Creating The Creation

Not long ago I went to hear Haydn’s Creation at the New York Philharmonic. The performance wasn’t much to write home about — Maazel conducted with a kind of distracted ferocity, pushing the music forward, but not doing much else with it. Barbara Bonney, the soprano soloist, sang badly out of tune; Bruce Ford, the tenor, was not much more than competent. Only Thomas Quasthoff, the bass soloist, stood out, singing with more truth and radiant delight than any singer I’ve heard in quite a while. I wanted to jump on stage, and say to Bonney and Ford, “Don’t you see? That’s how you do it!” Quasthoff made it sound very simple, and also seemed to violate a basic vocal law of nature, singing a firm and sonorous low D (normally available only to the lowest basses) while also floating light, delightful baritonal high notes.  

But I’m not writing here to talk about the performance. I want to talk about the piece itself. Why do we perform it? Well, under the standard rules of classical music, the answer is obvious. Haydn is a great composer, enshrined in the classical canon. The Creation is one of his important works. Of course we perform it. Why wouldn’t we?

But those are the old rules, and it strikes me that they’re mindless. The performance of standard classical music — no matter how seriously we think we take it — turns into something very like an assembly line. Here’s the repertory; now go out and play it.

And beyond that, classical music needs to operate under new rules. The new rules say that the old rules aren’t working. What we do has to mean something. Meaning isn’t guaranteed, just because, under the old rules, we’re performing masterpieces. We need to have reasons for what we do. These reasons have to make sense to a new audience. Or, to put this a little differently, we need to give people a reason for coming to hear us. That doesn’t mean we have to be crass, gaudy, or dumb. It means that we have to be more artistic — and, in the case of The Creation, treat the piece as if it meant something, as any theater company would, whenever it puts a play on stage.

So what does The Creation mean? Well, it’s a setting of the start of the book of Genesis. It recounts the biblical creation story — the making of the world, the sun, the moon, the sky, the weather, all the animals, and finally Adam and Eve — which these days, for many people, might not mean all that much. So we can’t say we’re performing The Creation because of its intrinsic interest. Instead, we have to ask why it shouldn’t seem obsolete. The Philharmonic, I might add, performed the piece with supertitles (the text, of course, was sung in the original German), so its meaning, whatever that might be, was fully thrust in front of us.

And what was that meaning? Or, to put the question differently, what did we get — and, even more, what could we get — from hearing this piece?

Well, we might say that Haydn wrote beautiful music. His music, we could say, is so lovely that the text doesn’t matter. But that would make us musical bimbos. We’d also be trivializing Haydn, a man we otherwise claim was a great artist. If he set a text to music, shouldn’t his music — if he had any artistic feeling at all — mean something that grows from the text? Think, once more, of a theater company. It wouldn’t put on Shakespeare or Eugene O’Neill or August Wilson without asking what their plays mean. We ought to take the same responsibility for everything we present. The Creation has a text. If that text doesn’t mean anything to us, why are we projecting it over the stage in supertitles?

So here’s another idea. Haydn, depicting all those fairytale events, uses a delightful musical paintbrush. He shows us the primeval chaos, the great explosion of joy when God creates light, the rolling of the waves, the slither of the newly created worms. So even if the theology of Genesis might not speak to us, can’t we sing and play The Creation just to share Haydn’s love of nature, and his wonderful delight in it?

But then wouldn’t we still be bimbos? Wouldn’t we be treating The Creation as not much more than an upscale Carnival of the Animals? We wouldn’t be artists — we’d be zookeepers, and in fact low-grade zookeepers, who don’t care much about ecology, wildlife preservation, or animal behavior, but just maintain the animals because they’re cute. We’d also end up not quite knowing what to do with Haydn’s powerful religious choruses. Haydn, after all, doesn’t just glory in brooks, whales, and thunderstorms; he’s awed by the majesty of God, the great Creator. So what do we do with that? Do we perform The Creation as a religious ceremony?

For religious people — religious Christians, anyway — that might not be a bad idea. Though of course contemporary Christians might have theological problems, if Haydn’s religious views differed from theirs. And what about people who aren’t Christians, or aren’t religious at all? What will The Creation mean to them? One solution — I think my parents would have liked it — is to say that Haydn’s religious choruses convey his awe before the majesty of nature, an awe that he felt as religious, but that people now can understand in a more secular way.

