Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) was the eldest member of the “Classical” Viennese triumvirate, which also includes Mozart and Beethoven. Both the perception of Haydn’s position as the “father figure” in this artistic movement and the designation of late eighteenth-century music in Austria as “Classical” are misleading. The latter encompasses a vast corpus of aesthetically and ideologically progressive music spanning from the age of the Enlightenment to the early Romantic era, and the role of Haydn was far from conservative. Haydn’s fame grew thanks to his symphonies, string quartets, monumental masses, and, to a lesser extent, his prolific operatic output. His international reputation increased especially as a result of the popularity of his oratorio The Creation (1798), based on the book of Genesis.

It should come as no surprise that Haydn’s most popular piece was based on the Bible, which occupied a central position in Haydn’s early education. Since boarding school Haydn had attended daily Mass. He learned how to read and write by copying the book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), which with its celebration of God’s creation made a long-lasting impression on him. His professional career in music began in 1740, when he began singing as a choirboy in Vienna’s Cathedral (Stephansdom, aka St. Stephen’s). Here he was exposed to daily religious services, which included regular readings from the Bible (Landon, Haydn, Vol. 1, pp. 52–56). In his 1812 biography, Giuseppe Carpani, an acquaintance of Haydn, emphasized the composer’s Catholic background. Through his religious faith, he writes, “his genius enlarged and expanded.” Haydn’s early biographers Griesinger and Carpani point out that Haydn marked his autographs with the mottos “In nomine Domini,” “soli Deo gloria,” and “Laus Deo.” When he occasionally was lacking inspiration he would take up his rosary and pray, which helped him overcome momentary creative blocks (Griesinger, 1810, p. 99; Carpani, 1823, pp. 16, 21). Haydn also told Carpani that during the composition of The Creation he experienced a particularly intense religious fervor (Carpani, 1823, pp. 267–268).

Most of Haydn’s earliest compositions are in the genre of sacred music: masses, motets, hymns, and Marian antiphons. According to James Webster, some of these early works—such as the Missa Cellensis in honorem B.V.M. in C major (Hob. XXII/5) and Salve Regina in G minor (Hob. XXIIIb/2)—already show a developed “aesthetics of salvation” characteristic of most of Haydn’s sacred music, which consists in “a musical realization of the desire of the state of grace” (1998, p. 45). Haydn’s optimistic and luminous religious worldview does not exclude struggle and suffering. The composer expresses, when appropriate, the yearning of sinners and the horrors of spiritual darkness, as the Salve Regina exemplifies. Here the concluding major chord comes suddenly, only after a painful journey through the minor mode, complete with piercing dissonant chains and clusters, languid or fragmented melodic lines, and outcries of contrition from the part of the penitents.

For about 30 years (from 1761 to 1790), Haydn worked as a court musician at the service of the Esterházy princes. During this long period of time he devoted his creative energy almost exclusively to secular music. Late in life, however, as soon as he gained more independence, his production of sacred works increased remarkably. This is evidence that he had an earnest, personal interest in religious art. His late masses, composed from 1795 to 1802 (the “Heiligmesse,” the Missa in tempore belli, the “Nelson Mass,” the “Theresienmesse,” the “Creation Mass,” and the “Harmonienmesse”), together with the oratorio The Creation, are among the greatest achievements in Western sacred music. The parts of the ordinary of the Mass are heavily inspired by, or directly based on, scripture. In Haydn’s time, musical settings of the ordinary of the Catholic Mass still retained an essential function in the liturgy (unlike later masses conceived as concert pieces). As such, they were designed to frame other parts of the liturgy, including readings from the Bible.

Among the works by Haydn directly based on scripture, the most original in conception is The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross (Hob. XX/1A). This 1787 commission from the cathedral of Cádiz (Spain) consisted of a series of orchestral movements originally labeled as “sonatas.” This music was first used for meditation upon the reading of Jesus’s seven last sentences followed by short homilies. The first performance took place as part of an elaborate ceremony on Good Friday, 1787 (Landon, Haydn, Vol. 2, pp. 606–619; Will, 2002, pp. 83–128). The same year Artaria published this collection of movements as a string quartet (Hob. XX/1B) and as a piano reduction (Hob. XX/1C), both of which allowed more agile and private uses of this music. In 1796 it was reconfigured as an oratorio with lyrics in German by Joseph Friebert, who had previously arranged this instrumental piece for voices, and by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (Hob. XX/2), who would soon pen the libretto of The Creation.

