The work on the oratorio lasted from October 1796 to April 1798. It was also a profound act of faith for this deeply religious man, who appended the words "Praise to God" at the end of every completed composition. He later remarked, "I was never so devout as when I was at work on The Creation; I fell on my knees each day and begged God to give me the strength to finish the work." Haydn composed much of the work while at his residence in the Mariahilf suburb of Vienna, which is now the Haydnhaus. It was the longest time he had ever spent on a single composition. Explaining this, he wrote, "I spent much time over it because I expect it to last for a long time." In fact, he worked on the project to the point of exhaustion, and collapsed into a period of illness after conducting its premiere performance.
Haydn's original autograph score has been lost since 1803. A Viennese published score dated 1800 forms the basis of most performances today. The 'most authentic' Tonkünstler-Societat score of 1799, with notes in the composer's hand, can be found at the Vienna State Library. There are various other copyist scores such as the Estate, as well as hybrid editions prepared by scholars during the last two centuries.
When Haydn returned to Vienna, he turned this libretto over to Baron van Swieten. The Baron led a multifaceted career as a diplomat, librarian in charge of the imperial library, amateur musician, and generous patron of music and the arts. He is largely responsible for recasting the English libretto of The Creation in a German translation (Die Schöpfung) that Haydn could use to compose. He also made suggestions to Haydn regarding the setting of individual numbers. The work was published bilingually (1800) and is still performed in both languages today. Haydn himself preferred for the English translation to be used when the work was performed for English-speaking audiences.
Van Swieten was evidently not a fully fluent speaker of English, and the metrically-matched English version of the libretto has given rise to criticism and various attempts at improvement. Indeed, the English version is sufficiently awkward that the work is sometimes performed in German even in English-speaking countries. One passage describing the freshly-minted Adam’s forehead ended up, “The large and arched front sublime/of wisdom deep declares the seat”. The discussion below quotes the German text as representing van Swieten's best efforts, with fairly literal renderings of the German into English; for the full versions of both texts see the links at the end of this article.
The first public performance the next day was a private affair, but hundreds of people crowded into the street around the Schwarzenberg Palace to hear this eagerly anticipated work. Admission was by invitation only. Those invited included wealthy patrons of the arts, high government officials, prominent composers and musicians, and a sprinkling of the nobility of several countries; the common folk, who would have to wait for later occasions to hear the new work, so crowded the streets near the palace that some 30 special police were needed to keep order. Many of those lucky enough to be inside wrote glowing accounts of the piece. In a letter to the Neue teutsche Merkur, one audience member wrote: "Already three days have passed since that happy evening, and it still sounds in my ears and heart, and my breast is constricted by many emotions even thinking of it."
The first public performance at Vienna’s Burgtheater on 19 March 1799 was sold out far in advance, and Die Schöpfung was performed nearly forty more times in the city during Haydn’s lifetime. It had its London premiere the next year (in re-translated English, of course), at the Covent Garden Theatre. The last performance Haydn attended was on March 27 1808, just a year before he died: the aged and ill Haydn was carried in with great honour on an armchair. According to one account, the audience broke into spontaneous applause at the coming of "light" and "Papa" Haydn, in a typical gesture weakly pointed upwards and said: "Not from me - everything comes from up there!"
Remarkably, The Creation was also performed more than forty times outside Vienna during his lifetime: elsewhere in Austria and Germany, throughout England, and in Switzerland, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Russia and the United States.
A typical performance lasts about one hour and 45 minutes.
There seems little doubt that Haydn wanted a big sound (by the standard of his day) for his work. Between the private premieres for nobles and the public premiere in 1799, Haydn added extra instrumental parts to the work. The forces for the public premiere numbered about 120 instrumentalists and 60 singers.
The three soloists represent angels who narrate and comment on the successive six days of creation: Gabriel (soprano), Uriel (tenor), and Raphael (bass). In Part III, the role of Adam is usually sung by the same soloist as sings Raphael, and the roles of Gabriel and Eve are also taken by the same singer (this was the practice Haydn followed); however, some conductors prefer to cast each of the five roles with a different soloist.
The choral singers are employed in a series of monumental choruses, several of them celebrating the end of one particular day of creation.
The orchestra often plays alone, notably in the episodes of "tone-painting": the appearance of the sun, the creation of various beasts, and above all in the overture, the famous depiction of the Chaos before the creation.
Prelude. Die Vorstellung des Chaos (The Representation of Chaos)
No. 1. Im Anfange schuf Gott Himmel und Erde (In the beginning God created Heaven and Earth)
This movement relates the words of Genesis 1:1-4. It begins with a recitative for bass solo in C minor, followed by choral presentation of the creation of light. The latter is depicted first with a soft pizzicato note from the strings, followed by a great fortissimo on the word Licht (Light), modulating at that moment to C major.
This moment created a sensation at the public premiere of the work in Vienna. According to a friend of the composer:
Audiences today generally let the moment speak for itself.
Following the appearance of light is a brief tenor recitative on the words "and God saw the light, that it was good", leading into:
No. 2. Nun schwanden vor dem heiligen Strahle (Now vanished by the holy beams)
End of the first day.
