march 2011


Classical Perspectives

Haydn's Late Oratorios: The Creation and The Seasons

The Genesis of The Creation

By Brian Robins

In the middle of August 1795 Joseph Haydn left England for the last time. His two visits (from January 1791 to July 1792 and February 1794 until August 1795) had occupied most of the previous four years. For the 63-year old composer, his entire life up to the point he first came to London spent in the sometimes claustrophobic ambiance of a princely court, it had been a period of unparalleled success, one Haydn himself looked back on as the happiest period of his life.[i] Entertained by royalty, feted by the nobility, and adored by the press and London's avid concert-going public, Haydn had achieved the kind of popular acclaim the English had previously reserved for only one foreign musical visitor--Handel.

Along with huge financial rewards amounting to a net gain from his two trips of some £1900,[ii] Haydn returned to Vienna laden with music, gifts (including a talking parrot) and a manuscript libretto of an oratorio on the subject of the creation of the world given to him by Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario and musician who had been responsible for bringing Haydn to England. There seems little doubt that Salomon hoped that the libretto might lure the lucrative Haydn back to London one final time. Although things failed to work out that way, it was in many ways a clever move. The impresario was well aware that English devotion to the oratorios of Handel remained little dimmed nearly forty years after his death, even to the point of producing new pastiches extracted from previous works.

Franz Joseph Haydn: ‘My business unhappily expands with my advancing years, and it almost seems as if, with the decrease of my mental powers, my inclination and impulse to work increase. Oh God! How much yet remains to be done in this splendid art, even by a man like myself!’

In 1784 the cult for Handel's oratorios and other choral works had received fresh impetus from a large-scale commemoration at Westminster Abbey mounted to honor the centenary of his birth. (The organizers had, of course, been a year out; Handel was born in 1685.) The 1784 commemoration, which started the fashion for large performing forces in Handel's choral works, is well known in the annals of music history, having been recorded by a number of observers, including the historian Charles Burney. Less familiar are the subsequent festivals, held annually in the wake of the great success of the initial event until 1787 and revived in 1791, by which time the forces employed had grown ever more gargantuan. According to the English dilettante composer John Marsh, the number of performers had now reached "nearly double" the 500 who appeared at the original commemoration, although Marsh felt their numbers merely "crowded and encumbered the orchestra without improving the effect.” [iii] But one visitor, as yet unfamiliar with the grandeur of the English choral tradition, was overwhelmed by the experience of hearing Messiah given in this manner. If we are to believe Giuseppe Carpani, one of Haydn's earliest, if not totally reliable, biographers, Haydn "was struck as if he had been put back to the beginning of his studies... He meditated on every note and drew from these most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur.” [iv] It is often suggested that Haydn's desire to write a new oratorio dates from that June day in 1791; indeed according to an account published very much later, Haydn told the violinist and composer Barthélemon that in the wake of the Messiah performance he wished to compose a similar work that would give him lasting fame.

Neither the composition of oratorios, nor an awareness of Handel's music was new to Haydn. An earlier oratorio, Il ritorna di Tobia (The return of Tobias), written for the Vienna Tonkünstler-Sozietät dates back as far as 1775 and was extensively revised for a further performance in 1784. Yet despite its rich orchestral effects and contrapuntal choruses that were compared in the press to those of Handel, Tobia was an old-fashioned work in the Italian oratorio tradition, with florid arias, and a static, Metastasian libretto in which "moralizing reflections and philosophical ruminations replace any actions.” [v] We do not know exactly when Haydn first became acquainted with Handel's oratorios, but it seems probable that it was through the auspices of the same man who inspired Mozart's particular interest in them. Baron Gottfried van Swieten was a diplomat and court administrator who had a passion for old music in general, and that of Bach and Handel in particular. His Sunday midday concerts were regularly attended by Mozart after the latter settled in Vienna, and it seems inconceivable that Haydn too would not have attended when he was in Vienna, given that Haydn had known van Swieten, a subscriber to his publications, since at least the early 1770s. If van Swieten's relations with Haydn are somewhat shadowy before the London visits, they were about to take on a very much higher profile as the German librettist of both The Creation and The Seasons.

Who Wrote the Libretto of The Creation?

