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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Haydn's Creation

In 1791 the most famous composer in Europe, Joseph Haydn, made his first trip to England. He was 59 and had spent virtually all his creative life serving a single noble family, the Esterházys. In the process he created a vast amount of superb music, some of which set the parameters for composition even to the present day. It’s completely appropriate that Haydn was and is called the father of the string quartet and the father of the symphony.

Yet Haydn’s music was known far beyond the confines of the Esterházy estates in present day Austria and Hungary. Through judicious deals with publishers in Vienna, Paris and elsewhere (not to mention a vast network of pirated editions), Haydn’s music - especially his quartets and symphonies - was known and played across Europe. By the time he crossed the English Channel for the first time at the start of January 1791 he was a famous and revered figure. By the time he returned to Vienna in 1795 from his second English sojourn, he was regarded, to quote the Grove Dictionary, as a “culture-hero”.

The English visits gave Haydn the opportunity to create many of the works for which he is now best-known, most notably the last twelve symphonies. But another legacy of those journeys was an English oratorio text, now unfortunately lost, called The Creation of the World. Who wrote it, and who gave it to Haydn, is a matter of some speculation. There is even the suggestion it had been written for Handel half a century before but this is impossible to verify. While in England, in 1791, Haydn had the chance to hear several Handel oratorios, including Joshua and Messiah, in magnificent, large-scale performances in Westminster Abbey which stunned him.

Hoppner: Joseph Haydn (1791)

Back in Vienna, Haydn showed the English creation libretto to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, then the imperial librarian and censor, and one of the driving forces in musical and literary (not to mention political) circles of the time. Swieten prepared an oratorio text on the creation in German for Haydn to set; how much of the original English libretto was used is open to conjecture. But most original all of was Haydn’s idea that the work should be able to be sung in either German or English. Clearly he intended to send (if not take) coals to Newcastle and had an eye for the new work’s presentation in London as much as in Vienna.

Gottfried van Swieten

The work was simply called Die Schöpfung (The Creation), and there can be no doubt that Haydn intended this to be a work which would speak to people from any religious tradition or none. In blending the ideals of the Enlightenment with those of Romanticism, and in being able to speak to intellectuals and common people, The Creation from the very start was an enormous success and it remains one of the cornerstones of the choral repertoire.

There can also be no doubt that Haydn intended the work to be heard in the language of its audience. When the first edition appeared in print in 1800, it was the first choral work ever to be published with the text in two languages. Apart from writing the music so that it would fit German and English words, he also approved a French translation. In Haydn’s lifetime (he died in 1809) the work was heard in Budapest and St Petersburg, and for performances in Stockholm he supervised a Swedish translation. For this reason, the recording I’ll link to here is sung in English. This is the [admittedly clumsy but charming] English translation prepared by Haydn and Swieten (and which appears in the 1991 OUP edition edited by A. Peter Brown), not the popular English translation printed in the Novello vocal score which is widely-known today.

Someone has kindly uploaded this recording in such a way as to allow the individual movements to be heard separately, in conjunction with the vocal score as the music progresses. The link references below correlate with the divisions of this particular upload.

As for Haydn's musical forces, the story is told by three angels: Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor) and Raphael (bass). The chorus mostly represents the heavenly host, commenting on the action and praising God for his acts of creation. Haydn uses what was for his day a rather large orchestra: 2 flutes (with a third flute in one movement), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani and strings. A continuo keyboard instrument (usually a harpsichord or fortepiano) is needed for the secco recitatives.

In even the earliest performances, very large choral forces were used and to balance this, the woodwind and brass parts were doubled or even tripled. We know this from sets of orchestral parts from the period which have survived. The recording linked to here reflects this practice (on period instruments), using solo winds in the arias and multiple winds in the choruses.

Blake: Europe a Prophecy (1794)

For an overture, Haydn thrusts us into the drama from the first note. The prelude is called The Representation of Chaos. This decidedly Greek notion presented Haydn with a problem: how do you present chaos in music at a time when order and balance are the hallmarks of good art? Haydn’s solution is simple. “Chaos” in this context is harmonic aimlessness, albeit based in a context of C minor, with fragments of melodies going nowhere. The effect is very visual; you can almost see whisps of matter floating past your eyes in the great primordial disorder before God’s first words were uttered.

And then, out of the blackness comes the voice of the angel Raphael, uttering the first words of the Old Testament. Before the first performances in Vienna, Haydn would not let anyone apart from the performers hear this passage - which describes the creation of light - so that it would be a total surprise.

The effect was beyond all Haydn could have imagined. One person who was present in 1798 at one of the first performances wrote the following:

No one, not even Baron van Swieten, had seen the page of the score wherein the creation of light is portrayed...and in that moment when light broke forth for the first time, one would have said that light-rays darted from the composer’s blazing eyes. The enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so profound that the performers could not proceed for some minutes.

