions, and, when compared with the musical extremes typical of the end of the 19th and early 20th century, Haydn's descriptions of nature and animals seem almost nostalgic: "With Haydn, the world becomes young again," as the English journalist Robert Turnbull put it in 1907, during an era when the symphonic poetry of Richard Strauss left the concert halls quaking.

So what is it about Haydn's Creation that is "sublime, witty play?" Or, before posing that question, What is Haydn playing with? First of all, with the genre of the oratorio. Here, the composer was motivated by his librettist van Swieten, who linked Haydn to Handel and thus wanted to establish a line of tradition that would edge out the Italian oratorio in favor of "a folk idiom." Moreover, while The Creation is steeped in piety, it is not a religious, church, or even liturgical work. On the contrary, there was even opposition to having it performed in churches, and a look at today's venues would reveal a fairly equal number of performances in concert halls and churches. Thus, van Swieten and Haydn definitively emancipated the oratorio from its link to the sacred, thereby completing a prolonged evolution. It must also be kept in mind that Haydn was not very famous as a composer of oratorios, and his other, thoroughly successful, vocal works, such as masses, operas, and the cantata Arianna a Naxos, were much less widespread than his instrumental music. His Creation, however, struck a nerve of the time as a devotional and hymn without liturgy. And, as "a sensuous homage to the beauty of creation and the reliability of natural human order" (Martin Geck), the work, which was not infrequently performed in theaters, evolved into a substitute homily. As early as 1801, the Haydn biographer Georg August Griesinger said that "no pulpit speech [is] able to describe the greatness of the creator, his works, and his beneficence [with such] ardent forcefulness."

This paradoxical harmony between the work's enlightened emancipation from ecclesiastical requirements and its moral constancy in the reputed "natural" order, say, between man and woman—whose elaborate musical setting seems almost satirical today—is very possibly what spurs orchestras to include the work in their repertoires. It is, nevertheless, noteworthy that this concept, which even flirts with the opera style in part three, found few imitators. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, who some decades later adopted the oratorio as a genre, set about establishing new traditions, particularly in Paulus—based on the Bible, hymns, and Johann Sebastian Bach.

So while The Creation remained an outsider within its genre, it did set new standards in music. Ludwig van Beethoven, who occasionally mocked Haydn's "fussy" tone-painting, in fact picks up on the composer nearly 40 years his senior in his Sixth Symphony, Pastoral. German musicologist Günther Massenkeil made this connection, drawing on the No. 32 duet ('Graceful consort'), in which Haydn "employed the old artistic tool of scales in flowing, up-and-down 16th movement," where "softly fly the golden hours" and "purest joys o'erflow the heart," to create a tonal image. "But Haydn does not leave it at that; rather, he uses the melodic phrases as motifs and works with them in vocal and instrumental parts without detracting from the impression of the quiet movement of the entire adagio part." This leads straight to Beethoven's "Scene by the brook" in Pastoral, which emerged roughly 10 years after The Creation. Thus, Beethoven's famous statement that his composition is "more expression of feeling than painting," also applies, in retrospect, to Haydn, as his "own version of the Viennese Classical Style," as Massenkeil shows. The same could also be said of the introduction to part three (No. 29 'In rosy mantle appear'), which, incidentally, follows van Swieten's suggestions quite closely. Here, van Swieten wanted "[. . .] a somewhat longer introduction, which expresses the sweet sound and pure harmony, serves to set up for the recitative, and then from which the accompaniment to the first six verses [could] be taken. It also seems that more attention should be paid to harmony than to melody, which would have to be at least barely fluttering or extended."

The orchestral introduction 'Representation of Chaos,' which Haydn arranged in only 59 bars, was too much for many of its early audiences. There was much speculation about how Haydn would give shape to the shapeless—composer Siegfried Ochs described it as a "total muddle" as late as 1926, while Georg Feder called it a "deformed sonata movement" with "misguided modulation." Perhaps most fascinating about this superbly refined, harmonious work—the traces of which can still be heard in Richard Wagner's Tristan—is that one can enjoy listening to it as much when analyzing it musically as when attempting to visualize its images—an apt example of Haydn's "sublime, witty play."

At a performance of The Creation at the Paris Opera in 1844, the imposing chandelier is said to have "played along:" During Chaos, it grew dimmer, then lit up with the emergence of the holy light. That this passage, in particular, creates a sensational effect even today in our well-lit concert halls and churches is further evidence of Haydn's craft. Other parts can be viewed today with a wink and a nod—from the flexible leaping tiger to mankind (actually, only the "man" is meant) as "lord and king of nature all." A smile is, by all means, allowed.