The wonder of his works

by Ken Myers

[This article originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Touchstone magazine.]

In a recent conversation, a local pastor commented that many of his parishioners seem to behave as if the Bible begins in Genesis 3 with the account of the Fall, rather than in Genesis 1 with the glorious account of Creation. This confirmed my suspicions that theology for many Christians has been reduced to soteriology. They understand the horror and tragedy of the dark shadow of sin without paying attention to the colors and textures of that on which the shadow falls. They are aware that all we like sheep have gone astray, but they are not terribly interested in the distinct wonders of creatures such as, for example, sheep. The sheer fact of God’s act of Creation is earnestly defended by many who seem to have no interest in leisurely reflection on the qualities of Creation.

One of the services performed by artists working in various modes (whether visual, audible, or narrative) is to call our attention to various particularities within Creation. Our imagination, not analytic reason, enables us to sustain an abiding sense of our creatureliness and of the meaningfulness of the order in which we were made to live. So we need works of art that re-present the world to us in ways that alert and remind us of what and where we are. Gratitude and wisdom can grow from such awareness; Solomon — who spoke of trees and beasts and birds and reptiles and fish (cf. I Kings 4:33) — is the paragon of such perceptivity.

To convey to our imagination an abiding sense of the world’s goodness and givenness, artists require a vocabulary capable of such representation. Many of the conventional aesthetic resources of the contemporary arts are well suited to expressing anxiety, alienation, chaos, and violence, but not as capable of evoking innocence, simple purity, or quiet delight. (I’m more and more convinced that the omnipresence of relentless rhythm sections, even in love songs, is an expression of the mechanistic and brutish presuppositions of a culture convinced that all life forms are the end-result of a mindlessly competitive process of mere survival.)

Inspired by Handel

When he composed his oratorio, The Creation, Franz Joseph Haydn was already a master of a musical vocabulary suited to the task of reminding us of a fresh and innocent world. Haydn biographer Calvin Stapert (author of Playing Before the Lord) recently commented in an interview that “Haydn’s music as a whole, if we hear it aright, gives us cause to rejoice at all of the goodness in Creation. . . . I’d say that is one of the primary duties of the artist, to remind us of the glory that was.” The text for The Creation — drawn from Genesis, a few Psalms, and paraphrases from Milton’s Paradise Lost — presented Haydn with perfect content for the formal skills he had perfected.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

First performed in private in 1798, then to a wildly enthusiastic public in the spring of 1799, The Creation clearly owes a lot to the English oratorios of Handel, a number of which were performed in Westminster Abbey when Haydn was staying in London in 1791. According to a contemporary, Haydn was dramatically struck by the expressive power of these masterful works. “He meditated on every note and drew from those most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur.” He determined to write a work in the same mold, and was soon presented with an English libretto (allegedly prepared for but unused by Handel, who had died in 1757), which he had translated into German (Die Schöpfung) for the benefit of his Viennese audiences. When the work was published in 1800 in an edition approved by Haydn, both German and English texts were presented; today the work can be heard on recording or in concert in either language.

Light’s Glory in Sound

The opening overture of The Creation is intended to depict the chaos that precedes the Creation, the formless void of Genesis 1:1. Modern ears will probably not perceive a dramatic chaos here; as I suggested, in the twentieth century, composers (and rock musicians) cultivated the capacity to portray chaos with much more conviction and authenticity. Eighteenth-century listeners, however, would have heard in Haydn’s overture an unmistakable sense of aimless formlessness. 

The first voice heard — a bass recitative representing the voice of the angel Raphael — sings the opening words of Genesis, up to “And darkness was upon the face of the deep.” The tempo of the orchestra speeds up as the choir enters with the words “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Then, quietly, simply, and without accompaniment, they sing “And God said let there be light.” But, at the declaration “and there was light,” when the primeval light actually snaps on, choir and orchestra accent the final word with an assaulting shock-and-awe intensity that makes audibly evident the glory that light is. The audience at the premiere performance got the point. Haydn’s friend Frederick Samuel Siverstolpe commented that “The enchantment of the electrified Viennese was so general that the orchestra could not proceed for some minutes.”

As various creatures appear in this unfolding narrative, each is musically announced by an angelic voice (Uriel and Gabriel are also in the cast), after which its qualities are described vividly — boisterous seas with foaming billows, fragrant herbs, splendid sun and silver moon, soaring eagles, merry larks and finny tribes, flexible tiger and nimble stag — and correspondingly illustrated in the music through techniques of word-painting.

The True Singers

Eventually, Adam and Eve are created and, in contrast to their companions, are true singers. A duet ensues, expressing the pleasures of their Garden and, even more, the joy they know in one another. While the arias sung by the angels employ an elevated and elaborate style, the duet of these mortals is simpler and more straightforward, with only one or two notes to each syllable; as Haydn scholar A. Peter Brown suggests, Adam and Eve are presented more like Papageno and Papagena than Tamino and Pamina. The general mood throughout The Creation is one of quiet pleasantness and serenity. The order of Creation is an order that comforts and salves as much as it astonishes. It is happy and homely, but no less glorious for that.

The Creation was one of Haydn’s last works, and it remained one of his most popular. An aria from the work was the last thing he ever heard performed; it was sung to him a week before his death in 1809 by a visiting French officer (Napoleon’s army was occupying Vienna). It was Uriel’s aria about the creation of Adam:

In native worth and honor clad,
with beauty, courage, strength adorned,
to heaven erect and tall, he stands
a man, the lord and king of nature all.

Calvin Stapert’s book Playing Before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn (Eedrmans, 2014) is mentioned above. Here is a conversation that Ken Myers had with Stapert about that book. This interview was featured on volume 127 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal.

There are many good recordings of The Creation, in both English and German. One in which members of our parish should be especially interested is by Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, conducted by Harry Christophers. Fiona Hughes was one of the violinists in the orchestra for that recording. The booklet that came with that recording may be viewed and downloaded here; it contains the text for the entire work, a handy resource to accompany listening to any performance.

Below is a much older recording of the original English-language version of The Creation. A personal favorite of mine, this 1990 performance is by the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Christopher Hogwood. The soloists are Emma Kirby, soprano; Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor; and Michael George, bass-baritone. Listeners are strongly advised to listen rather than watch the often distracting video which accompanies the music.

A more recent concert recording of the German version of Die Schöpfung is presented below. In this delightful performance, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir are conducted by Leonardo García Alarcón. The soloists are Elsa Benoit, soprano; Sebastian Kohlhepp, tenor; and Daniel Schmutzhard, baritone.