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About this Piece

Composed: 1797
Length: c. 105 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, organ, timpani, and strings, with solo soprano, solo tenor, solo bass, and chorus (SATB)

First LA Phil performance: April 14, 1960, Georg Solti conducting, with soprano Claire Watson, tenor Leopold Simoneau, bass-baritone Donald Gramm, and the Roger Wagner Chorale

Haydn was a deeply religious man, and The Creation is his personal statement of faith. He was a life-long Catholic, having received his early musical education as a chorister at St. Stephen’s, Vienna’s main cathedral. According to his biographer Georg August Greisinger, who interviewed Haydn on several occasions, “In general, his devotion was not of the gloomy, always suffering sort, but rather cheerful and reconciled, and in this character, moreover, he wrote all his church music.” There are few works of sacred music more cheerful than The Creation. It is a profound statement of an optimistic and assured faith, and of a belief in music’s ability to edify, uplift, and inspire the listener.

By the time he composed The Creation in 1797, Haydn was also a celebrity. He moved in Europe’s leading intellectual and social circles, and he was as famous in Paris and London as he was at home in Vienna. He read widely, and his library’s shelves were stocked with tomes by the leading thinkers of his day, especially those of the German Enlightenment.

Haydn had little difficulty reconciling the Enlightenment’s religion of reason with his faith. During the second half of the 18th century, science had yet to seriously challenge the authority of the Bible’s account of the creation of the world. Fossils were thought to be remnants of the Flood, and natural scientists believed that species did not change, which made a theory of evolution impossible. The very existence of the order and reason that the Enlightenment espoused supported the Biblical account of a rational creation.

When Haydn received the text for The Creation during his second visit to London in 1794-95, it immediately clicked with his religious and intellectual sensibilities. The vivid, pictorial nature of the text, with its seas “rolling in foaming billows,” its rising sun “in splendor bright,” its birds with their “cooing calls,” and its menagerie of tawny lions, flexible tigers, nimble stags, and sprightly steeds, certainly fired his imagination. The trajectory of the narrative, nicely summed up in the archangel Uriel’s opening aria – “disorder yields to order” – resonated with his Enlightenment-flavored religious convictions.

The rumor that the text had been intended for the great Handel himself only increased Haydn’s interest. George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was synonymous with the oratorio in 18th-century England, and, with Messiah, home of the “Hallelujah” chorus, among his credits, he’s still one of the form’s best-known exponents. During his first London visit, in 1791-92, Haydn attended the annual Handel commemoration in Westminster Abbey. There, he heard over a thousand performers sing two of Handel’s most famous oratorios, Messiah and Israel in Egypt. Interestingly, it was Israel, with its massive choruses and delightful orchestral effects (including musical depictions of buzzing flies, jumping frogs, and a thunderous hailstorm), that impressed Haydn more. When the impresario Johann Peter Salomon, who had arranged Haydn’s London visits, handed him a text that had been among Handel’s effects at his death, Haydn took the treasure back with him to Vienna and started planning the work that would be the culmination of his long career.

The author of the text – some name him as Newburgh Hamilton, one of Handel’s collaborators, because of the structure of the text – combines Biblical passages from Genesis and the Psalms with bits from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Haydn set the libretto in a German version prepared by his Viennese patron and collaborator, Baron Gottfried van Swieten. The full score, prepared and published by Haydn in 1800, contained both the German and the English, making it the first major work ever printed with a bi-lingual text.

The Creation is in three parts. The six days of creation effectively subdivide the first two parts, with days one through four comprising Part I and days five and six contained in Part II. The events of each day unfold in a combination of recitative (a form of declamatory, speech-like singing that is free in rhythm) and aria (lengthier, formal musical numbers), and each day ends with a chorus. Part III focuses on Adam and Eve’s joy in the earthly paradise of the garden of Eden.

