10 minutes of a Haydn oratorio

And now for something completely different.

There’s a good chance you couldn’t name more than a couple of works written by the Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and probably not this particular one.  That’s perfectly fine. Before I go into any more detail, I’d invite you to listen to the first ten minutes of the piece, (until the video reaches the 10:49 mark). An embedded version can also be found at bottom of this post. You’re more than welcome to listen past that point, as it’s an incredible work, but what I have to say afterwards only concerns those first 10 minutes.


You’re back? Awesome, wasn’t it?

It’s extremely difficult to describe a piece of music with words, much less how that music affects you. Music is a language that is universally intelligible, but it is very hard to capture its effects in other languages, whether spoken or written. But I’m going try anyway, because it’s well worth the effort. The Internet allows me to illuminate this post with both visual and auditory aids, so I’ll add links to certain places in the recording or refer to the score as needed.

I’ve listened to the first 10 minutes of The Creation 25-30 times, with most of those times happening while preparing this post, and still get chills down my back every time the words “and there was light” is sung. It could be a different version (there are many others on YouTube), or it could be playing on my potato laptop speakers; just hearing that stretch of music ending with that C-major chord is enough to have a physiological and emotional effect.

I’ll go over the music itself later on, and why I think Haydn was so effective in eliciting that feeling, as well as provide a bit more historical context, but for now I’ll use more descriptive language. After all, even the most analytical of baseball fans don’t immediately go to Statcast data to describe a dramatic home run or strikeout just after it happened.


A Description

The Creation/Die Schöpfung by Joseph Haydn – Hob. XXI:2 (written 1797-1798, published 1800)

Selected sections:

2:05 The Representation of Chaos (instrumental overture)

7:47In the Beginning” (accompanied recitative)

10:15 “And there was light” (the resolution)

The first section of The Creation is called (roughly translated) “The Representation of Chaos”. As you might suspect, the ultimate source material is the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, and the oratorio’s overture is meant to evoke a feeling of nothingness before the first chapter begins. After the initial fanfare, the music subsides to a slow, discordant section with no musical resolution. Let me explain: when you listen to a piece of music, whether from this period or something released last week, you subconsciously expect the music to progress in a certain way, whether through consistency in tone, in melody, in dynamics (loud/soft), or in its ending. This overture does none of these things, and so creates a feeling of discontentment, of uncomfortableness because there is seemingly no direction to it. At times there are a couple points in which you think the mood will change (which I’ll go into below), but immediately the music reverses course. The section ends much as it begins, with a soft and depressing whimper. Even to our modern ears, the entire overture is strange and weird; just think what the first audiences, long accustomed to the Classical ideal of “melody first” (think of examples like this and this) thought while listening to it.

You have doubtless noticed how I have avoided the resolutions that one most expects. That is because nothing has yet assumed form.

-Haydn, on the Representation of Chaos

The recitative (a type of choral music in which a singer half-sings/half-speaks the lines) begins in much the same way as the overture ended: in a minor key, with the orchestra providing discordant accompaniment. But when the full chorus comes in (9:21), you finally have the first inkling of a resolution, which in my mind makes the payoff that much better; it’s not a sudden change from chaos to order, but a gradual buildup to it. The combination of the ethereal voices with the pulsing orchestra is a fantastic effect, giving you a sense of expectancy even if you’ve never heard the piece before. But Haydn doesn’t give it completely away, because there is no dynamic change leading to the final resolution, just a tone shift.

When the resolution happens (10:15), you get blindsided by three different changes: (1) minor to major key change, (2) a dynamic change (very soft to very loud), and (3) and, most importantly, the sudden appearance of a strong melody. Also, some performances will speed up the tempo, which gives it that extra bit of impact. It is then that you realize the previous 8-9 minutes of uncomfortable music was absolutely necessary for this moment. Had Haydn started the piece without the dark and ominous overture, the “let there be light” line wouldn’t have near the impact on the listener.

How can a concourse of sounds correspond to an emotion? That last word is not the right one. For example, in Haydn’s Creation there is a strong modulation to C major on the the words “Let there be light.” The notes as such have nothing to do with light. But the change of key – and to that key – produces a visceral sensation (for want of a better word), a sensation of discovery, of openness, release, relief – it has no name; it is not one of the emotions.