No. 3. Und Gott machte das Firmament (And God made the firmament)
Long recitative for bass in C major. The bass part first gives the words of Genesis 1:6-7, then follows orchestral tone painting, describing the division of the waters from the land and the first storms.
No. 4. Mit Staunen sieht das Wunderwerk (The marv'lous work beholds amazed/The glorious hierarchy of heav'n)
Soprano solo with chorus, in C major. The heavenly hosts praise God and the work of the second day.
End of the second day.
No. 5. Und Gott sprach: Es sammle sich das Wasser (And God said let the waters)
Brief recitative for bass (Genesis 1:9-10), leading into:
No. 6. Rollend in schaumenden Wellen (Rolling in foaming billows)
Aria in D minor for bass, narrating the creation of seas, mountains, rivers, and (a coda in D major) brooks. As John Mangum points out, the stylistic inspiration here appears to be the "revenge aria" of 18th century opera buffa, as for instance in "La vendetta", from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro.
No. 7. Und Gott sprach: Es bringe die Erde Gras hervor (And God said, Let all the earth bring forth grass)
Brief recitative for soprano (Genesis 1:11), leading into:
No. 8. Nun beut die Flur das frische Grün (Now robed in cool refreshing green)
Solo aria in B flat major for soprano, in siciliana rhythm, celebrating the creation of plants.
No. 9. Und die himmlischen Heerscharen erkündigten (And the Heavenly host proclaimed the third day)
Brief recitative for tenor, leading into:
No. 10. Stimmt an die Saiten (Awake the harp)
Chorus celebrating the third day, with four-part fugue on the words "For the heavens and earth/He has clothed in stately dress".
End of the third day.
No. 11. Und Gott sprach: Es sei'n Lichter an der Feste des Himmels (And God said : Let there be lights in the firmament of heaven)
Recitative for tenor, with portions of Genesis 1:14-16.
No. 12. In vollem Glanze steiget jetzt die Sonne (In splendour bright is rising now/the sun)
With tenor narration, the orchestra portrays a brilliant sunrise, then a languid moonrise. The tune of the sunrise is simply ten notes of the D major scale, variously harmonized; the moon rises in the subdominant key of G, also with a rising scale passage. The end of recitative briefly alludes to the new-created stars, then introduces:
No. 13. Die Himmel erzählen die Ehre Gottes (The heavens are telling the glory of God)
The mightiest of the choruses of The Creation and a popular favorite. Haydn's century, following on the discoveries of Newton but preceding those of Darwin, was the heyday of the view that an orderly universe--particularly the mathematically-governed motion of the heavenly bodies--attests to divine wisdom. Haydn, a naturally curious man, may have had an amateur interest in astronomy, as while in England he took the trouble to visit William Herschel, ex-composer and discoverer of Uranus, in his observatory in Slough.
"Die Himmel erzählen" is not in the home key of Part I, C minor, but is instead in C major, showing the triumph of light over dark. It begins with alternation between celebratory choral passages and more meditative sequences from the three vocal soloists, followed by a choral fugue on the words "Und seiner hände Werk zeigt an das Firmament", then a final homophonic section. ("The wonder of his works displays the firmament" is the English text here, with word-order calqued from the German, but somewhat awkward compared to the Authorized Version's "And the firmament sheweth the handywork of God".) The unusual intensity of the ending may be result of Haydn's piling of coda upon coda, each occurring at a point where the music seems to be about to end.
End of the fourth day.
No. 14. Und Gott sprach: Es bringe das Wasser in der Fülle hervor (And God said : Let the waters bring forth in plenty)
Recitative for soprano (Genesis 1:20), leading into:
No. 15. Auf starkem Fittige schwinget sich der Adler stolz (On mighty wings the eagle proudly soars aloft)
Plum aria for soprano in F major, celebrating the creation of birds. The species mentioned are the eagle, the lark, the dove and the nightingale. The lyrics include the conceit that, at the time just after the Creation, the nightingale's song was not melancholy.
No. 16. Und Gott schuf grosse Walfische (And God created great whales.)
For bass solo, in D minor. While labeled a recitative in the score, it is more appropriately described as a recitative (from Genesis 1:21-22) followed by a brief aria, the latter a verse paraphrase on the biblical words (Gen. 1:22) "Be fruitful and multiply." The somber accompaniment uses no violins, but only the lower strings, with divided violas and cellos. For discussion of how this section was composed, see Gottfried van Swieten.
No. 17. Und die Engel rührten ihr' unsterblichen Harfen (And the angels struck their immortal harps.)
Brief recitative for bass, with notable harp imitations in the accompaniement, leading into:
No. 18. In holder Anmut stehn (In fairest raiment)
Haydn breaks the regularity of the pattern "Recitative-Elaboration for solo-Celebratory chorus" with a meditative work in A major for the trio of vocalists, contemplating the beauty and immensity of the newly created world. This leads without a break to:
No. 19. Der Herr ist groß in seiner Macht (The Lord is great in his might)
Chorus with all three soloists, in A major, celebrating the fifth day.