Haydn’s musical metaphor of chaos - aimless C minor - is cast aside by the blazing light of C major, and the angel Uriel, sung by the tenor soloist, completes the biblical passage. [listen]

In the poetic text which comments on the biblical passage, the tenor and chorus here describe the triumph of light over the forces of darkness. The chorus of angels praise God at the end of the first day of creation, as they do to mark the end of each day throughout the work. [listen]

Raphael returns to describe the second day, in which the waters in the sky and on the earth are put in their proper places. The vivid accompanied recitative describes storms in the heavens, rain and snow. In some instances Haydn’s music describes each feature before it is sung about, not after, a simple yet effective technique which heightens the anticipation of the text in the mind of the listener.

Gabriel, the soprano angel, then leads the chorus of praise. [listen]

In the third day of creation God is described as separating the seas from the dry land. Haydn gives to Raphael the recitative setting the biblical text, and then a vivid aria describing various bodies of water: seas and rivers. [listen]

With the waters described, Haydn’s attention turns to the dry land. Gabriel sings of the creation of vegetation on dry land, made possible by the withdrawal of the seas. The aria is a masterpiece, portraying in such delicate music the appearance and scent of flowers and fruits. Haydn’s mature writing for woodwinds - especially the clarinet - here rivals Mozart’s. [listen]

Uriel sets things in motion for the heavenly hosts to praise God at the close of the third day. Yet again, Haydn’s choral writing is full of unbelievable energy and his ability to strike just the right mood is always evident. [listen]

Following the Handelian models which inspired him, Haydn’s oratorio is in three parts, and in his performances there would almost certainly have been intervals between the parts. Part One of The Creation ends with the fourth day of creation, in which God creates the sun, moon and stars. Uriel’s biblical recitative is followed by an accompanied recitative which starts by portraying in music the first sunrise, with the sun appearing in blaze of glory. The moon is painted in delicate colours before the amazing chorus of praise with all three soloists which closes the first part. [listen]

In modern performances of The Creation it is rare for performers to have two intervals between the three parts; there’s barely 100 minutes of music in the entire work. I know of one prominent conductor who even performs the work with no interval at all, which is not out of the question. For my part, when I conduct The Creation I continue on at this point and take an interval in the middle of Part Two, at the end of the fifth day.

The fifth day (and Part Two in the score) begins with Gabriel singing the biblical text describing the creation of birds. The ensuing aria, describing birdsong and flight, gives Haydn the opportunity to write again some prominent parts for the woodwinds. [listen]

The creatures created on the fifth day include those at the other end of the spectrum; from the birds in the sky we go to great creatures of the sea. God’s blessing on them - and his command for them to multiply - is painted by Haydn in music for divided violas and cellos which suggests countless multitudes of beasts spreading over the surface of the planet. [listen]

And, as every day has ended so far, the fifth day too ends in a glorious chorus of praise. These conclusions of each day have been getting more and more complex as the work proceeds. The end of fourth day saw the three soloists combine with the chorus. Now at the end of the fifth there is the first full-scale trio movement for the three angels [listen] before they join the chorus in a hymn of praise requiring great energy and virtuosity. [listen]

And with that utterly spectacular music Haydn’s fifth day comes to a close. (This is where I take an interval in my performances.)

The Creation is so well-known to us these days that it’s hard to imagine the impact it had on its first audiences in 1798. Someone who was present at one of the first performances was a man by the name of Joseph Richter. He wrote this to his cousin:

Today, cousin, we’ve had a different spectacle in Vienna. The famous Haydn performed the creation of the world set to music, and I can’t tell you how full it was. As long as the theatre has stood it has never been so full...Finally the music began, and all at once it became so quiet that you could have heard a pin drop, 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 another piece of music as beautiful; 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.

The sixth and final day of creation in the biblical story starts with the creation on animals on the land. As in the earlier days, the biblical narrative is set simply and directly. The commentary movement which follows sees Haydn’s musical imagination run more than usually riot. The explosion of animals from the womb of the earth is instantaneous and we hear the roar of the lion, the leap of the “flexible” tiger, the prancing of the stag and the neighing of the horse. Cattle and sheep calmly graze, while unnumbered insects and even the lowly worm are given life in music. [listen]

So the stage is set for the final act of creation, according to the bible story. As Raphael’s subsequent aria says, “There wanted yet that wondrous being, that grateful should God’s power admire.” [listen]

That noble and glorious aria aptly conveys the sense of perfection evident in all that had been made thus far, and it falls to Uriel now to describe the creation of man and woman. The aria, more delicate, seems to portray an understated confidence on the part of the newly-created human beings. [listen]

Michelangelo: The Creation of Man, part of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Rome

So all is complete. Haydn brings Part Two of The Creation to a close with a recitative-chorus-trio-chorus sequence of enormous dramatic depth and power. In the recitative Raphael pronounces the act of creation ended, simply and directly. The heavenly choir then sings a short chorus of praise. [listen]