The authorship of the manuscript libretto of The Creation pressed on Haydn by Salomon as the composer left England has been the cause of much musicological and literary discussion, which can here receive only a summary of its principal strands. One of the most important pieces of evidence comes from van Swieten, who stated in a letter that the original un-attributed English libretto had been intended for Handel and had been drawn largely from Milton's Paradise Lost. [vi] This runs counter to Haydn's early biographer G. A. Griesinger, who claims that the author was an Englishman by the name of Lidley, taken by modern scholars to be a corruption of the name of Thomas Linley the elder (1733-95), the English composer and entrepreneur. Linley, not known for his literary prowess, seems a most unlikely candidate, although there is a theory that he may have come by the libretto as a result of his co-directorship of the Drury Lane oratorios.[vii] However, most scholars have tended to follow the Handel trail, with such familiar names as those of Charles Jennens (the librettist of Messiah), and Newburgh Hamilton (librettist of Samson) being favorites. Also in the frame on the evidence of a letter she wrote claiming to have written an oratorio book for Handel is Mary Delany, an old friend of his. More recently, Neil Jenkins, who has prepared new English texts for both of Haydn's late oratorios, has undertaken a detailed comparison of the librettos Jennens and Hamilton wrote for Handel with the libretto passed to Haydn. As a result of his research, Jenkins has now advanced a persuasive argument in favour of Jennens being the source of the libretto that in the hands of Haydn and van Swieten would become Die Schöpfung.[viii]

The Creation: Composition and Reception

This, then, was the libretto that found its way to Vienna among Haydn's effects. According to the van Swieten letter already mentioned, Haydn had refused to be pressed into making a decision about setting it before he left for London, a natural reaction given that his English was still not sufficiently good to come to any hasty conclusions. His first positive reactions after examining the book were supported by van Swieten, who, to quote his own words, "recognised at once that such an exalted subject would give Haydn the opportunity I had long desired, to express the full power of his inexhaustible genius.” Van Swieten took it upon himself to translate the text into German, at the same time abridging the lengthy text to more manageable proportions. Haydn had obviously started some work before the end of 1796, as a letter from Albrechtsberger to Beethoven makes clear. Haydn had called on him, mentioning that he was carrying around in his head ideas for a big oratorio to be called The Creation (the first mention we have of the title). "He improvised some of it for me,” wrote Albrechtsberger, "and I think it will be very good.”[ix]

The Creation (German: Die Schöpfung), an oratorio written between 1796 and 1798 by Joseph Haydn (H. 21/2), and considered by many to be his masterpiece. The oratorio depicts and celebrates the creation of the world as described in the biblical Book of Genesis and in Milton's Paradise Lost.

Haydn worked on The Creation intermittently during 1797, a year during which he was also involved with one of his finest sets of string quartets, the six published in 1799 as opus 76. As an intensely religious man, it seems that Haydn took special care with the work, which he viewed as a thanks offering to God for all the miracles of His creation. Van Swieten seems to have freely dispensed not only literary, but also musical advice, some of which Haydn was happy to accept. According to Griesinger, Haydn stated that he was "never so devout" as at the time he was working on The Creation. "Every day I fell to my knees and asked God to give me strength to enable me to pursue the work to a successful conclusion.”[x] We don't know exactly when the score was completed, but Haydn doubtless worked on it after he returned in the autumn to Eisenstadt, where he was still Kapellmeister to Prince Nikolaus II, albeit with much reduced duties.

The first performance of The Creation took place at the palace of Prince Schwarzenberg on 29 April 1798, a semi-private event for which invitations were much sought after by the Viennese beau monde. The premiere had created huge interest in Vienna, which was attended not only by the fashionable audience, but also by a large crowd of onlookers that caused such chaos that all the efforts of eighteen mounted and twelve foot police were needed to maintain control. The furor over The Creation proved to be justified, the performance of the oratorio, conducted by the composer, being a huge success with both press and public. "Already three days have passed since that happy evening,” wrote one ecstatic critic, "and it still sounds in my ears, in my heart, and my breast is constricted by many emotions even thinking about it.”[xi] On the following day, 30 April, 7 May and 10 May further performances took place at the Schwarzenberg Palace, by the end of which it appears that Haydn was not surprisingly suffering from overwork and was ordered to take rest.

