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Illinois Arts Council


for the March 13, 2005 , concert of the North Shore Choral Society

by Don Draganski


Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) composed The Creation in 1798, at a time when he had already achieved considerable fame throughout Europe for his symphonies and chamber music. During one of his earlier visits to London , he had heard George Frederick Handel's Messiah performed and expressed a wish to compose an oratorio himself in that grand style. Haydn's friend and English sponsor, Johann Peter Solomon, suggested a libretto loosely based on Milton 's Paradise Lost as a suitable text for an oratorio. Haydn took the book back to Vienna and gave it to the Baron Gottfried van Sweeten. (Van Sweeten, Dutch by birth, lived most of his life in Vienna , where he ruled as a kind of benign musical autocrat. He encouraged many of the leading composers of the time, both artistically and financially. It was he, in fact, who provided Haydn with a traveling-carriage for his second journey to England .) Van Sweeten translated the libretto into German - with considerable alterations - at the same time managing to cajole a number of the wealthy Viennese nobility to contribute to a guarantee purse of 500 ducats to pay for its production.


"Never was I so pious," Haydn told his biographer G.A. Griesinger, "as when composing The Creation . I knelt down every day and prayed God to give me strength to enable me to pursue the work to its successful conclusion." Upon completion, it was given a private performance at the Schwarzenberg Palace in April 1798 and presented the following March at the Vienna National Theatre. By all reports it was a resounding success; the following passage, taken from a letter written by a member of that first audience, conveys the flavor of the event:


Finally the music began, and all at once it became so quiet that you, cousin, could have heard a mouse running, and if they hadn't often applauded, you would have thought that there weren't any people in the theatre. But cousin, in my whole life I won't hear such a beautiful piece of music; and even if it had lasted three hours longer, and even if the stink-and-sweat-bath had been much worse, I wouldn't have minded. For the life of me I wouldn't have believed that human lungs and sheep gut and calf's skin could create such miracles. . I never left a theatre more contented, and all that night I dreamed of the Creation of the World.


Haydn himself was deeply moved by the performance: "One moment," he said, "I was cold as ice, the next I seemed on fire. More than once I was afraid I should have a stroke."


The Creation quickly established itself in the repertoire, and within a year it was performed widely throughout the continent and in England . Ever since, it has been one of the cornerstones of the choral repertoire and a popular favorite of choral societies throughout the world.


The Creation occupies a very important place in Haydn's output; although he is justly famous as the father of the symphony and the string quartet, he was no less innovative in applying his considerable genius to his two oratorios. By the time Haydn came to write The Creation , oratorios had begun to break away from strict Biblical and liturgical settings, and their connection with the church and divine service became more and more tenuous. Oratorios were given with increasing frequency in secular settings as they evolved into a form of concertized music. ( England was considerably in advance of the continent in this respect, with concert performances of oratorios going back to Handel's day.) A loosening of the ritualistic elements can be seen in German oratorios as a more sentimental strain began to appear, particularly in a predilection of many composers for pastoral subjects. (Haydn's treatment of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden carries this feeling into the context of the Bible story.) Most important of all is Haydn's borrowing from the German Lied and opera, which he fused with the classical instrumental style that he himself helped to create. This synthesis is very much akin to the similar coalescence which Mozart created in the musical language of his late operas.


The very opening of the work, "Representation of Chaos," played by the orchestra, immediately captures the listener's attention with a unison on C, followed by bold harmonic writing that is quite Wagnerian in its chromaticism. This vision of Chaos leads directly into the recitative sung by the angel Raphael telling of the beginnings of creation. At the line "And there was light," the orchestra and chorus burst forth in a powerful C-major chord. Haydn was justly proud of the effect of this passage, and he had taken precautions to keep that passage hidden from the performers until the final dress rehearsal. No one, not even the Baron van Sweeten, had seen that page of the score. An observer described that rehearsal:


I think I see Haydn's face even now, as this part sounded 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 darted from the composer's burning eyes. The enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes.


The angel Uriel continues to describe the end of Chaos with a sudden translation into the underworld as the chorus describes the "convulsion, rage and terror" of the powers of evil. (The absence of Satan is the most notable departure from Milton , for in Paradise Lost Satan plays a major role. This section contains the only reference to the dark side of creation in an otherwise sunny work.)


The Creation continues in a succession of dazzling harmonic and orchestral effects, as passages of straightforward simplicity and naïveté alternate with movements that show the sure hand of a master of contrapuntal writing. It is a remarkable masterpiece that, for all its frequent performances, retains its freshness and excitement with each new re-creation.


Haydn's Creation was last performed by the North Shore Choral Society in November of 1996 under Dr. Chen's direction. The text of that performance was in English; today's performance employs Van Sweeten's German language version.

Copyright © 2005 by Donald Draganski


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