Brave New World

In December 1790, shortly before his departure for London, Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) dined with his friend and former pupil Mozart, and the Dutch aristocrat, Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Mozart was uneasy; Haydn was famous internationally but had rarely travelled, having spent most of the previous 30 years ensconced in rural Eisenstadt as the industrious music director for the wealthy Esterházy family. Surely, Mozart ventured, the language would be a problem in London? Haydn retorted “my language is understood all over the world!”

Mozart’s concerns for the welfare of his kind and affable friend are quite touching and it seems he was fearful of never seeing him again (this was prescient as Mozart himself died a year later). But Mozart need not have worried. Haydn was the most celebrated composer in Europe and was treated like royalty upon his arrival in London. His visit had been organised by the German composer and impresario, Johann Peter Salomon who accompanied him on his travels. Haydn initially found the social whirl rather tiring but recorded often humorous observations of daily life such as the Londoners’ inordinate fondness for alcohol (no change there), the weather (“the fog was so thick you could spread it on bread”) and the women (“In France the girls are virtuous and the wives are whores; in Holland the girls are whores and the wives virtuous; but in England they remain whores all their lives”).

The real eye-opener in London, however, was a performance in Westminster Abbey of Handel’s Messiah, Israel in Egypt and Zadok the Priest. Handel had died some thirty years previously but was still wildly popular with English audiences and it was fashionable to stage gargantuan performances of his works. A religious man, Haydn was deeply moved and he is said to have “wept like a child” during the famous Hallelujah chorus. It was here that the seeds were sown for what would later become his greatest masterpiece, The Creation.

Franz Joseph Haydn in London. John Hoppner (1791)
Franz Joseph Haydn in London. John Hoppner (1791)

Haydn was kept busy in London. Salomon organised a hugely successful series of concerts of his music and Haydn basked in the acclaim and the dinner invitations that followed. He received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University and also wrote several major compositions, including six acclaimed symphonies, one opera and his Sinfonia concertante. It is no wonder that he later complained about the workload. It is a wonder, however, that he found time to have a passionate liaison with one of his older piano pupils, Rebecca Schroeter. He returned to Vienna in July 1792, exhausted, but wealthier and weighed down with numerous gifts, including a talking parrot.

It was during Haydn’s second visit to London (1794 – 1795) that Salomon presented him with an anonymous libretto on the biblical story of the Creation. The libretto was said to have been devised for Handel and recent scholarship suggests that the librettist may have been Charles Jennens, whose masterly synthesis of biblical texts had proved a success for Handel’s Messiah. On his return to Vienna, Haydn showed the libretto to van Swieten who immediately encouraged Haydn to write an oratorio, promising to underwrite all costs through the Gesellschaft der Associirten – an association of noble patrons for the arts.

Gottfried van Swieten (1733 – 1803) was himself an interesting figure: diplomat, politician, censor, librarian, sponsor of the arts, ardent musician and composer. Born in Leiden, he had a modestly successful diplomatic career which brought him into contact with Enlightenment thinkers. Like most political careers, his was not successful but he was appointed to a fairly innocuous post as head of the Imperial Library in Vienna, where, among other things, he invented the world’s first card index system. Importantly, the post allowed him to pursue his musical activities through the Gesellschaft der Associirten resulting in commissions for Mozart to prepare modern versions of Handel (in particular, Messiah and Acis and Galatea with van Swieten providing the German libretti). This was an important source of income for the perennially cash-strapped Mozart.

Van Swieten gave Haydn his bowdlerized re-working of The Creation in German, together with musical suggestions – which Haydn occasionally followed. With an eye to a profit from the English market, van Swieten produced a “back-translation” of his libretto into English. This was a mistake. To modern eyes it reads like a machine translation and it so bemused English performers of the time that they preferred singing the work in German. (In their later collaboration on The Seasons, van Swieten threw further caution to the wind by producing simultaneous translations in three languages: English, German and French).

