What Haydn taught me about Creation: A Reflection from an Opera Singer

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”!

Click here to listen to ‘Creation’.

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. 

4 Comments

  • Matthew Linder says:

    I was involved in a debate once with a friend of mine over old earth vs. young earth creationism and the conclusion that I came to at the end was very similar to yours. What matters is that God created us and everything and because of that we are to glorify and worship him. The question of how long that initial creating process took God does not really matter in my mind (others would argue with me that it does, most notably Ken Ham) because all that is really important is that I know that God created me, the earth and all contained in it and the entire universe. I wonder if Haydn were alive today if he would have written this piece not as a theological exploration of the creation story but rather as a theo-political stance on which version of the creation story he subscribes to. I doubt that a work like that would have survived. Because the music focuses on God and what he has done and not on trying to figure out the particulars of how he did it that makes Creation a great piece of art.

    • Andrew Finden says:

      Hi Matthew

      I wonder if Haydn were alive today if he would have written this piece not as a theological exploration of the creation story but rather as a theo-political stance on which version of the creation story he subscribes to.

      An interesting thought. Generally speaking, contemporary composers don’t seem to write as much sacred music as their classical counterparts, or if they do, not usually in the classical oratorio structure. Having said that, the eminent Scottish composer James Macmillan recently wrote a new St Matthew’s Passion. So there are composers writing ‘sacred’ concert music, but I’m not sure if it is more theo-political than in the past.

      • Matthew Linder says:

        John Adams recently premiered a passion oratorio called “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” and based off of the review of the work (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/02/arts/music/the-gospel-according-to-the-other-mary-by-john-adams.html?_r=1) it fuses the gospels and Gnostic writing with 20th century political activism. This would definitely be an interesting work to attend and discuss with others Christian and non-Christian alike.

  • Daniel Saunders says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head here.

    Our big problem in reading Genesis is that too often we don’t read Genesis to hear God speak, but we read to answer our contemporary debates. The big problem of this is that we fail to see the main reason that Genesis 1-2 was put there, which is what Haydn depicts so beautifully—the God of Creation is the God who deserves our praise!

    (And, of course, our theological thinking about Creation is not nullified by this, but rather given it’s proper conclusion and application.)

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