Some eleven months later, on 19 March 1799, The Creation received its first public performance in the Burgtheater in Vienna, an occasion that has gone down as one of the most renowned in the glittering musical history of the Austrian capital. It was recorded that although the concert was not scheduled to begin until 7:00, by 4:00 the throng was so great that there were a number of incidents as the audience battled for seats. The performance was given by forces that were variously numbered as being between either 180 or 400 strong, a large discrepancy possibly accounted for by the ambivalence that attended the word "orchestra,” which may or may not include the chorus. The soloists were the soprano Therese Saal, a 17-year-old making her debut, tenor Mathias Rathmeyer and Therese's father, the bass Ignaz Saal. Rathmeyer and Ignaz Saal had sung their parts in the Schwarzenberg Palace performances the previous year. Since the nobility underwrote the entire cost, Haydn made a substantial profit from takings that set a new record for the Burgtheater. One of the most remarkable features of the many reports that have survived is the total silence that seems to have been maintained during the music, by no means a common occurrence, although it was greeted with thunderous applause between numbers. The success was total, perhaps the greatest single triumph of Haydn's life. It started a vogue for performances in Vienna, the most famous of which was perhaps that given in March 1808, when the ailing composer, now just a few days short of his 76th birthday, was carried onto the platform in an armchair amidst a fanfare of trumpets and drums.

The publication of the score at the end of February 1800, uniquely with texts in both German and English, led naturally to wider dissemination of The Creation, the first performance in London taking place on 28 March 1800, quickly followed by one under Salomon on 21 April. Both used an English text that has been assumed to be based on the now-lost original given to Haydn, rather than that printed in the score. Curiously, although the oratorio was well enough received, reaction fell considerably short of the near-ecstatic reception it had received in Vienna (and subsequently other German-speaking centres). Initial criticism in England was based largely on Haydn's perceived inability to "breath [...] the sacred inspiration of Handel,” to quote one review, but it was not long before the literary quality of van Swieten's libretto and the overtly mimetic effects began to inspire derision, not only in England, but elsewhere.

The Creation: Text and Music

As we have seen, the libretto of The Creation is based in part on the first book of Genesis, but largely on John Milton's Paradise Lost. In particular it focuses on Book 7, which deals with God's creation of the world and His filling it with living creatures, as related by the archangel Raphael to Adam. Paradoxically however the libretto runs counter to Milton's argument, laid out at the start of Book 1: "The first book proposes [...] the whole subject, man's disobedience, and the loss thereupon of Paradise wherein he was placed: then touches the prime cause of his fall, the Serpent, or rather Satan in the Serpent.” Yet reading through the libretto of The Creation reveals no mention of either serpent or Satan and the work ends not, as does Paradise Lost, with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, but with the couple in a blissful state clouded only by the warning given by the archangel Uriel: "O happy pair, and always happy yet, if not, misled by false conceit, ye strive at more than granted is, and more to know than know ye should". These words are of interest not only for providing the only hint in The Creation of the coming Fall, but also, more widely, perhaps a note of caution directed at the scientific and philosophical debates that for over a century had undermined the very concept of creationism. But fundamentally The Creation is a work of its time, a work imbued with the spirit of the Enlightenment, rather than Milton's dark, Puritan world, a feature that may at least in part account for English reservations about the oratorio. Indeed those words of Uriel quoted above might well have come from Sarastro in Die Zauberflöte. God is here the giver of all that is good and beautiful in the world, manifest in visual results that can be seen daily all around us and are worthy not only of belief in, but also praise of God. There can be little doubt that it was this that gave inspiration to Haydn, not only a profound believer, but also a countryman well acquainted with both the beauty and the savagery of the natural world.

Haydn, The Creation, ‘The Heavens Are Telling,’ performed by one-man harmonica ensemble Kyong H. Lee. Chromatic harmonica is used on the solo parts, Tremelo harmonica for choir and Suzuki alto single for bass, Chord harmonica for rhythm.

The Creation divides into three parts, the first of which alternates between a colorful account of the creation of the earth and seas, and praise of God for his miraculous work. In Part 2 we meet the animals and birds that will populate the newly created world, culminating in the most miraculous of all God's creations--man himself. Part 3 is devoted to man in the shape of Adam and Eve. In keeping with the necessity for varied vocal registers, the narrative in Parts 1 and 2 is carried forward not solely by Raphael, as in Paradise Lost, but by three archangels, Raphael, Gabriel and Uriel, whose recitatives frequently open with the words "And God said,” thus following both Genesis and Paradise Lost. Arias and solo ensembles are also sung by the archangels, while it falls largely to the chorus to interject its wonder at God's achievements and conclude each of these opening parts with magnificent paeans, "Die Himmel erzählen" ("The heavens are telling") (Part 1) and "Vollender ist das grosse Werk ("Achieved is the glorious work") (Part 2). Part 3 takes a different form. After Uriel invites us to observe newly created man within his milieu, the parts formerly taken by Raphael (bass) and Gabriel (soprano) are allotted to Adam and Eve, the two archangels playing no further part in the oratorio. The introduction of fresh soloists adopted by some performances and recordings at this point therefore has no justification and there is no evidence that Haydn ever did so.