Title page of Paradise Lost, London: 1667, by John Milton (1608-1674)
Title page of Paradise Lost, London: 1667, by John Milton (1608-1674)

The libretto is based on Milton’s Paradise Lost, the first chapter of Genesis, and the book of Psalms. It recounts the familiar biblical story of the Creation but stops short of the serpent’s arrival in the Garden of Eden and the ensuing Fall. Samuel Johnson once wrote of Paradise Lost “No-one wished it longer than it is” and perhaps the English librettist (and van Swieten) took this to heart when they excised Milton’s puritanical moralising from the text. With Haydn’s music the result is a stupendous, uplifting, and humane work, very much in keeping with the prevailing Enlightenment mood. The Catholic Church had a different opinion and promptly banned it in places of worship for being too secular.

Haydn conducted its first performance at a private concert at the Schwartzenburg palace on 30 April 1798 to an ecstatic audience; he was so moved by the experience that he later admitted that “more than once I was afraid I would suddenly have a stroke”. The first public performance eleven months later at the Burgtheater in Vienna was a sensation; a timeless masterpiece was born, a worthy successor to Handel’s Messiah.

Unlike Messiah, The Creation adopts the conventional oratorio format of acts and scenes, with the named characters (Adam and Eve; the angels Gabriel, Uriel and Rafael) performed by soloists, and a choir representing a chorus of angels. The six days of Creation are depicted in the first two parts and have essentially the same structure: a biblical narrative (usually as a recitative), a commentary from Milton or the Psalms (usually as arias), rounded off with a hymn of praise from the chorus. The third part sees the awakening of Adam and Eve where they praise the wonders of creation and sing of their happiness in the Garden of Eden.

The orchestra assumes a prominent role in this work with imaginative colorations, charming depictions of nature, and bold, dramatic effects. For the orchestral overture, “The Representation of Chaos”, rather than relying on agitated dissonance, Haydn opts for strange chromatic meanderings and suspended resolutions from the orchestra, as if the music itself is exploring the void. The most dramatic orchestral moment occurs when the hushed chorus intones “And God said: Let there be light. And there was Light” – with a thrilling orchestral fortissimo on the final word “Light”. (Haydn later joked that the staccato chord immediately prior to the outburst was the sound of God striking a match). Haydn also shows his keen operatic sense by contrasting the florid vocal style of the angels with the down to earth simplicity of Adam and Eve. And, as if to outdo Handel, he gives choirs one of the best-loved choruses in the entire repertoire, the glorious “The Heavens are Telling”.

Illustration to Milton's Paradise Lost. William Blake (1808)
Illustration to Milton’s Paradise Lost. William Blake (1808)

The Creation was performed at a concert in honour of Haydn’s 76th birthday at the Great Hall of Vienna University on 27 March 1808 where Antonio Salieri conducted an Italian version of the work. He was given a hero’s reception and, seated in an armchair, was lifted onto the stage amidst a fanfare of trumpets and drums. Even Beethoven, one of his former (and ungrateful) pupils, is said to have kissed his hand. But Haydn, with tears streaming down his face, found the occasion all a bit much and asked to be taken home before the end. It was to be his last public appearance.

In May of the following year, Napoleon’s troops started bombarding Vienna (again) and the increasingly frail Haydn was greatly distressed when a shell landed in his back garden. (Beethoven for his part was cowering in a basement elsewhere in Vienna, with a score of his Emperor concerto). Out of respect, Napoleon ordered a guard of honour to be placed at the entrance to Haydn’s residence.

Later, a French officer paid a visit to sing the beautiful tenor aria “In native worth” from The Creation, the opening words of which seem to sum up Haydn’s own life and achievements (“In native worth and honor clad, with beauty, courage, strength adorn’d, to heav’n erect and tall, he stands a man, the Lord and King of nature all”). Haydn was deeply moved by this gesture and a few days later on 31 May 1809, he died peacefully in his bed, leaving behind an impeccable musical legacy.

Kevin Painting

Published 29 May 2015 on primephonic