Monday May 29, 2017, 5:00 PM
Camden Opera House
29 Elm Street
The Creation was written in 1797-1798 and first performed in a private concert sponsored by a group of Viennese aristocrats at the Schwarzenberg Palace on 29 and 30 April 1798. After revisions, Haydn conducted the first public performance at the Burg Theater on 19 March 1799. The work was a resounding success.
The Creation is considered Haydn’s greatest work and representative of Enlightenment religious beliefs and attitudes. Although the oratorio treats a biblical subject it is not liturgical but a work for the concert hall.
Between 1791 and 1795 Haydn spent most of his time in England (on two separate, extended visits). This period is associated with the production of his “Solomon” symphonies, the last twelve in his catalog.
The background to Haydn’s decision to write The Creation is connected to the celebrations honoring the centenary of Handel’s birth in 1685. There were three commemorative concerts, two of which took place in Westminster Abbey, and devoted to a massive production of Messiah with more than five hundred performers, including an orchestra with ninety-five violins. These performances became so successful that they were repeated four times in the following six years.
The performance in May, 1791, coincided with Haydn’s presence in England for his first visit. A member of the audience, one William Gardner, reported, “Haydn was present at this performance and with the aid of a telescope… I saw the composer near the king's box.” Others confirmed that Haydn burst into tears when the performers thundered out the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and said to those near him, “He is master of us all.” Haydn later stated, “I want to write a work which will give permanent fame to my name in the world.”
Johann Peter Solomon, Haydn’s patron and friend, is reported to have suggested Milton’s Paradise Lost as the subject for a major work. Sir George Grove, the first of program annotators, told one of Haydn’s biographers, C.F. Pohl, that the son of one of Haydn’s friends pointed to the Bible and said, “Take that and begin at the beginning.”
The Creation ended up as a blending of Milton’s masterpiece and the Book of Genesis. But in the meantime, Haydn had decided to return to Vienna and needed the libretto to be translated into German. He turned to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a wealthy retired diplomat, who was the administrator of the Austrian Imperial Library. The Baron not only translated the English text but also took liberties with it for the sake of musical expression and made suggestions to Haydn as to how it might be set to music. In addition, the Baron organized a group of sponsors to underwrite the performance and to compensate Haydn for the composition.
Haydn worked slowly and carefully on the work for nearly three and a half years. He reported to his biographer that he was “…never so devout…” as when he composed The Creation. “Every morning I knelt and prayed to God to give me the strength for my work.”
The Creation was immediately well received all over Europe with performances following the Vienna premiere in Prague, London, Berlin, and Paris. Napoleon narrowly escaped an assassination attempt on his way to the Paris premiere in 1800. Haydn continued to conduct annual performances of the work in Vienna as long as he was physically able. His last public appearance, the year before he died, was attending a performance of The Creation conducted by Antonio Salieri (1750–1825).
The chief obstacle to The Creation’s success in English-speaking countries was its English libretto, which was not the original text that Solomon had given to Haydn, but Baron van Swieten’s attempt to translate his German libretto back into English. Although the Baron knew English he often chose clumsy expressions that were nearly incomprehensible to an English speaker. An example is the text describing Adam:
The large and archèd front sublime
of wisdom deep declares the seat.
This awkward translation was published in the original edition and was performed with these words, often leaving English-speaking audiences mystified as to the intended meaning.
In 1957 the American choral conductor Robert Shaw and the choral composer and arranger Alice Parker collaborated on a new English version that removed the stilted phrases of van Swieten’s translation. It is this version that we perform tonight. The peculiar description of Adam, shown above, became in the new translation:
His broad and arching, noble brow
proclaims of wisdom’s deep abode.
Maestro Shaw continued to make minor changes to the text when he made a recording of the work with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The Shaw/Parker libretto only changes the text when necessary. Much of van Swieten’s English is left unaltered. But when the meaning of the original runs the risk of misinterpretation, words or phrases are substituted. This is especially the case in recitatives where the story is being told. An example of this is found in the description of the eagle’s creation. Van Swieten’s English states:
On mighty pens uplifted soars the eagle aloft…
Shaw and Parker came to the rescue with:
On mighty wings now circling soars the eagle proud.
The plot line falls into three sections: Part I depicts chaos and the emergence of Order. Part II presents the creation of living things, animal and vegetable, climaxed by the creation of the human being—both male and female. Part III is a vision of Paradise in which Adam and Eve celebrate the glory of the Creator and the wonders of a newborn world.
The creation story is taken from the beginning of the Book of Genesis, with choral exclamations of joy at the conclusion of each of the six days. The recitatives narrating acts of God are from Genesis but the arias that reflect on the consequences are primarily paraphrases of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Sir Donald Francis Tovey, in his essay on The Creation, gives a clear picture of the scope and purpose of the work: “The words of the Bible are divided between three archangels, Raphael, Uriel, and Gabriel, and a chorus, which, throughout the whole work, may be considered as that of the heavenly hosts…Uriel is distinctly the angel of the sun and of daylight; his is the tenor voice, and his is the description of Man. Raphael sings of the earth and the sea, the beginning of all things…the description of the beasts, the great whales, and ‘every living creature that moveth’; and it is he who reports God’s blessing, ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’…Gabriel, the soprano, leads the heavenly hosts and describes the vegetable kingdom and the world of bird life… Lastly, Adam and Eve appear and fulfill the purpose announced by Raphael as creatures who are to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
At the very beginning of the oratorio Haydn’s “Representation of Chaos” has been admired for its harmonic inventiveness. Musicologist Donald Francis Tovey has written that while Haydn was in England he met with the astronomer William Herschel, who probably explained to Haydn the Nebular Hypothesis that planets were formed by coalescing of clouds of gaseous matter. When Haydn played this music for a connoisseur he remarked, “You have certainly noticed how I avoided the resolutions that you would most readily expect. The reason is that there is no form in anything yet.” At Haydn’s last public appearance before his death in 1809 with Salieri conducting The Creation, an audience member kept an eye on the composer. He recalled that when the chorus reached the point where they sing, “Let there be light. And there was light,” Haydn pointed upward as if to indicate, “It came from there.”