The musical glory of The Creation lies in three principal components: the overpowering majesty of the choruses that owe such an obvious debt to the example of Handel's English oratorios; the unerring skill with which Haydn paints his descriptive canvasses; and the absolute mastery of orchestration that the composer had finally achieved in the "London" symphonies and late Masses, here employed to perhaps even more telling effect, especially in some of the glorious writing for the winds. Indeed, it would hardly be an exaggeration to claim that the orchestra in The Creation is every bit as much a protagonist as the soloists and chorus. This supreme craftsmanship is immediately apparent in the overture, a representation of the chaos that existed before God's creation of the world. As has been often noted, the concept has a precedent in Le Chaos, the movement with which Jean-Féry Rebel opened his symphonie de danse Les Elémens over fifty years earlier. Yet Haydn's depiction is infinitely subtler, finding no necessity to employ extreme dissonance, but rather evoking a void in which matter erupts and disperses in extreme dynamic contrasts and fragmentary chromatic scales and arpeggiations. This extraordinary opening segues effortlessly into Raphael's accompanied recitative depicting the darkness of the world, a passage of mysterious, unfathomable depth. The stage is now set for the most astonishing coup de théâtre in the work, God's command that his new world will receive light. Prefaced by the chorus' pp and sotto voce, the great moment arrives on the word "Licht" with overwhelming force and a dramatic impact that stunned early audiences, frequently bringing them to their feet.

Other instances of orchestral wizardry abound. Gabriel's enchanting first aria in Part 2, "Auf starken Fittichen" ("On mighty pens") is a master-class in descriptive writing drawn in fresh, delicate hues, the bewitching description of the birds that now populate the earth employing ornamental figuration for clarinet and flute of the greatest finesse. The introduction to Uriel's Part 1 accompanied recitative "In vollen glanze" ("In splendour bright") is a wonderful evocation of sunrise in which Haydn excels his own outstanding exemplar composed over thirty years earlier as the opening movement of his Symphony No. 6 (Le Matin). Later in the same recitative, the "the softer beams and milder light" of the moon are illustrated in a magical Adagio passage underpinned by sustained string part writing and suspensions. The key instruction of God to the birds and beasts to "go forth and multiply" (in the Part 2 accompanied recitative "Und Gott schuf") inspire another unforgettable moment, the solemn command given immense dignity by divisi basses creating a richly-textured underlay. Finally (and space precludes mention of many further examples), we might draw attention to the orchestral introduction to Part 3, an ineffably lovely picture of man's idyllic innocence before the Fall and a movement in which the interplay of three flutes projects a mood of utmost serenity.

As the foregoing suggests most of the descriptive events are conveyed by recitative, generally accompanied. These recitatives constitute one of the major elements of the work and include the mimetic passages that concerned the composer himself and induced later accusations of naivety. Today such concerns will be largely irrelevant to an appreciation of The Creation by anyone capable of approaching its majestic breadth and scope with due recognition of its greatness. While we might smile at Haydn's imagery, at the tremulous roaring of lions, the leap of the tiger, the heavy stomp of cattle, or the sinuous, slow progress of the worm, the imaginative will surely smile with him, not at him, rejoicing in the temporary recovery of a lost world of innocence.

There are relatively few arias, a total of only six throughout the oratorio, of which the two finest are both allotted to Gabriel. Mention has already been made of "Auf starken Fittichen" in Part 2, which has its counterpart in Part 1 in the shape of "Nun beut die Fleur" ("With verdure clad"). The elegant, gracefully shaped melody has all the verdant freshness of the trees and flowers it describes, while the easy paced tempo and siciliana rhythm are typical of similar pastorales from the baroque onwards.

Haydn, The Creation, ‘Sing The Lord, Ye Voices All,’ the UCLA Chorale, Angeles Chorale and UCLA Philharmonic, Royce Hall, June 6, 2009

At the heart of Part 3 are two large-scale duets for Adam and Eve. In the first, "Von deiner Güt" ("By thee with bliss"), the couple give praise to God for the wonders he has wrought. At no fewer than 387 bars, it is the most expansive movement in the work and is divided into two sections, the first a prayerful Adagio introduced by a ravishing phrase for solo oboe in which the chorus steals in to add reverential support, the second a jaunty Allegretto recapitulating the joys of God's creation in the couple's own words. The second is more personal, an expression of the couple's love for each other. Little shorter than the first duet, it is also divided into two parts. The first is again marked adagio, an infinitely tender introduction that leads to a lively allegro in popular contradanse style that disconcerted some of Haydn's contemporaries, particularly after he humorously referred to it in the "Qui tollis" section of the "Creation" Mass three years later. Mention has already been made of the resplendent choruses that conclude Parts 1 and 2, and the work is rounded off by the grandest of them all, "Singet dem Herren", which like its fellows opens with a homophonic section that is succeeded by a magnificent fugal movement broadening out to an overwhelming peroration and final "Amen.”

