HAYDN: THE CREATION
‘Haydn confessed to me that when he heard Handel’s music in London, he was so impressed by it that he went back to his studies, as if he had known nothing until that time. He pondered every note of it, and drew from these learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur.’
Giuseppe Carpani, Le Haydine, 1812
Joseph Haydn must indeed have been deeply impressed, on his first trip to England, by the commemorative celebrations for George Frideric Handel in London, which were held between 1784 and 1791 in Westminster Abbey and at the Pantheon in Oxford Street, with the participation of anything up to a thousand performers. The fact that works by a long-dead composer were the focus of public interest, actively supported by the royal family, was something exceptional in itself. But what dominated the perception of the crowds who flocked to the festival was the magnificence of the choruses from the oratorios performed there, which were intended to awaken the idea of the ‘sublime’ in those countless wide-open eyes and ears. In Haydn’s case, the experience swiftly provided a new source of artistic inspiration, of which he may well have spoken (among others?) to Johann Peter Salomon, the Bonn-born impresario who had commissioned the ‘London’ symphonies. At any rate, when Haydn left London for good in the summer of 1795, Salomon is said to have given his friend and business partner a libretto that contained the biblical account of the Creation – in the version of the Anglican ‘King James’ Bible – but combined it with free poetic passages derived from John Milton’s verse epic Paradise Lost. Back in Vienna, Haydn, who was probably not sure what to make of a subject of this kind, was prompted by Baron Gottfried van Swieten to turn it into a German oratorio. The Baron, among other occupations, was the secretary of a musical society for members of the Austrian high nobility, the ‘Gesellschaft der Associierten Cavaliers’, which organised oratorio performances in the aristocratic palaces of Vienna. He made the German translation of the libretto himself and accompanied the project right through to the final stages of printing. Haydn worked on his setting between 1796 and 1798; the premiere took place at a private concert given by the society on 29 April 1798 (with a repeat performance the next day) in Prince Schwarzenberg’s palace on the Mehlmarkt (now Neuer Markt). It was a phenomenal success. The first public performance of the oratorio followed a year later, on 19 March 1799, in the ‘old’ Burgtheater on the Michaelerplatz. Shortly afterwards, Haydn arranged to have the score of the work printed with text in two languages, German and English.1 The list of subscribers ran to more than four hundred persons, first and foremost his English friends and admirers, including even King George III. In 1803 the Leipzig publishing firm of Breitkopf & Härtel took over the printing plates and with them the further diffusion of Die Schöpfung.
The setting of the Creation narrative to music seems to have struck a deep inner chord with Haydn: a whole bundle of sketches preserved in the music collection of the Austrian National Library testifies to the effort he invested in the composition. In Die Schöpfung, Haydn’s deep piety is coupled with the philosophy of the Enlightenment. The influence of the latter on the libretto is shown, for example, in the fact that the account of Creation ends here before the Fall: there is no original sin, and Paradise is the best of all possible worlds. But Haydn does not only look backwards in his Schöpfung, for example to Freemasonry, which was then going through a far from easy period because of political restrictions. In what was itself, so to speak, an ‘act of creation’, he established a new type of oratorio that was to be of decisive importance, initially for his own output – in Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) – and subsequently for the entire nineteenth century: Haydn finally broke here with the (admittedly already diminished) dominance of the aria, which had been manifest in southern Germany and Austria through the tradition of the Italian operatic oratorio. At the same time he assigned greater importance to the chorus, which celebrates in solemn tones the conclusion of each day. The key elements guaranteeing the success of Die Schöpfung were the composer’s depiction of Nature, or rather of the way it is brought into being and gradually comes to life, in Parts One and Two, and the vividly human characterisation of Adam and Eve (Part Three), combined throughout with Haydn’s extraordinarily impressive, pictorial musical language. The Swedish diplomat Frederik Samuel Silverstolpe, a friend of the composer, was present at the rehearsals for the premiere and recorded his impressions as follows:
I was then among the audience, after having attended the first rehearsal a few days earlier. On this occasion Haydn was surprised by a gift. Prince Schwarzenberg, in whose large hall the work was rehearsed and later performed, was so utterly enchanted by its many beauties that he presented the composer with a roll of one hundred ducats, over and above the five hundred that were part of the agreement. – No one, not even Baron van Swieten, had seen the page of the score wherein the birth of light is described. That was the only passage of the work which Haydn had kept hidden. I think I see his face even now, as this section was heard in the orchestra. Haydn had the expression of someone who is thinking of biting his lips, either to hide his embarrassment or to conceal a secret. And in that moment when light broke out for the first time, one would have said that rays were hurled forth from the composer’s burning eyes. The enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes.