Do you want to talk about living on the edge? “Few composers can boast on their curricula vitae,” wrote R.J. Stove in Catholic World Report a few years ago, “a deliberate and successful avoidance of gelding. Haydn could.”
Indeed he could: it was only through the timely and forceful intervention of his father that the young Haydn avoided joining the ranks of castrati before his voice changed. Stove cites this particular biographical detail to illustrate that Haydn’s life, and by extension his music, had some acquaintance with the sharp edges of his world. And yet, the composer who was honored, emulated, and imitated more than any other during his prime in the late 18th and early 19th century, and who was teacher, mentor, and friend to those two gigantic musical Bad Boys Mozart and Beethoven, has all too often over the past two centuries been dismissed for his lack of edginess.
That verdict is more a judgment on the shallowness of our age than it is a true assessment of either the depth or power of Haydn’s music, not to mention some of the sharper circumstances of his life. I started paying closer attention to Haydn after I ran across Stove’s article, and then found his judgment confirmed by others (as in this assessment of the composer by Richard Wigmore).
It’s true that Haydn’s public persona was placid and genial, unlike the mercurial Mozart and the turbulent Beethoven, and much of his music pleasing and inoffensive to the ear of the casual listener. A closer study, however, reveals an inventiveness and feel for drama that gives him no cause to be ashamed in the company of his better known pupils.
The Creation, an oratio first performed in Vienna in 1799, is perhaps Haydn’s greatest work. He was inspired by performances of Handel’s oratorios which he attended while visiting London. Naturally, he to compose an oratorio of his own. For a great work he chose a grand subject: God’s creation of the universe. He built his composition around a libretto by Gottfried von Swieten which draws on Genesis, the Psalms, and John Milton’s epic of The Fall, Paradise Lost. Within the bounds of an old, established genre the composer finds new ways to express the drama and wonder of creation.
The excerpt below is a good introduction to Haydn’s magnum opus. It is from Part I, scene 4 of The Creation, a piece called “The Heavens are Telling.” The text is based on Psalm 19, which begins “The Heavens are telling the Glory of God.” The music is performed here by The Academy of Ancient Music, with Christopher Hogwood conducting.
2The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the firmament proclaims the work of his hands.
3Day unto day conveys the message,
and night unto night imparts the knowledge.
4No speech, no word, whose voice goes unheeded;
5their sound goes forth through all the earth,
their message to the utmost bounds of the world.
6There he has placed a tent for the sun;
it comes forth like a bridegroom coming from his tent,
rejoices like a champion to run his course.
7At one end of the heavens is the rising of the sun;
to its furthest end it runs its course.
There is nothing concealed from its burning heat.