Il ritorno di Tobia.

Both of Haydn’s oratorios based on the Old Testament—Il ritorno di Tobia and The Creation—were commissioned by the Tonkünstler-Societät of Vienna, a charity organization (founded in 1771) that organized public concerts in support of retired musicians. Il ritorno di Tobia (Hob. XXI/1) was first performed during Lent (2 and 4 April 1775) in one of Vienna’s opera theaters, the Kärntnertortheater. Haydn revised it in 1784, when it was performed again with Nancy Storace as Anna (the first Susanna in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro) (Schmid, 1963). The libretto is by Giovanni Gastone Boccherini, brother of the composer Luigi Boccherini. Because of the cast and venue, Haydn wrote difficult arias with extensive coloratura passages, harmonically and contrapuntally rich choruses, as well as wonderfully dramatic and fully orchestrated recitatives. The sparse but clear indications for stage settings and action in the original sources suggest that the oratorio was enacted, almost like an opera, rather than performed statically as a concert piece.

Oratorios or cantatas based on the story of Tobias were popular in the eighteenth century, set by such composers as Caldara, Galuppi, Gasparini, Mysliveček, and Perez. Judging from the number of extant libretti, Haydn’s version was the most widely disseminated: in 1783, it was performed also in the oratorio of San Filippo Neri of Rome (the birthplace of the oratorio); it was produced in Modena the following year; in Lisbon in 1787. It was performed even in predominantly Protestant centers like Berlin (1777) and Leipzig (1787 and 1790), which is surprising, considering that after the Reformation the book of Tobias (or Tobit) remained in the canonic Bible only in the Orthodox and Catholic Churches. This is perhaps a sign of the interdenominational appeal of Haydn’s sacred music.

The oratorio starts with a symphony that defines the most important concept in the work: the contrast of darkness, represented in the gloomy adagio introduction, and light, set in striking contrast in the allegro. During the drama, set in the city of Nineveh, the fundamental contrast of light and darkness is dramatized through old Tobit’s personal journey as a blind man who eventually regains his sight. The oratorio, both in the text and music, encourages a metaphorical interpretation of its central dichotomy, which was recurrent in the culture of the Enlightenment, especially in Freemasonic circles. We know that Haydn joined the same lodge as Mozart, whose Magic Flute abounds in similar representations of light and darkness. Il ritorno di Tobia also encourages allegorical interpretations within the Bible narrative. The sequel of the book of Tobit is the book of Jonah. Here the entire city of Tobit, Nineveh, regains its lost sight of God after Jonah’s journey in the dark stomach of the whale. In Christian interpretation, the latter was typically taken as an allegory of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The initial prayer for mercy by Tobit, his wife Anna, and the chorus of Jews sets the proper mood for a Lenten oratorio. The following scene, however, is delightfully domestic, almost in the spirit of comic opera (a genre that Haydn loved and practiced). Here Anna nags her husband, Tobit, for having lost everything as a result of his all-too-charitable disposition. She then expresses her preoccupation for his son Tobia, who went on a journey to Media, where he married Sara, whose previous seven husbands have been killed by a demon. Her worries are dispelled as the angel Raphael appears in disguise as their son’s traveling companion. In his aria “Anna m’ascolta: Quel figlio,” Raphael reassures Anna that Tobia is about to come home. He will restore sight to his father thanks to a medicine he made out of a fish. The emphatic repetition of the three words “Father,” “Son,” and “Sight” seems to encourage meditation on their deeper meaning. Anna repents and expresses her contrition in a joyful aria, “Ah gran Dio,” which perfectly exemplifies Haydn’s aesthetics of salvation. At this point the young couple is introduced. Tobia (Toby), in his tender aria, celebrates “grace, sweetness, and love.” His pledge to always obey his bride is echoed by Sara’s aria in praise of his virtue. The young couple represents a new marital ideal, abandoning old patriarchal values (a pervading theme in Haydn’s operas) in favor of equality and mutual respect.

After Toby restores sight to his father, the finale is a lengthy celebration of Light contrasted with the images of Satan’s tenebrous kingdom evoked by Raphael. The second half of the oratorio introduces the political shadow of the corruption of Nineveh. In both Raphael’s and Anna’s arias, the approaching darkness is painted even more emphatically through the powerful stylistic resources of the musical Sturm und Drang. Once Tobit’s eyes are opened he cannot tolerate the light, and his melancholic aria expresses his desire to remain blind. In spite of his resistance to heal, Tobit is cured. For regaining his sight he expresses his gratitude to God, to his son and his bride, and especially to his son’s mysterious companion, Azaria. In the ensuing recognition scene, Azaria is revealed to be the angel Raphael.