A Man for all Seasons

Sometime before the first public performances of The Creation, Haydn had embarked on a new oratorio intended to form a kind of sequel. The inspiration appears to have come from van Swieten, whose text was another with an English language source, but on this occasion one about which there was no mystery. James Thomson's epic poem The Seasons was first published in complete form in 1730, after which it rapidly achieved Europe-wide fame, being translated into German several times and also into French. If van Swieten's task in preparing the German libretto of The Creation had been relatively straightforward, The Seasons was a very different matter. Thomson's huge poem runs to more than 4300 lines of verse that required careful selection and revision before embarking on translation. Van Swieten's solution was to extract certain episodes, concentrating on those in which graphic descriptive detail would allow Haydn to give full reign to his imagination. In so doing he changed the emphasis of the original, just as that of Milton had been in The Creation. The dark metaphors of Thomson's "Winter,” for example, have largely gone, to be replaced by a text that pays obeisance to more contemporary descriptions of the sublime in nature and the cheerfulness of the village gathering with its cozy fire.

Haydn, The Seasons, Spring, Part 1. Arnold Schoenberg Choir Ensemble, Vienna Concentus Musicus.

The success of The Creation ensured that progress on The Seasons would be followed in the full glare of publicity. Within days of the earlier oratorio's public premiere, a report of that event in the respected German musical journal, Allgemeine Musicalische Zeitung concluded its review by telling its readers that "Haydn is working on a great new work, which [...] van Swieten has arranged metrically from Thomson's 'Seasons', and of which he has already completed the first part, 'Spring'.”[xii] But work on The Seasons did not come easily to the once fecund Haydn. Three months later we find him lamenting what he saw as his failing powers in a famous letter, one of a series of observations that illustrate the increasing weariness the old composer felt:

My business unhappily expands with my advancing years, and it almost seems as if, with the decrease of my mental powers, my inclination and impulse to work increase. Oh God! How much yet remains to be done in this splendid art, even by a man like myself! The world, indeed, daily pays me many compliments, even on the fervour of my latest works; but no one can believe the strain and effort it costs me to produce them, inasmuch as time after time my feeble memory and the unstrung state of my nerves so completely crush me to earth, that I fall into the most melancholy condition. For days afterwards I am incapable of formulating one single idea, till at length my heart is revived by Providence, and I seat myself at the piano and begin once more to hammer away at it.[xiii]

One might conjecture that Haydn's increasing frailty accounted for the well-documented moments of friction that arose between van Swieten and him during the composition of The Seasons. As with The Creation, the baron was full of advice to the composer, but on this occasion it sometimes went down less well. Moreover, Haydn was less than happy with aspects of the libretto, in particular the overtly mimetic sections depicting cocks growing, frogs croaking and so on, famously described by the composer as "Frenchified trash.” He also complained about the less than poetic nature of some the text, sardonically remarking of the words "O fleiss, o edler fleiss..." (Industry, noble industry, from thee comes all prosperity) in the trio and chorus from Autumn, "So lohnet die nature" ("Thus nature, ever kind"), that he had himself been industrious all his life, but that it had never occurred to him to set industry to music.

Haydn, The Seasons, Summer, performed by Võru Symphony Orchestra, mixed choir Hilaro, Võru oratorium choir and Camerata Universitatis from Tartu. 14th April 2007

Notwithstanding such problems, The Seasons was obviously complete by early 1801, as a letter written by Griesinger to the music publisher Breitkopf and Härtel on 25 March makes clear: "We have just been informed by a friend travelling through Vienna that Haydn has completed the composition of the 4 Seasons and soon after Easter it will be performed at the Palace of Prince Schwarzenberg. Expectations could not be higher, but Haydn will surpass them.”[xiv] Expectations were indeed high, but they had to be contained a little longer. Haydn was again suffering from exhaustion and by the end of March doubts were being expressed in some quarters as to the likelihood of the new oratorio receiving its premiere that year. But on 24 April 1801, after a delay caused by a death in the Schwarzenberg family, The Seasons eventually received its first performance under Haydn's direction, once again a semi-private performance given by the same soloists who had sung at the first public performance of The Creation (the Saals and Rathmeyer), an orchestra largely made up of members of the opera orchestra, and a chorus drawn from the choirs of the city's churches. The general response was once again one of huge enthusiasm, with praise for the "power of expression with which the artist [Haydn] very vividly describes nature in all its guises,” an attribute that "surpasses any description.”[xv] Others, however, had reservations, particularly regarding the text, which echo Haydn's own caveats. Doubts were expressed about the advisability of attempting to set explicit effects to music: "A composer may describe natural objects; but how? He should describe them, not as they are--their absolute appearance as physical nature--but only through the impression they make on us.”[xvi] Here, then, right at the start of the nineteenth century, we find a clear preference for the abstract in music, a concept running counter to the widely held eighteenth-century view of music as a mimetic art.

