It is said that Haydn wrote his oratorio ‘Creation’ after being inspired by Handel’s ‘Messiah’. These two oratorios are, arguably, great pillars of the sacred music corpus. While Handel’s work focuses on Christ and draws heavily on Old Testament prophecies, Haydn’s work tells the story of the creation of the world.
Haydn’s ‘Creation’ is in three parts. It begins with a musical representation of ‘the chaos’ from which the opening lines of Genesis quietly emerge and is followed by a brilliant explosion of the chorus, giving voice to the creation of light. What follows is the typical oratorio structure of recitative narrating the story’s progression with arias, duets and choruses stepping out of the narrative to reflect upon it. Haydn gives these recitatives to soloists with the names of the angels Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel.
The first part ends with the creation of the sun, while the second part manages to fit in the creation of everything else, ending with the ‘glorious work’ of the creation of man. The third part consists mainly of an extended duet between Adam and Eve.
While Haydn drew from the book of Genesis, he was also heavily influenced by Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. Unlike Milton’s work, however, Haydn leaves us before the fall with a “blissful” innocent pair singing in beautiful harmony. (I like to joke with my instrumentalist friends that the voice is the perfect instrument, as it was the only instrument invented before fall.)
I’ve performed ‘Creation’ myself several times, as Adam and also as the angel Raphael who has a wonderful aria describing all the different animals, which Haydn shows off his word-painting and wit. Despite my familiarity with the piece, it wasn’t until I sat and experienced a performance as an audience member that it struck me just how right Haydn’s response to the creation story really is. I think he does something from which we moderns could learn.
The book of Genesis, and in particular, the creation account, is undoubtedly one of the most controversial issues in contemporary theology and Christianity. In many places, the lines have been drawn: faith vs science. For those who draw this distinction, they seem to be unable to read the opening of the Bible without wanting to turn it into a scientific question, asking things such as ‘How old is the earth?’, ‘Are the days literal?’, ‘Did God use evolution?’ and so forth. However, through reflecting on ‘Creation’, I get the feeling this is not exactly the right response.
Genesis is a book of theology, that is, it is primarily about God. While it includes narrative, some history, as well as a few other genres, I think it is also a book written to teach people about their place in the world as created beings. It is written as an introduction to the great biblical meta-narrative, the overarching story of God redeeming a people for himself. The creation account puts that all in perspective, showing us who God is as the creator.
Through ‘Creation’, what struck me about Haydn’s rendering of Genesis 1-2 is the way each creative act is followed by a chorus of praise. When one of the angels recounts, for example, the creation of plants, the chorus responds with a call to ‘awake the harp!’ in order to praise God. It seems to me that this starts to point to the response that the creation account ought to provoke. Scripture calls us so often to sing unto the Lord; it seems like a natural, creative response to a creative God.
I don’t want to suggest that there aren’t serious theological questions about the nature of creation and how it relates to our scientific knowledge, but perhaps there’s a danger that if we get too caught up in those questions. We forget that our response should be awe, wonder and praise. As the final chorus of Haydn’s oratorio reminds us: “Sing the Lord ye voices all”!
Andrew Finden is currently engaged as a principle lyric baritone at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe and also enjoys writing congregational worship songs. He blogs at A Borrowed Flame. Click here to see his full biography.