The story of The Creation and its composer
In the summer of 1791, Joseph Haydn heard Handel’s Messiah and Israel in Egypt oratorios for the first time, performed by a massed choir and orchestra in Westminster Abbey. Haydn was 59 and the most famous composer in Europe but was “deeply moved by the grandeur of the music and by its immediate effect on the audience.”1 He told a friend he would like to compose something similar. The friend “took his Bible in his hands and said: ‘There, take that, and begin at the beginning.’”2
Haydn did exactly that. Charles Darwin was not yet born, and Haydn’s librettists felt no pressure to try to conform the biblical text to a conflicting theory. Together, they simply rendered it in music.
The Creation premiered in 1798, a rather insecure year for Catholics such as Haydn, as Napoleon’s army removed the papacy from power (and shot the nose off the Sphynx). That same year, the Cherokee nation signed a treaty with the United States, the Society of United Irishmen rebelled against British rule, and the platypus was discovered by Europeans.
Haydn wrote, “Never was I so devout as when I composed The Creation. I knelt down each day to pray to God to give me strength for my work.”3 Haydn wanted this work to inspire “the adoration and worship of the Creator,” by encouraging the listener into “a frame of mind where he is most susceptible to the kindness and omnipotence of the Creator.”4
If a musical idea did not come easily to him, he said, “I try to find out if I have erred in some way or other, thereby forfeiting grace; and I pray for mercy until I feel that I am forgiven.”5
Haydn had no easy life. Born to a poor family, he earned a living as a choir boy—until his voice broke. A friend suggested he become a castrato but his father refused. For the next eight years, Haydn lived where he could—with friends, on the street—and barely survived by giving music lessons. Eventually, he became a music teacher in a noble family, and then Kapellmeister at the estate of Prince Esterházy, a prestigious and well-paid appointment even if a regional one.
Mozart once said, “Haydn alone has the secret both of making me smile and of touching my innermost soul.”6 Haydn’s zest for life, deep Christian faith, and musical and dramatic gifts all combine to produce a profound setting of the creation account that touches heart, mind, and soul.
A Swedish diplomat wrote about the moment the Viennese public first heard The Creation: “At 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.”7
Listen during Avondale Conservatorium’s performance of the oratorio for Haydn’s portrayal of the creation of light, sun, moon, stars, sea creatures, animals and birds as sung by three archangels, Raphael, Uriel and Gabriel, and a choir of angels in part one and two of The Creation.
We are not performing part three, with the songs of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. Adam sings, “Our duty we have performed now . . . Then mayest thou feel and know / The high degree of bliss the Lord allotted us.”
Eve sings to her husband, “Thy will is law to me, and from obedience / Grows my pride and happiness.” Adam replies, “Graceful consort, at thy side / Softly fly the golden hours.” This section seems more influenced by John Milton’s Paradise Lost than by the Bible, in which male domination is explicitly said to be part of the curse of sin and the Fall.
Haydn may be forgiven for this depiction of marriage. He fell in love with a girl named Theresa. Her father, a wigmaker, had helped him in his younger years but Theresa’s parents made her enter a convent. Stunned, Haydn proposed to her older sister Maria instead. They were incompatible and there were infidelities on both sides. Haydn said, “My wife was incapable of bearing children, and thus I was less indifferent to the charms of other women.” Maria had no respect for his musical gifts and even cut up his manuscripts to use as paper hair curlers. They separated but, as Catholics, could not divorce. Haydn financially supported her throughout her life, even as he wished he was free to marry a widow he loved in England.
A disappointing personal life did not destroy Haydn’s exuberance in music and worship. Composing Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi (“Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world”), Haydn said he was seized with “uncontrollable gladness” and his heart “leapt for joy.” When criticised by some in the church for being irreverently joyful, Haydn replied, “Since God has given me a cheerful heart, He will forgive me for serving him cheerfully.”8 He said, “When I sit at my old worm-eaten piano, I envy no king in his happiness.” Before his death, 210 years ago this week, Haydn told a friend, “I have only to wait like a child for the time when God calls me to Himself.”9
Haydn’s Creation remains one of the most frequently performed oratorios, next to Handel’s beloved Messiah which inspired it.10 In this performance may you feel “susceptible to the kindness and omnipotence of the Creator.”11
1. Annette Oppermann, “Preface,” in Haydn Creation: conductor score (Kassel: Bärenreiter-verlag, 2009), VI.
2. Ibid. See also Nicholas Temperley, “Composition, performance and reception,” in Haydn: The Creation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, June 2012), 31-46. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511620102.005
3. Neil Butterworth, Haydn, His Life and Times (Kent: Midas Books, 1977), 122.
4. Howard Chandler Robbins Landon, The Collected Correspondence and London Notebooks of Joseph Haydn (Fairlawn, NJ: Essential Books, 1959), 187.
5. Christina Stadtlaender, Joseph Haydn of Eisenstadt (London: Dennis Dobson, 1968), 66.
6. As quoted by John Bawden in program notes. www.choirs.org.uk/prognotes/creation.htm. Although the authenticity of the original source of this quote is unverifiable, it certainly supports the known fact that Haydn and Mozart were contemporaneous peers.
7. Nicholas Temperley, Hadyn: The Creation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 24, 35.
8. Heinrich Edward Jacob, Joseph Haydn, His Art, Times and Glory (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1950), 273.
9. Michel Brenet, Haydn (New York: Benjamin Blom Inc., 1972), 58-59.
10. A Peter Brown (editor) and Julie Schnepel, “Preface,” in Haydn Creation: vocal score (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), vi.
11. Howard Chandler Robbins Landon, The Collected Correspondence and London Notebooks of Joseph Haydn (Fairlawn, NJ: Essential Books, 1959), 187.
Experience the grandeur of Joseph Haydn’s magnificent oratorio The Creation in this Avondale Conservatorium performance conducted by Aleta King as part of the 2019 Avondale Concert Series.LEARN MORE