Haydn, The Seasons, Autumn, performed by Võru Symphony Orchestra, mixed choir Hilaro, Võru oratorium choir and Camerata Universitatis from Tartu. 12th November 2006

One month later The Seasons was given a private performance at court, in which the soprano part was sung by the Empress Marie Therese under Haydn's direction (a great admirer of the composer, she also performed in The Creation the following day, 25 May). The first public performance followed at the Redoutensaal four days later. Compared with the triumphant entry of The Creation into the world, it was a comparative flop, one eye-eyewitness recording that it was attended by an audience of little more than 700, barely half the room's capacity. Despite the disappointing public premiere, July found Haydn completing an extremely lucrative contract with Breitkopf & Härtel for the publication of The Seasons. This guaranteed the composer a royalty of 4500 gulden, around four times his annual salary in his final years of employment as Kapellmeister to Prince Nikolaus Esterházy II. The score appeared early in 1802, being published in two editions, one German and French, the other German with a justly excoriated English translation by van Swieten. Yet astonishingly, The Seasons made little impact in France, which had come to venerate Haydn, and was ignored in England, the country where he had achieved such a triumphant success only a decade previously. It was, as the great Haydn scholar H. C. Robbins Landon, has observed, the start of Haydn's decline and fall to the near oblivion his music would suffer in the nineteenth century.

The Seasons: Text and Music

As we have already seen, Haydn's own enthusiasm for the libretto of The Seasons was by no means unbounded. The topic itself aroused in him less fervor than that of The Creation. Perhaps the greatest miracle of the oratorio is therefore that it provides virtually no evidence of the increasing frailty and exhaustion of its composer. Quite the reverse, in fact, in such sections as the exuberant sections of Autumn devoted to the thrill of the hunt and the drinking song that ends it. In such passages the sheer energy and vitality of the writing leave the astonished commentator groping for descriptive powers to come anywhere close to an understanding of how this music could have been written by a man complaining of fading powers.

For obvious reasons, The Seasons falls into four parts and is logically cast chronologically, starting with Spring. Like The Creation, it calls for soprano, tenor, and bass soloists, chorus and a large orchestra including four horns and three trombones. The soloists are themselves country-folk, given respectively the names Hanne, Lukas and Simon, although they frequently step outside their character to articulate more generalized sentiments or provide narrative description. Whereas in The Creation the chorus was largely called upon to praise God, here it performs a broader function that in addition to such passages as the hymn of praise "Sei nun gnädig" in Spring, the magnificent "Freudenlied" that ends the same part, or the elevated double chorus with which the work ends, calls upon it to play country folk, hunters, tipplers and, in Winter, a chorus of spinners, a number set to an interpolated Spinning Song for Hanne and the women in which the whirring of their spinning wheels anticipates Schubert's Gretchen am Spinrade, even to the point of coming to a halt, as so poignantly happens in Schubert's song.

Haydn, The Seasons, Winter, performed by Võru Symphony Orchestra, mixed choir Hilaro and Võru oratorium choir. 23 April 2005

