Haydn’s ‘Creation’

The Creation 

Josef Haydn (1732 – 1809)

by Joseph Haydn

First bilingual oratorio?

Haydn’s greatest hit….



The Handel Festival, Westminster Abbey


In 1791, during Haydn’s first 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 for the second time, 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.


Haydn’s Kleine Orgelmesse (Missa Brevis Sancti Johannis de Deo)

Joseph Haydn

Joseph Haydn’s employer, Count Nicolaus I of Esterhazy, was a keen amateur musician and made huge demands on Haydn. This meant the greater part of Haydn’s output took the shape of symphonies and chamber music written for the Court. But he was called upon at times to compose music for the Church.

Haydn presenting the Mass to the brothers in 1775

In Eisenstadt, just down the road from the Esterhazy Palace was the Abbey of the Brothers of Mercy (Barmherziger Brüder) – it is now the hospital. Haydn (who also lived in the same street) had a great liking for the Brotherhood, and this lovely little Mass is one of a number of works he wrote for them.  It is deliberately modest both in the musical resources needed to perform it and in its dimensions.  To keep it short, Haydn used the common practice in the Gloria and the Credo of having four lines of text sung simultaneously by different voices; tricky if you’re trying to follow the words, but it does eat up the text!

The interior of the Brothers’ chapel, with the organ Haydn played at the first performance.