by Joseph Haydn
First bilingual oratorio?
Haydn’s greatest hit….
In 1791, during Haydn’s last triumphant visit to London, he attended the annual Handel Festival in Westminster Abbey. The tradition at the time was to perform Handel’s oratorios with as many as 1,000 performers, and that year Israel in Egypt and Messiah made a huge impact on Haydn. He resolved to compose something similar himself, particularly inspired by the vivid musical pictures in Israel in Egypt.
Initially a suitable libretto did not materialise, but four years later, just as he was leaving London for home, he was given a libretto, The Creation of the World, based on Genesis as it appears in the King James Bible, and on Milton’s Paradise Lost.
When Haydn arrived back in Austria he had the libretto translated into German by that great musical connoisseur and pillar of Viennese society, Baron Gottfried van Swieten. Then he got to work on what would be one of his final masterpieces. It took him more than a year to complete and left him ill with exhaustion. But at the first performance, before a private audience of the great and good, the listeners were so completely bowled over by the musical picture of the creation of Light that the performance had to stop while they recovered. The Creation proved to be an instant huge success, too, with the wider public.
In fact, Haydn had decided to publish The Creation in both German and English, making it probably the first bilingual musical composition. He also published and distributed it himself, with the aid of subscriptions, which proved to be very lucrative. Also, he conducted many lavish charity performances raising huge sums for the Tonkünstlersocietät, a charity supporting widows and orphans of musicians, very much in the vein of his inspiration, Handel, in his support for the Foundling Hospital in London.