In his necessary abridgement of Thomson's poem, van Swieten chose to highlight particular aspects of each season. Spring is the most nebulous, principally concerned with the rebirth of nature and the resumption of husbandry after the harshness of winter. Summer is descriptive, taking us through a day from dawn to dusk, a day that includes another of Haydn's memorable sun rises, this time for the soloists and chorus; a cavatina for Simon in which his description of the dazzling, debilitating heat of the midday sun is supported by muted strings and drooping figures for flute and oboe, one of the most beautiful numbers in the oratorio; a vividly depicted approach and unleashing of a storm, the clearing of the storm, and finally the tolling of evening bells and call to rest. Autumn concerns itself largely with the countryman's activities and divides into several topics: harvest thanksgiving (which includes the big number in praise of industry so scorned by Haydn); a love duet for Hanne and Lukas; the hunting scene; and a final drinking song concluding with an inebriated choral fugue with off-beat rhythms. Winter opens with a vivid evocation of bleakness, before turning to introduce a lost wanderer struggling in the snow. Eventually he finds shelter in the warmth of the village, where the women spin and Hanne entertains by singing a strophic Lied. A complete change of mood comes with an aria for Simon employing winter as a metaphor for the transitory nature of man's life, a strong theme in Thomson's original poem. At the words "your summer strength is exhausted" Haydn introduced a quotation from the Andante of his old friend Mozart's G-minor Symphony, K550, a deeply touching tribute to the younger man who knew no autumn or winter. Mozart is also recalled in the majestic opening section of the final chorus, where both text and music of the questions and answers exchanged between the chorus and solo ensemble bring to mind the more elevated sentiments of Die Zauberflöte, reminding us that both Haydn and van Swieten were also Masons.

Much has been made of the folk-like and Singspiel influences that dominate much of The Seasons, characteristics that are clear in such movements as the opening chorus "Komm, holder Lenz" ("Come gentle spring"), with its obvious folk melody and drones. Much of the music for the soloists has obvious roots in Singspiel, including Simon's jaunty "Schon eilet" ("Now eagerly the husbandman") from Spring, and the duet for Hanne and Lukas from Autumn, where we seem not far from the world of Papageno and Papagena. But closely juxtaposed with this bucolic world is the underlying theme, the link with The Creation that constantly reminds us that this colorful, sometimes naïvely unpretentious universe is alone God's miracle. At times these two worlds are linked, nowhere more clearly than in the large-scale finale of Spring, the "Freudenlied" or Song of Joy. It sets out in Singspiel mode, a delightful Andante dialogue between Hanne and Lukas, whose paean of praise to nature is supported by a chorus of lads and lasses and graphically illustrates gambolling lambs, swarming bees, shoals of darting fishes, and fluttering birds. The entry of Simon introduces a more serious note as he brings a reminder that "the charms that inflame you are the Creator's breath.” A fermata is reached. After a short pause, time, key (from A to B flat) and mood change totally with the introduction of a Maestoso section introduced massively ff by the full power of the orchestra. Yet another break follows as a hymn-like Adagio for the soloists is introduced by clarinets and bassoons, the link with the Maestoso maintained by the chorus' interjections "Mighty God!". Finally the chorus takes over with an allegro fugue that brings the huge edifice (a total of 296 bars) to a triumphant conclusion. Robbins Landon compares its flexibility to that of an operatic finale, but it is difficult to think of an operatic finale that travels as far as does this one.

We cannot leave The Seasons without some mention of Haydn's orchestration, which fully maintains the level he had attained in The Creation. Indeed in its elemental power and color it in some ways represents an advance, at times presaging the early Romanticism of composers like Weber. This is particularly evident in the orchestral introductions to each season, especially those of Summer, Autumn and Winter. That to Spring is the most extensive, a full scale sonata form movement depicting the passage of winter into spring, with a four-bar Largo introduction in the decrescendos and trill of which we can sense the final juddering cold of winter. Summer has only the briefest of introductions, a wonderful chromatic evocation of grey dawn originally scored for divided cellos and basses, but later revised by Haydn for full string orchestra. The introductions to Autumn and Winter were also shortened by Haydn after the early performances, the former being a cheerful Allegretto. Winter brings one of the most evocative examples of tone painting in the work, an Adagio founded on a four-note motif with swirling little wind figures rising out of the winter fog.


It has frequently been claimed that it was van Swieten who hoped to persuade Haydn to complete a trilogy of oratorios by writing one on the subject of the Last Judgement, thus putting the seal on a grandiose conception that would have embraced the world from its beginning to its end. Yet Haydn, so legend has it, was now too old and mentally exhausted to undertake another work on such a large scale. However, a letter of Griesinger's written on 21 April 1802 tells a rather different story. According to him, Haydn himself suggested an oratorio on the subject of the Last Judgment and expressed a particular desire, apparently conveyed through no less a person than the Empress Marie Therese, that the libretto should by written by the great German poet Wieland. [xvii] But Wieland, himself now an elderly man of 75, declined the offer and the plan came to nothing. Even so, it is doubtful that Haydn could have completed such an undertaking. Only two further major works would be completed, the Schõpfungmesse (1801) and the great Harmoniemesse of 1802. Thereafter, with the exception of the two movements of the unfinished String Quartet, op 103, the grand old man remained silent until his death in 1809. But with The Creation and The Seasons, Haydn left us with an already bountiful legacy in the shape of two of the most uplifting, life-enhancing and humane masterpieces in the entire repertoire.