End of the fifth day
No. 20. Und Gott sprach: Es bringe die Erde hervor lebende Geschöpfe (And God said : Let earth bring forth the living creature)
Recitative for bass (Genesis 1:24), leading into:
No. 21. Gleich öffnet sich der Erde Schoß (At once Earth opens her womb)
A movement of tone-painting with bass narration. Haydn's gentle sense of humor is indulged here as the newly-created creatures appear, each with musical illustration: lion, tiger, stag, horse, cattle, sheep, insects, and worms. As always in Haydn's oratorio tone-painting, the sung verbal explanation comes after the orchestral portrayal.
The transition from glamorous animals (the first four) to prosaic ones (the last four) is marked with an unprepared modulation from D flat to A major. The farm animals are portrayed (as in No. 8) with siciliana rhythm, which plainly had bucolic associations for Haydn. Basses who have a strong low D are often tempted to use it on the final note "Wurm", substituting for the D an octave higher written by Haydn.
No. 22. Nun scheint in vollem Glanze der Himmel (Now shines heaven in the brightest glory)
Aria for bass in D major. The theme is
Thus the movement is preparatory to the creation of man.
No. 23. Und Gott schuf den Menschen (And God created Man)
Tenor recitative (Genesis 1:27, 2:7), leading to:
No. 24. Mit Würd' und Hoheit angetan (In native worth and honor clad)
A prized aria for tenor, in C major, celebrating the creation of man, then woman. Often sung outside the context of The Creation. Although the aria relates a Biblical story, the virtues attributed to Adam (and not Eve) clearly reflect the values of the Enlightenment.
This was almost certainly the last music from The Creation that Haydn ever heard: it was sung for him several days before his death in 1809 as a gesture of respect by a French military officer, a member of Napoleon's invading army.
No. 25. Und Gott sah jedes Ding (And God saw every thing)
Brief recitative for bass (text amplifying Genesis 1:31), leading to:
No. 26. Vollendet ist das grosse Werk (The great work is complete)
A celebration for chorus alone, in B flat, of the sixth day.
No. 27. Zu dir, o Herr, blickt alles auf (All look up to thee, O Lord)
Another meditation for the three angels (compare No. 18), in E flat major, on God's omnipotence and mercy, quoting Psalm 145:15-16. Leads directly to:
No. 28. Vollendet ist das große Werk (Fulfilled at last the great work)
This chorus begins with the same music and words as No. 26, and is in the same key of B flat. It quickly moves into large double fugue on the words "Alles lobe seinen Namen, denn er allein ist hoch erhaben" ("Let all praise his name, for he alone is sublime"). As appropriate to the finale of Part II, this repeat chorus is longer and ends more intensely than the first.
The pattern of the last three numbers of Part II, with two celebratory movements on the same theme flanking a slower meditative movement, echoes countless settings of the Latin Mass, where similar or identical choruses on "Hosanna in excelsis" ("Hosanna in the highest") flank a meditative section on "Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini" ("Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord.")
No. 29. Aus Rosenwolken bricht (In rosy mantle appears)
Orchestral prelude in slow tempo depicting dawn in the Garden of Eden, followed by recitative for tenor representing Uriel. Adam and Eve are seen walking hand in hand.
The key is E major, very remote from the flat-side keys that have dominated the work so far. Various commentators suggest that this was meant by Haydn to convey the remoteness of Earth from Heaven, or to contrast the sinfulness of people with the perfection of angels.
No. 30. Von deiner Güt, o Herr und Gott (By thy goodness, O bounteous Lord)
Adam and Eve offer a prayer of thanks in C major, accompanied by a chorus of angels.
This movement, the longest in The Creation, has three parts. In the first, marked adagio, Adam and Eve sing their prayer, with the chorus singing underneath them accompanied by soft timpani rolls. In the second section, the tempo picks up, and Adam, Eve, and the angels praise the newly created world. The final section is for chorus and orchestra alone, a celebration on the words "Wir preisen dich in Ewigkeit" ("We praise thee eternally").
No. 31. Nun ist die erste Pflicht erfüllt (Our first duty we have now performed)
Recitative for Adam and Eve, leading to:
No. 32. Holde Gattin, dir zur Seite (Sweet companion, at thy side)
Love duet for Adam and Eve in E flat major. There is a slow initial section, followed by an Allegro. The style is clearly influenced by opera, and some commentators invoke a parallel between Adam and Eve and the characters Papageno and Papagena, from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte.
No. 33. O glücklich Paar, und glücklich immerfort (O happy pair, and ever happy henceforth)
Uriel briefly explains to the pair that they will be happy always if will refrain from wanting to have, or wishing to know, more than they should.
No. 34. Singt dem Herren alle Stimmen! (Sing the Lord, ye voices all)
Final chorus in B flat major. There is a slow introduction, followed by a double fugue on the words "Des Herren Ruhm, er bleibt in Ewigkeit" ("The praise of the Lord will endure forever"), with passages for the vocal soloists and a final homophonic section.