But even then we’ve got a problem, because, if we think about The Creation this way, Adam and Eve — who dominate the last half hour of the piece — become a dragging anticlimax. All the cute parts, with the storms and the animals, come much earlier. But soon enough that’s over, and when we’re left with Adam and Eve, they can seem a little dippy. They praise the Lord, they praise the morning, they praise the evening, they praise the fruit they eat, they ask the brooks and animals to praise the Lord; Eve, archiacally, says she’ll serve her husband. (“Thy will is law to me. Thus the Lord hath ordained; and obeying thee shall bring me joy…”) It’s all a bit much, and at the same time, too little; it doesn’t seem either majestic or intimate enough to deserve all the music Haydn wrote for it.

Of course, one problem here might be Haydn himself, who, as his operas show, wasn’t the finest dramatist. Or, as the New Grove Dictionary of Opera puts it, “the first master dramatist among symphonists…reveals limited feeling for the ebb and flow of dramatic action…in his works written for the stage.” So in the last part of The Creation he writes three duets in a row for Adam and Eve, of successively less interest, when two might have been enough.

But that only means we have to be even more serious in our approach to the piece, because we’re fighting not just its archaic text, but a lapse of Haydn’s own. What can we do?

Here’s a suggestion. The Creation isn’t only drawn from the book of Genesis. Haydn’s librettist also used portions of the Psalms, and, much more important, things from Milton’s Paradise Lost. So the story isn’t only about joy and praise. Added to Genesis are three things that stand out for me. First, at the end of the First Day, “Chaos yields” (to quote the text), and “the ghastly hosts of hell flee” down to the abyss. With despair, rage, and terror, no less. So there’s evil on hand from the beginning.

Second, we’re told that the oceans and the eagles weren’t enough:

But everything was not yet complete. It lacked the being who could gratefully see God’s work and praise His goodness. So God created man…

That explains why Adam and Eve are a legitimate cliimax.

And finally, there’s this, sung very simply as a recitative before the final chorus:

O happy pair, and happy forever, if vain folly lead you not astray to want more than you have, and to know more than you should.

Which brings us back to those devils cast into oblivion. They’re back, lurking in the Garden of Eden, and of course will tempt Adam and Eve to do exactly what the recitative tells them they shouldn’t. The warning in the recitative surely had stronger resonance in Haydn’s time than it does today. Everyone who heard the piece knew what was coming — knew that the happy days in Eden would come to an end, and that therefore the happiness in the three Adam and Eve duets, radiant as Haydn tries to make it, was also doomed. I’d be curious to know how often, before Haydn, composers had set Adam and Eve to music. Maybe the audience that first heard The Creation had never heard Adam and Eve singing before. They might have listened with special interest, almost with a religious or philosophical yearning for what might have been, if the Fall had never happened. The scene Haydn depicts can seem a little bland to us, but in his own time might have been more poignant.

Here, then, is a way to approach this work, not just as a celebration, but as a drama. The opening chaos (so famously depicted in Haydn’s orchestral introduction) takes on special meaning; the text of the piece links it to the hosts of hell. The story of creation isn’t just a series of vignettes; it builds to a climax, the creation of humanity. And Adam and Eve, finally, aren’t uncomplicatedly happy. They tremble on the brink of the Fall, and the recitative that reminds us of that is in some ways the most important moment in the work.

Now, you can say that Haydn didn’t make the recitative important. He could, for instance, have accompanied it with the orchestra. But instead it’s secco, accompanied only by the harpsichord. But you could also say that special underlining wasn’t needed, because the tenor’s words stand out starkly in secco recitative, and also because everybody understood their great significance. Maybe they didn’t have to be dressed in special colors.

Today, though, we’d have to do something with this recitative. We could pause before it; the tenor could sing it slowly; he could sing it with unusual (but quiet) emphasis; or the harpsichordist could improvise significant commentary (as might well have been done in the 18th century). We might even try dimming the lights, though that would only work if there had been ocnsistent lighting effects throughout the piece.

The point, whatever we do, is that the conductor, soloists, chorus, and orchestra have to understand what they’re doing with this piece, just as (once again) the cast of a play understands the meaning of everything they act. The musicians have to understand the shape and flow they’re working to create, which parts seem important, and what tone each should have. They might all decide — or the conductor might decide — that the orchestral introduction, the depiction of chaos, has extra importance, because it’s not just about what came before creation; it’s about everything opposed to God.

The aria and chorus about the fall of the devils might also be emphasized, and also all the other passages I’ve mentioned. This surely isn’t the only way to make sense of The Creation, as a piece performed for a modern audience. But we need some way to make sense of it, because otherwise our performance will be — like the Philharmonic’s — profoundly meaningless.


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