No, you’re not mistaken. This is indeed a commentary on Die Schöpfung (The Creation) by Joseph Haydn. But who could fail to be inspired by the iconic chorus from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. Haydn certainly was. While attending a Handel commemoration at Westminster Abbey in 1791, he was deeply moved by the music, according to his biographer Ferdinand Pohl.
When the powerful musical surge of the 'Hallelujah' rushed forth [...] the power of human spirit singing the praise of the Almighty […] hardly an eye remained dry. Haydn, who stood near the royal box, wept like a child.
Admittedly, there is some doubt about the accuracy of that quotation. It was written down only many years later, in 1867, more than a half century after Haydn’s death. The tears are difficult to confirm, but the influence that Handel’s choral works on Haydn is unquestionable. The musicologists Georg Feder and James Webster eve refer to that experience as ‘the chief stimulus for composing Die Schöpfung.’
The work enjoyed enormous popularity at the end of the 18th century, thanks to the artistic and financial support of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, a wealthy art lover who had close professional relations with the great composers of his day: Mozart, Beethoven and, of course, Haydn. Van Swieten established – probably around 1785 – a ‘Gesellschaft der Associierten’ (Society of Associates). Along with a few other aristocrats, he organized musical evenings where oratorios and other works could be performed in a closed circle. The ‘Associierten’ paid the composer’s honorarium an also covered the costs of the performance. At the first sessions, Mozart’s arrangements of Handel’s music were on the programme. After Mozart’s death in 1791, the focus shifted to Haydn. It was this society that first heard Die Schöpfung, in 1798.
Van Swieten himself was not satisfied with a purely secondary, financial role. As a librettist, he also wanted to contribute to the creation of Die Schöpfung. The baron earned his stripes when, in 1796, he wrote the texts for Haydn’s choral version of Die sieben letzten Worte unseres Erlösers am Kreuze (The Seven Last Words of our Saviour on the Cross). Die Schöpfung was a logical next step in their collaboration.
The idea for the oratorio took shape after Haydn had receive a libretto from his impresario Johann Peter Salomon, titled The Creation of the World; the text had originally been intended for Handel – him again – but had never been set to music. ‘I recognized at once that such an exalted subject would give Haydn the opportunity [...] to express the full power of his inexhaustible genius”, van Swieten commented.
Logically, the librettist based his text of the creation story mainly on the book of Genesis, supplemented by texts from the Psalms and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. It is remarkable that Die Schöpfung was conceived from the beginning in both German and English (The Creation). The work is considered the first bilingual composition in music history. Van Swieten translated his – originally English – libretto so that Haydn could work on the German text. Interestingly, he did not use an existing Bible translation. In the German version, van Swieten tried to stick as closely as possible to the text and prosody of the English. ‘[they] must have realized that the English public would not easily accept changes to the sacred text of the Bible’ said the musicologist and specialist in Great Britain, Nicholas Temperley.
The final libretto consists of three parts. The first two closely follow the Bible text: the creation of the heavens and the earth, light, air, fish, birds and lastly human beings. Only after ‘And God saw everything that he had made’ do van Swieten and Haydn depart from Genesis, and in Part Three sing of the first, blissful hours of Adam and Eve in the earthly paradise.
The music Haydn wrote for his creation story is grandiose, sophisticated and jubilant. Three soloists play the role of the archangels in Parts One and Two; in Part Three, two of them creep into the skin of Adam and Eve. There has been speculations in the past that in addition to these soloists, up to 400 musicians were needed for a performance of Die Schöpfung. That number is probably the stuff of legend, however – 120 instrumentalists and 60 singers seems closer to the truth. But it is undeniable that the composer pulled out all the stops for his oratorio. In 1801, Haydn himself explained why:
He did not take his task as a composer lightly. In the very first measure, Haydn grabs the listener by the scruff. With a timpani roll, Haydn depicts the total chaos in which the creation begins, the unexpected opening C minor chord is like a divine entry.
Haydn used this kind of tone painting throughout the oratorio: the wave-like movements at the creation of the waters, the frisky flute part when the birds appear on the earth. Eyewitnesses spoke lovingly of his tone painting of the majestic first light. ‘When [that] first burst forth’, according to F.S. Silverstolpe, ‘one would have said that rays of light darted from of the composer’s burning eyes. The enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes.’
Haydn even played musical games with van Swieten’s text, such as with a long sustained note on the first syllable of ‘Ewigkeit’ (eternity). But despite all that tone painting and playfulness, Haydn never lost sight of the great structure of his work. For example, he used the chord of C major to illustrate the divine light, In this way he resolved the tension that has reigned in the instrumental introduction since the C minor opening. It is this confluence of an epic subject, musical narrative power and formal talent that makes Die Schöpfung one of Haydn’s masterpieces.
It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the oratorio quickly burst out of the private circles of the ‘Associirten’. In 1799, the public was able to hear Die Schöpfung for the first time in the Burgtheater in Vienna, a performance that was completely sold out. Haydn’s international renown meant that the work immediately became a regular part of concert programmes. The work was performed at least 40 times in Vienna before Haydn’s death in 1809, and around 40 more times outside Austria across the entire continent of Europe and in the United States.
… and Haydn saw that it was good.