-Jacques Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence


Historical notes

Haydn was already the most famous composer in Europe when he wrote The Creation. While on his second trip to England, he had heard several of Handel’s (he composed Messiahamong many others) oratorios, and contemplated composing an oratorio of his own in Handel’s style. This marked a new challenge for the 66-year-old Haydn, who had excelled in (heck, practically invented) many other musical genres (the symphony, the string quartet, just to name a few) during his long career as a composer. The libretto (or text of the oratorio) originally came from John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and was originally intended for Handel himself to use. The libretto was translated into German for its debut, though it would be published in both English and German shortly thereafter (the English version is considered subpar, so that’s why you’ll often see it performed in German even in front of English-speaking audiences). The Creation premiered in Vienna in 1798, and quickly became an international hit.

The work as a whole is optimistic in tone, a marriage of Haydn’s deeply religious beliefs with the Enlightenment values of his era.


An Analysis

Now to do the unpleasant but necessary task of breaking down a piece of music into its component parts in order to better understand why this first part of The Creation has such an emotional impact. It is difficult to quantify the emotional effect music has on an individual person, never mind all of humanity (or even just cross-section of it). However, there are some general effects that music tends to have on people. For example, a piece played in a minor key is considered “sad” music, while music in a major key is more closely associated with happiness. There are other structural components that have similar impacts. I’ve listed them below, along with a comparison how the overture and the resolution are structured.

Tempo (speed or pace of the music) 

Representation of Chaos: Lento/Very slow (sadness)

And there was light”: Adagio/Slow (in some versions) (more happiness)

For reference, Lento is generally understood to be 40-60 beats per minute. In the version I’ve linked the tempo is about 50-52 beats per minute for the overture, with the music speeding up after the resolution. The tempo is still on the slower side, but the accelerando (speeding up) of the music does have an impact.

Mode (the type of scale – major/minor)

Representation of Chaos: c minor (sadness)

“And there was light”: C major (joy)

Tones that are closer together sound more dissonant, creating tension. The minor scale’s third tone is a half-step lower than its major scale analogue. In this case, the third tone for the opening key (c minor) is E-flat, while the third tone for the resolution key signature is E-natural (C major). You can see this in the score (which I’ve added in a later section).

Loudness/Softness of the music

  Representation of Chaos: generally soft (torpor)

“And there was light”: very loud (excitement)

In the overture, there are some small loud sections, but for the most part the music is marked as p (piano/soft) or even pp (pianissimo/very soft). The section just before the resolution (where the chorus come in) is marked pp, while the resolution is marked fff (fortississimo/very very loud), which is basically as large a dynamic change as you can have in music.

Melody (complementary or clashing)

Representation of Chaos: clashing (unpleasantness)

“And there was light”: complementary (peaceful)

In the Classical era, melody came before just about anything else. So to contemporary audiences, the lack of a coherent melody (which was by design) had to be the most jarring facet of the overture. It is only when the chorus enters (9:18) that you get any kind of melodic structure that Haydn’s contemporaries would recognize.

Rhythm (regular/smooth vs. irregular/rough)

Representation of Chaos: irregular (uneasiness)

“And there was light”: regular (happiness)

Haydn used a number of rhythms in his overture, often playing them off against one another. For example, in measures 6-8 (see below for the score), he used three consecutive runs of triplets offsetting longer notes elsewhere in the orchestra. But once the chorus comes in, everything in is lock step.

Programmatic Features

Program Music, or music composed with an extra-music theme in mind, really didn’t become widespread until the later Romantic era, but works like this do I think qualify as such. It has a specific theme, and the music is obviously written in a way to capture both the overall theme as well as the words sung. The audience would have known the subject matter forwards and backwards, and that would have added to the emotional payoff at many points, particularly at the resolution.


Conclusion

This is a vast departure from what I’ve written before, though in some aspects there are some parallels. Like with baseball, music can be enjoyed by anyone, even those with no real prior knowledge. You don’t need to know any music theory or historical background to be moved by a masterpiece like The Creation, but even a bit of deeper understanding makes it a much more rewarding experience. I’ll be back with a regularly-scheduled Indians post next Monday.

Below: The score, and some resources for further reading/listening.

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