Rituals for Healing and Light
Haasʼs kleines symphonisches Gedicht and Haydn’s Creation
Dedication: ein kleines symphonisches Gedicht by Georg Friedrich Haas
“When my words fail I have to speak in music. I have tried to compose a ritual. A ritual for healing and light.” Georg Friedrich Haas made these remarks about the orchestral piece whose premiere opens the new season of the Berliner Philharmoniker. That this work should be performed for the first time directly before Joseph Haydn’s Creation inevitably lends it a certain context: “healing and light” are also central themes of Haydn’s oratorio – the universe’s primal chaos is healed in the order brought by light. The wandering sounds of the famous orchestral prelude to the Creation can conceivably be heard as a continuation of the Haas’s sonic textures (Klangflächen).
Haas, born in Graz, Austria, calls the orchestral movement ein kleines symphonisches Gedicht (a small symphonic poem) and has attached to it a dedication “to Wolfgang.” From its very beginning the score reveals a kind of ritualistic configuration of instruments. The first chord in the strings is layered from the bottom up: divided basses support triple-divided cellos and quadruple-divided violas beneath the two violin sections, each divided five times. All play minor seconds in lengthy, sustained sounds that add to the cluster whilst winds and brass ring out in triplets and quintuplets. The sound grows continually higher, louder and more intense until it transforms into ragged fortissimo chords. Underneath high violin and flute trills there develops a new, stratified sonic texture of fortissimo strings. This remains the dominant moment of the movement, at times being rhythmically structured, at times taking the form of long, sustained sounds from the strings. A small number of repeated notes punctuate it with rhythmic contrasts, in particular a “wild” triple-forte shortly before the conclusion. After six and a half minutes the musicians are instructed to “end as if the piece could go on and on indefinitely” – in a wild, defiant forte-fortissimo.
Between Enlightenment and Church Teaching: Joseph Haydn’s Creation
When Haydn’s Creation was heard for the first time on 30 April 1798 it was, quite literally, a hair-raising event: at the moment of “Und es ward Licht” (“And there was light”), the audience were so electrified by the sudden C-major fortissimo that they jumped from their seats and cheered. Twenty minutes went by before the performance could be continued. The score was published soon after in 1800 and the work was performed more or less simultaneously in twenty European cities. With his grand narrative of divine light bringing illumination to humanity Haydn unified Europeans on the eve of the Napoleonic wars.
The roots of the Creation lie in England. When Haydn set foot on English soil on 1 January 1791 he was soon drawn into the maelstrom of George Frideric Handel’s oratorios. In Westminster Abbey he heard the Messiah and Israel in Egypt with hundreds of choristers and monumental orchestral forces. Amidst the atmosphere of the English Handel cult Haydn also soon came into contact with the material of the Creation. Between 1744 and 1746 Handel had been offered three different oratorio texts based on John Milton’s epic Paradise Lost. The first came from Handel’s friend Mary Delany and dealt exclusively with the Fall of Man, which clearly did not excite Handel. The second libretto was much more attractive, since it combined extracts from the scriptures with passages from Milton’s epic, just as the text of Haydn’s Creation was to. The librettist was Charles Jennens, who had also written the texts of the Messiah and Saul. Unfortunately, however, Handel and Jennens quarrelled in 1744 to such an extent that a setting of his text became out of the question. When Handel’s friend John Upton sent him a further libretto based on Paradise Lost two years later, the composer had lost all interest – a fortunate turn of events, since instead of our having a Handel oratorio named TheCreation, it fell to Haydn to compose Die Schöpfung using a German text. The most recent scholarship supposes that Haydn returned to Vienna with the libretto by Jennens. Gottfried van Swieten, for many years prefect of the Viennese Court Library, translated it into German. According to his own testimony, he “followed the original faithfully on the whole, but often departed from it in the details.”
Haydn at the Telescope
After Haydn had spent his second season in London he visited near Windsor the greatest scientific attraction in England at the time: the gigantic reflecting telescope belonging to the German musician and astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm (later William) Herschel. As Haydn wrote in his notebook, Herschel, owing to his financially advantageous marriage, possessed the means to construct sensational telescopes. With their help he had discovered the planet Uranus in 1781, in addition to nebulae and many other celestial phenomena. When Haydn visited him on 15 June 1792 Herschel had just developed the theory that stars formed from a kind of gas cloud via the action of gravity. This idea, transposed into music, corresponds to the sound picture that Haydn invented for chaos: dissonant chords and nebulous rhythms that gradually come together into concrete forms.
The depiction of chaos at the beginning of the Creation was not Haydn’s own idea, but an express wish of Baron van Swieten, who in this way envisaged the whole oratorio under a single theme: the opposition between chaos and order, darkness and light. Only one year before the premiere of the Creation, in 1797, the fourth volume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica appeared in Edinburgh in its famous third edition. There, chaos was defined in the following fashion: “CHAOS, that confusion in which matter lay when newly produced out of nothing before the beginning of the world, before God, by his almighty word, had put it into order and condition wherein it was after the first days of creation.”
In his oratorio Haydn represented the dispersal of all darkness by the first light: “Let there be light, and there was light.” The aria that follows develops the conceptual pairing of order and confusion further: the “holy beams” (“heilige Strahl”) of the first day cause the spirits of Hell to escape into the abyss. As sunrise will later, light stands here as a symbol for a just and orderly world in which every creature has its place: “During the last five days of the Creation God did nothing other than assign each creature the place allotted to it within the tableau of the universe. Until this time everything in nature had remained silent, stupid and numb. The scenery of the world only developed once the voice of the all-powerful Creator arranged creatures into the marvellous order that today accounts for its beauty.” This was the definition of Chaos by the anonymous author of the 1753 article on the subject in Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, which moreover avoided calling into question the precedence of the biblical account of the Creation: “We add these corollaries: 1. That we ought not in any system of Physics contradict the fundamental truths of religion as Genesis teaches them.”
Haydn’s oratorio corresponds perfectly to this compromise between the Enlightenment and Church teaching. The natural growth and flourishing of creatures stands for the development of life in its full, autonomous beauty. The choir of angels, on the other hand, affirms at the end of each day the creator of all of this, singing the praises of God. Musically we could refer to these two aspects as “symphonic” and “sacred.” Where Haydn lovingly depicts God’s dramatic act of creation or the beauty of creatures he acts as a symphonist. Where he praises God alone he becomes a Church musician – the master of the late masses. Haydn’s own devout brother, Michael, who lived in Salzburg, admitted just as much: “What my brother brings off in his choruses on ‘Ewigkeit’ is quite extraordinary indeed!”