The success of Haydn’s Creation has always depended to a large extent upon the language in which it was being performed, and what the audience thought of the quality of the text. Within a few years of its first performances in Vienna and London this was being attacked as far inferior to the quality of Haydn’s music. Both the German and English versions of the text suffered this early criticism:
It is little wonder that the words translated from the German almost literally into English, should be neither sense nor grammar, nor that they should make wicked work with Milton.[A Seward, 1802]
A few words about the text, if it is not already lost effort to write anything at all about that concoction. If one had wanted to set a trap for a composer & reveal him in his nakedness, I cannot imagine anything more successful. [F.Kunzen, 1801]
The Creation is a remarkable work in that it is the first oratorio to have been composed and published in a bilingual format. The libretto that Haydn took back with him to Vienna after his stay in London in the 1790s, where he had admired the oratorios of Handel enormously, was in English. He subsequently obtained a German translation from his friend and colleague Baron van Swieten; and when the work was eventually published, it contained both sets of text. Haydn wanted it to be performed both in Austria and in London, where Johann Peter Salomon had provided the initial enthusiasm for the work.
One might suppose that the English text contained in this first publication of 1800 would represent the ur-libretto in its original state. Salomon had handed it to Haydn in 1795 as he was leaving London in response to his desire to write something like a Handel oratorio. It is quite conceivable that Salomon was expecting Haydn to compose the work in English. Haydn had demonstrated a certain ability with the English language (which he did not speak well) in his recent settings of 12 English Canzonettas. The libretto of The Creation was said to have been written for Handel in about 1744. Salomon could have been forgiven for thinking that Haydn would appreciate its quality and set the material as received.
In fact, the English version contained in the first edition of “The Creation” can hardly represent the ur-text that had been handed to Haydn. It displays many signs of having been put together hurriedly by inexpert English speakers, with many inelegant and tortuous lines, and a significant amount of German word-order. The original text was said to be derived from the Book of Genesis and the Book of Psalms in the King James Bible, as well as from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. The biblical passages are often quoted word for word, but Milton’s original voice is harder to detect. There are passages in Part 2 where some descriptive phrases are quoted virtually word for word. But in many other places the true Miltonic voice has been overwhelmed by a two-way process of translation into, and out of, German.
In England the oratorio has suffered as a result of this less-than-ideal text. Many hands have had a go at turning the awkward passages into a version that can be sung convincingly in English-speaking parts of the world. Editors with a better understanding of Milton’s style were not slow to begin their improvements. Muzio Clementi’s 1801 vocal score already addressed some of the problems of the 1800 score, and was further improved in 1827. More of the original Miltonic text appeared in an 1832 edition by Haydn’s pupil Sigismond Neukomm, and Vincent Novello incorporated this and many other of Neukomm’s improvements into his famous 1847 edition. It was this last edition which did most to set in stone a version of the text that was thought to be as good as it could get. Novello took over changes from other editions and made improvements of his own. But he couldn’t eliminate the pervasive Germanic word-order; the underlay of the text in the choruses was far from ideal; and the solos were couched in a language that, while appearing both naive and unsatisfactory to some, was considered to be acceptably quaint by others. This is the version in which the work came to be known and loved throughout the English-speaking world.
I have worked hard to try and restore the libretto to something closer to what I imagine the original must have been like when it was prepared in the 1740s for Handel, (but not ultimately used by him.) I have also detected – by a process of finding stylistic similarities with the other librettos that he wrote for Handel, such as Saul, Il Moderato and Belshazzar – that the original librettist was no other than Charles Jennens, who had previously presented Handel with the text of the “Messiah”. My book “The text of Haydn’s ‘The Creation’; New sources and a possible librettist” (Haydn Society of Great Britain 2005) explains the process of my research in detail, and can be purchased here.
Full instrumental parts are available on hire.
Please contact Neil Jenkins