Part I begins with one of Haydn’s most gripping strokes of genius, a depiction of the chaos that reigned before the birth of the world. “The Overture,” in the words of the German composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, who reviewed the work in an 1802 music journal, “bespeaks a master of the first rank and is, in our opinion, the greatest section of the work: the crown on a royal head.” With its opening unison, the musical picture of the vast empty spaces that prefigured the world, “The Representation of Chaos” offers surprise after surprise in its details. Fragmented themes, shocking dissonances, and unexpected instrumental flourishes conjure a vision of a tumultuous universe, with the elements tossed about in space, rushing past or colliding violently – just what one would expect from chaos. Few composers ventured into such adventurous harmonic territory until the era of Liszt and Wagner after the middle of the 19th century, making Haydn’s chaos all the more unsettling for audiences used to the classical discipline and melodic charm of his other works.

After a brief recitative setting the scene for the first day, Haydn calls on the chorus for a stunning dramatic stroke: at the moment of the creation of light, the orchestra and chorus unleash their full power with a radiant C-major chord. This is the only instance in the oratorio that Haydn uses the chorus before the end of one of the days, a touch that underlines the cosmic power of the moment.

What follows is musical invention on the highest level, with Haydn reveling in the nature imagery and religious conviction of the text. The aria “Rolling in foaming billows” opens with a tumultuous depiction of stormy seas before shifting into a more pastoral mode, with gently flowing first violins and long-breathed solo horns capturing the “softly purling” brook. In the recitative “In splendor bright is rising now the sun,” Haydn gives us one of the great musical sunrises, with flutes and first violins moving upward, note by note, and the other instruments adding ever-increasing “splendor” to the texture. Another vividly pictorial recitative comes in Part II, when animals spring from the earth’s “fertile womb” and Haydn crafts a little orchestral introduction for each one, from the “tawny lion” (a roar from the bassoons, contrabassoon, and strings) down to the worm, who gets a low note from the cellos and basses in a moment that unites Haydn’s love of nature with his broad and boisterous sense of humor.

In the arias, Haydn draws on the 18th-century operatic and folk music traditions to differentiate the archangels Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel, who sing in Parts I and II, from Adam and Eve, who appear in Part III. The archangels’ arias are in the elevated style found in late 18th-century opera, while Adam and Eve’s duets have a more pronounced folk character. Though his stage works are seldom performed today, Haydn was a seasoned opera composer, having written – in his role as Kapellmeister (a position akin to Music Director) to the Princes Esterházy – several that found success with audiences around Europe. Raphael’s turbulent “Rolling in foaming billows” owes much to the rage arias common to the operas of the day, and his majestic aria in Part Two, “Now heav’n in fullest glory shone,” is a good example of the majestic brand of aria reserved for the operatic king- or warrior-hero. Uriel’s “In native worth and honor clad” is a different type of heroic aria, for the most part deeply reflective, with only a whiff of the battlefield at its beginning.

The choruses are where Haydn’s debt to Handel is most apparent. The magnificent fugue (a passage in which different voices enter in succession, imitating one another, often with a stirring cumulative effect ideally suited to sacred music) at the heart of “Awake the harp,” bookended by music of exuberant, joyous energy, reveals as much – the “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah was probably still resounding in Haydn’s head from that 1791 Westminster Abbey commemoration. The final chorus is another such moment, with its anthem-like opening followed by a monumental double fugue. A double fugue is simply a fugue with two melodic subjects, in this case one for the words “The Lord is great, His praise shall last for aye!” and another, a moment later, to which Haydn sets “Amen,” with the two combining in an inspiring affirmation of the composer’s faith.

For Haydn, The Creation was a summation of his religious convictions as well as his life’s work as a composer. Every one of his scores ended with the inscription “Laus Deo” (God be praised) or “Soli Deo gloria” (For the glory of God alone), and never was it more fitting than at the end of The Creation. And even in our world, two centuries later, The Creation still speaks eloquently to believer and non-believer alike with its lively arias and rousing choruses, and this, in the end, was what Haydn hoped his music would do. Responding to fan mail in 1802, he explained that “a secret voice whispered to me: ‘There are in this world so few happy and contented people; sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labor will become a source in which the man bowed down by care, or burdened with business matters, will for a while find peace and rest.’ ”

John Mangum is President and Artistic Director of the Orange County Philharmonic Society.