The oratorio ends with a final triumphal chorus celebrating the “shepherd God” (”Dio pastore”), in which Haydn avoids the pastoral mode but celebrates instead the Good Shepherd in a majestic and triumphal piece climaxing in a fugato vortex.

Die Schöpfung/The Creation.

In the history of biblical representation in Western art, Haydn’s oratorio The Creation (Hob. XXI/2) is a pivotal work. Beside its tremendous aesthetic value, it embodies a perfect synthesis of both religious and secular Enlightenment ideas with the emerging Romantic sensibility of the sublime and the picturesque.

Like his first oratorio, Die Schöpfung was commissioned by the Tonkünstler-Societät of Vienna. It was first performed privately at the end of April 1798, with Antonio Salieri playing piano and Haydn himself conducting, causing an immediate “ecstatic reception” and “furor” (Temperley, 1991, pp. 31–46). The first public performance took place at one of the Viennese opera houses, the Burgtheater, with monumental vocal and instrumental forces adding up to about 180 performers. In 1800, Haydn approved the publication of the score, which featured German and English versions of the text (Hob. XXI/2a). Soon after, the oratorio was disseminated in England and other European countries. It landed in the United States in 1810, produced by the Moravian community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Notwithstanding its mixed critical reviews, it is not surprising that this oratorio made its way to England and the United States. It was designed to appeal not only to Catholic Austria but also to the enlightened sensibilities of English-speaking countries. Haydn conceived this oratorio during his prolonged sojourns in England, where he was impressed by the monumental performances of Handel’s oratorios at the same time as being exposed to local philosophical trends. One such trend was the theory of Transformationism, which had started to gain credibility against traditional pure creationist cosmogony without immediately challenging the idea of a divine, intelligent cosmogonic design. Transformationism gained momentum especially with the late developments of the British “vitalist” tradition reacting against the Cartesian inert conception of matter.

In German-speaking countries vitalism was carried on by Johann Gottfried Herder with his revolutionary conception of natural history as dynamic and developmental due to its inherent vital genetic force (Sloan, 2006, pp. 924–926). Interestingly, in 1781 Haydn set to music one of Herder’s poetical texts as a Lied (“Das strickende Mädchen” Hob. XXVIa:1). In The Creation, nature is celebrated for its creative force as well as for its ability to reveal and regenerate the beauty impressed on it by its maker. Haydn pursued this naturalist aesthetic in his last oratorio, Die Jahreszeiten (Hob. XXI/3), which set another libretto by von Swieten after James Thomson’s poem The Seasons.

The libretto of The Creation is based on Genesis 1:12:3. It recounts, one by one, the six days of God’s creation but omits almost everything from the second biblical account (Gen 2:43:24). All early biographical sources, including a letter by the librettist, report that the libretto was based on a previous English text of uncertain authorship. The source, provided and possibly edited by one Thomas Linley the elder, echoed several lines from Milton’s Paradise Lost, which were retained in the libretto. The quotations from the English Bible in the German text are close translations from the King James Bible (Olleson, 1966).

Internal and contextual clues suggest that The Creation was conceived as an interfaith cultural endeavor. Numerous critics have assumed that Milton’s Paradise Lost was the oratorio’s main literary model (Landon, Haydn, Vol. 4, pp. 347–348; MacIntyre, 1998, pp. 45–47). It is important to keep in mind that differences with Milton’s poem are as many and as striking as the similarities, a reason why recent scholarship has begun to approach the issue more cautiously (Bertoli, 2006, p. 7). At a macroscopic level, whereas Milton’s narrative focuses on the aftermath of the Creation, specifically on the original sin and loss of Paradise, Haydn’s oratorio is a joyful celebration of creation and prelapsarian life, skipping entirely and purposely the narrative of sin and fall. Like Milton’s poem, The Creation’s narrative unfolds through a series of angelic utterances. However, while devils play a leading role in Milton’s poem, in the oratorio they are entirely absent as dramatis personae.

The orchestral representation of chaos at the beginning of the oratorio suggests that Haydn had Milton (or more likely one of Milton’s literary sources, Ovid’s Metamorphoses) in mind, since in the first book we read that “the heav’ns and earth / Rose out of chaos” (Paradise Lost, I: 9–10). The unusual amount of compositional sketches that survive for the initial representation of chaos (Landon, Haydn, Vol. 3, pp. 354–373) mark this passage as one of Haydn’s most thoughtful and purposeful.