This in turn introduces a ravishing trio for the three angels. In this trio, Gabriel and Uriel sing - with the accompaniment of winds and horns - of the dependence of all on the hand of God for their survival. Raphael - accompanied by strings in music of terrifying darkness - sings of how all would fade to dust without God’s sustenance. Then all three join to reaffirm the goodness of God in caring for all that he has made. [listen]

The concluding chorus movement is based on the earlier one but contains a powerful fugue which ends - as does Part Two of Handel’s Messiah - with the word “Hallelujah”. [listen]

Part Three of Haydn’s Creation, again following the model of Handel’s oratorios, is relatively short. It focuses on Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which reminds us of the fact that the libretto is not only indebted to the Bible but also to Milton’s Paradise Lost for its inspiration. The characters of Adam and Eve are sung by the bass and soprano soloists. Some conductors introduce a new bass and soprano to sing these roles but it’s certain that Haydn intended that the soloists who sang the parts of Raphael and Gabriel should sing Adam and Eve as well. Uriel, the tenor soloist acts as a commentator in Part Three and is heard at the end of the ravishing E major prelude which opens this section. This is called “Morning” and is intended to convey the total bliss and perfection of the first morning in Garden. On a musical level, it’s the only part of the oratorio to require a third flute, but the trio of flutes is used to beautiful effect. [listen]

Wenzel: Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

This leads directly into one of the greatest things Haydn even wrote, the gigantic hymn for Adam, Eve and the chorus. It requires no further comment from me; Haydn said it all. [listen]

This glorious movement is sometimes thought to be the end of the oratorio by audiences; indeed, I’ve heard more than one person suggest that it should actually end there. Of course Haydn was writing in three distinct “parts” and the third part is not even half way done. The balance of sacred duty with worldly delight is one which Haydn’s audiences would have understood well and Part Three of Creation encapsulates this balance. As Adam now says, they have performed their duty in offering to God their thanks; now he and Eve can look to the world in which they’ve been placed - and to each other - and enjoy them as God intended. In this recitative, the moment at which Eve starts to sing is marked by an exquisitely sensuous turn of harmony on a chord of G flat. Eve’s words of devotion to Adam culminate in, “Thy will is law to me...and from obedience grows my pride and happiness” and it’s true that these catch in the throat of many women today, but there’s no denying the innocent beauty of Haydn’s setting. [listen]

There follows a long and dazzling love duet for Adam and Eve which perfectly counterbalances the massive hymn of praise we heard before. It’s in the “Enlightenment” key of E flat major, a key with strong humanist and Masonic associations in late 18th century Vienna. I don’t think its use here by Haydn is at all accidental. The first half of the duet is slow, displaying ravishing beauty and perfect balance as Adam and Eve express wonder at their world. In the fast section Adam and Eve express their love as being the greatest gift of all, which gives all the beauty of creation its true meaning. [listen]

The oratorio now concludes with a giant final chorus of praise which is preceded by Uriel making the only mention of what we all know to have been the next chapter in the story: the entrance of sin into this perfect world. Still, this passing reference to the Fall is swamped by the final chorus in which Haydn created an unusual problem for his performers. The three angels sing solo episodes in this movement but they are joined by an alto soloist to make a solo quartet. This is the only time in The Creation that an alto soloist is required and the usual practice is that a member of the chorus steps forward to sing the four bars which require an alto soloist.

From a purely personal point of view, the final pages of The Creation never fail to send a chill down my spine. In fact a great deal of the work does that. Haydn at age 66 was writing his best music ever and showing the world how it was done.

Unfortunately, the YouTube upload I’ve been using inexplicably omits the final recitative and chorus. Fortunately I have found the final chorus from this recording - with the score - elsewhere. [listen]

The Creation received its first performances in Vienna in private, with invited audiences, in April and May 1798. The first public performance took place ten months later and from that day to this it has never been out of the repertoire. Of course many saw it as Haydn’s swan song, summing up and concluding a glorious career and had he died then it would have. However the man had another decade to live and lots more music in him, including another oratorio, The Seasons, and the late masses, but that’s another story.

Wigand: 1808 performance of The Creation in honour of Haydn

The recording to which I’ve linked in this post was sung in the English text authorised by the composer. The soloists were Emma Kirkby as Gabriel and Eve, Anthony Rolfe Johnson as Uriel, and Michael George as Raphael and Adam. The alto solo in the last movement was sung by Kym Ampf. The Choir of New College Oxford and the Academy of Ancient Music Choir and Orchestra were conducted by Christopher Hogwood.

Earlier I quoted a letter by Joseph Richter, who was so amazed by one of the earliest performances of Creation. In his letter he went on to express sentiments shared by countless people over the last 200 years:

For the life of me I wouldn’t have believed that human lungs and sheep gut and calf’s skin could create such miracles. The music all by itself described thunder and lightning and then you’d have heard the rain falling and the water rushing and all the birds really singing and then the lion roaring and you could even hear the worms crawling along the ground. In short, cousin, I never left a theatre more contented and all night I dreamed of the creation of the world.

I couldn’t agree with him more.

This article is based on a pair of Keys To Music programs first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in December, 2007.

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