[i] G. A. Griesinger, Biographische Notizen über Joseph Haydn. Leipzig, 1810. p. 23.

[ii] The figure is difficult to translate in today's terms, but some idea can be gained from the fact that it roughly equates with the annual salary of a leading London merchant or banker. According to Griesinger, Haydn's entire wealth in 1790 amounted to about 2000 gulden (about £235).

[iii] Brian Robins (ed.), The John Marsh Journals. Stuyvesant, N.Y. p. 494.

[iv] Giuseppe Carpani, Le Haydine, Milan, 1812. p. 162f.

[v] H. C. Robbins Landon, Haydn Chronicle and Works: Haydn at Esterhazy 1766-1790. London, 1978. p. 260.

[vi] The letter is one of the most important documents relating to The Creation. It is quoted in Robbins Landon, Forward to The Creation and The Seasons: The complete authentic sources for the Word-Books. Cardiff, 1985. p. 5.

[vii] Robbins Landon, Forward, p. 8.

[viii] A summary of Jenkins' conclusions can be found in "Haydn's The Creation: on preparing a new English text.” Early Music Review, 111 (February 2006).

[ix]  Robbins Landon, Haydn Chronicle and Works : The years of 'The Creation' 1796-1800. London, 1977. p. 115.

[x] Griesinger, Notizen. p. 54f

[xi] Robbins Landon, Haydn: 'The Creation' 1796-1800, p. 321.

[xii] Dated 24 March 1799. Quoted in 'The Creation' 1796-1800, p. 454.

[xiii] Letter of 12 June 1799 to Breitkopf & Härtel. Quoted in Karl Geiringer, Haydn: A creative Life in Music. Boston, Mass, 1947. p. 146.

[xiv] Quoted in Robbins Landon, Haydn Chronicle and Works: the Late Years 1801-1809. London, 1977. pp. 30-31.

[xv] From a newspaper report submitted to Moscow and St. Petersburg. Quoted in Haydn: the Late Years, p. 42.

[xvi] Quoted in Haydn: the Late Years, p. 46 from a review in the Journal des Luxus und der Moden dated 10 June 1801.

[xvii] The whole of this fascinating letter is reprinted in Haydn: the Late Years, pp. 224-5.

Originally published in Goldberg Early Music Magazine


About the Author

brian robinsMusic historian, lecturer, broadcaster and early music critic Brian Robins was born in Cheltenham, England, but spent his early life in Bournemouth, where he pursued an academic life notable for its singular lack of distinction. This he subsequently rectified by obtaining an Honours pass in the History of Music Diploma (University of London). After more than thirty years in the retail record business, increasing interest in research and adult education led him to become a free-lance writer and lecturer. His academic work has been acknowledged by prestigious awards from the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy and the Huntington Library, San Marino, CA. From 1994 until mid-2007 Mr. Robins was a regular contributor of reviews and interviews to the U.S. publication Fanfare.

In 1997 he was involved with the launch of Goldberg Early Music Magazine (Spain), remaining a contributor, consultant and member of the Advisory Board for every issue until the cessation of publication in November 2008. In addition Robins has broadcast for BBC Radio 3 and contributed to such scholarly publications as Early Music, the RMA Research Chronicle and the Huntington Library Quarterly. He has also contributed essays to Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain (ed. S. Wollenberg & S. McVeigh) (2004), Marsh of Chichester: Gentleman, Composer, Musician, Writer 1752-1828 (2004), the revised New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians (2001), and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004). In 2007 he was invited to become a member of the panel for the Stanley Sadie International Handel Recording Prize. He has also written for the BBC Music Magazine, Early Music Today, Gramophone, and Opera. Mr. Robins is a regular contributor to Early Music Review.

Mr. Robins’s website, Early Music World features a range of articles, interviews and a selection of reviews. Also included are viewpoints on topics relating to the world of early music, in addition to details and extracts from reviews concerning two published books, The John Marsh Journals: The Life and Times of a Gentleman Composer (1752-1828)  (1998, second edition due September 2010), and Catch and Glee Culture in Eighteenth-Century England (2006). A second volume of the Marsh Journals is currently being prepared for publication in 2012.  ?

john marshThe revised, hardcover edition of Mr. Robins’s first book, The John Marsh Journals: The Life and Times of a Gentleman Composer (1752-1828), a critically praised edited version of the important journals of the 18th century English composer John Marsh, has just been published in the U.S. in a new edition by Pendragon Press and is available at

Contact Brian Roberts at:


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