It is hard, then, to dismiss problems that arise when we take into account Milton’s second, much more extended and powerful description of Chaos and his consort Night, to whom Satan asks not to oppose his mission (Paradise Lost, II: 890–1055). Here Milton deploys horrific imagery. Chaos, which survived creation, appears as a dark, stormy, menacing force. Stephen Fallon has convincingly argued that, “being material, Chaos is not metaphysical evil. Nor is he even morally evil” (1991, p. 190). For Haydn chaos is not morally evil either. If not neuter, it is at least ambivalent and transient, coming from and becoming something else. Chaos can be horrifying, but only for appearing unstable and unpredictable.

The initial sonority is a single note on different octaves, an empty C depicting the void. That sonority opens into a brief glint of light through a fleeting major third (A flat—C), immediately dispelled as the minor tonic of the piece is established but, in turn, soon submerged again into a harmonic world in rapid transformation. Tonal ambiguity, harmonic suspensions, fragmented melodies, arpeggios, and rarefaction of texture through the sporadic surfacing of instrumental solo lines all depict an unformed or forming cosmos in an unsettling, but also hopeful way.

Haydn does not appeal to the typical horrific effects he uses, for example, to depict “Hell’s spirits” and “endless night” in the allegro section of Uriel’s aria no. 2. In the introduction, instead, he opts for a diaphanous, serene harmonic space, clear definition of tempo and tact (time does exist already!), tonal consequentiality leading to closure, and a perceptible formal organization. The latter is made obvious by the division of the thematic material into contrasting sections, allowing thematic returns to confer an idea of underlying symmetry and order. Haydn represents the initial void with a C and chooses a C also as the sonority of light, enriched as a major chord, which blasts out as soon as the chorus sings “and there was light.”

The contrast of darkness and light, as in Il ritorno di Tobia, provides the basic conceptual imagery, but here they are surprisingly connected. The explosion of sound with the creation of light is a typical marker of the aesthetic of sublime, as James Webster has pointed out (1997, pp. 64–66). At the same time, by recapping the C sonority, Haydn bridges light to that which precedes it. Contrast does not exclude continuity: light comes from darkness, order from chaos. Nothing comes from nothing (nihil ex nihilo).

This musical interpretation of the moment of creation finds philosophical grounding in Lucretian atomistic naturalism filtered through Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a poem that was being rediscovered and gained immense popularity in England during the 1790s. Overwhelming evidence shows that Haydn loved Ovid, and the Metamorphoses had a tremendous influence on his ideas and aesthetics (Polzonetti, 2012). The topic of Ovid’s poem, as stated in the opening lines, is “bodies changed into new forms” (Ovid, Metamorphoses, I: 1–2). This is paraphrased by Adam (“Ye strong and cum’rous elements, / who ceaseless changes make”) in the climactic hymn, the duet of Adam and Eve with chorus (no. 30). This hymn has been interpreted as the summit of the oratorio (Timperley, 1991, p. 84), for it systematically reviews the entire creation, adjusting the order of created things to make it more compatible to current scientific theories. This hymn is also of extraordinary beauty and formal ingenuity and balance. It joyfully celebrates the beauty of God’s creation by means of the beauty of artistic creation. It is significant that the key of the piece is C major again. It establishes a subliminal link with the “void” sonority at the beginning, already transformed into light.

In the ensuing, last duet (no. 32), before the final chorus, Adam and Eve express their mutual love, and, implicitly, get down to the business of procreation as they climax in the perfect a due in the fast allegro section. In 1801, Haydn recycled the theme of this allegro section in his Missa solemnis (Hob. XXII/13), nicknamed “Creation Mass” because of this hard-to-miss thematic quotation. The citation occurs in the Gloria, remarkably at the line “qui tollis peccata mundi” (“You take away the sin of the world”). This caused consternation, and Haydn had to eliminate it from his revision for the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (Landon, Haydn, Vol. 5, p. 201). As a result, this thematic quotation is often understood as a prank, for Haydn seems to allude to the “sin” of lust. However, it is likely that Haydn intended not to chastise, but to celebrate love. Haydn’s oratorio in fact celebrates love also in its procreative manifestation, for its power to eradicate dark, destructive forces (sin) by preserving and regenerating God’s creation.

[See also ORATORIO.]


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Pierpaolo Polzonetti