Haydn’s last two masses, the Schopfungsmesse (1801) and the Harmoniemesse (1802), together with his Oratorio The Seasons (Die Jahreszeiten), were the composer’s last major works. He is reported to have said of The Seasons that it ‘broke my back’. The work was, indeed, enormous, taking from 1798 to 1801 to complete, and the tireless effort which Haydn lavished on the score ruined his health. Although he lived on for some years, he never had the strength to put down on paper more than a few partsongs (Mehrstimmige Lieder), and two movements of a string quartet. Strangely enough Haydn hated his last monumental work. He had no kind words for it at all, and is supposed to have said with great vehemence, ‘this Frenchified trash was forced upon me’. It was, indeed, forced upon him, for which we may thank Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the Viennese Court Librarian who wrote the libretto.
Baron van Swieten was an outwardly cold, inwardly sentimental, vain, proud, domineering Viennese aristocrat. However, he did great service to music by cajoling Haydn into writing The Seasons. Haydn’s first biographer wrote:‘Haydn was under the thumb of a self-important person who thought as highly of his poetic gifts as he did of his social importance’. It is known that the Baron wrote detailed instructions to the composer when they were working on The Creation; but in the case of The Seasons matters were a little different. Haydn objected to the text, both directly and abstractly. He raged and stormed over ‘that sort … of vulgar Frenchified trash’ and slandered van Swieten to his friends and acquaintances. ‘In the additional instrumental accompaniment’, dictated van Swieten, ‘I should like to hear the purling of brooks and the buzzing of the flying insects’; or, ‘Here I want the wailing cry of owls’. Haydn was speechless with rage. As if this were not enough, van Swieten actually began dictating melodies for Haydn to use. In a chorus he insisted that Haydn write ‘fugally’, and that ‘the countersubject be introduced here’. Through van Swieten’s tireless efforts Haydn was gradually persuaded to continue his work, and on 24 April 1801 the first performance took place in the Palais Schwarzenberg. The success was enormous, perhaps even greater than that of The Creation.
THE ENGLISH POEM
At the time of the work’s premiere, in 1801, and for many years earlier, James Thomson’s poem was held in very high regard. As a precursor of the Romantic movement it is possibly the most influential poem of the 18th century, and was translated into many languages soon after publication.
Wordsworth, writes in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads:: “…The Seasons is a work of inspiration. It was no sooner read than universally admired.” With the greatness of Thomson’s poem in mind, coupled with the masterpiece that Haydn made of the music in a German translation, it seemed sensible to see how much of the original text could be put back into a new English version. Where the text is not based on Thomson (in Autumn, where van Swieten expanded the hunting theme, inserted an operatic love-duet, and added a chorus in praise of wine, and in Winter where he added two Songs with chorus for no particular reason except that of adding bulk to the text) I have tried to preserve a ‘period’ feel by choosing appropriate lines of English poetry, ballads and folksongs, from the 17th and 18th centuries.
Where van Swieten makes use of a device which he first employed in The Creation, of taking verses from the Psalms to develop into major choruses, (e.g. the final chorus no. 44) I have endeavoured to retain the feel of the Book of Common Prayer.
As I hope the new libretto will reveal, Thomson’s original voice is now allowed to speak out more clearly through the music. His dislike for hunting (such a topical subject in our own day) is once again felt in Autumn, where van Swieten had altered the mood in sympathy with his own ‘pro-hunting’ tastes.
Some things could not be altered too radically: the Wine Chorus (no. 31) may still seem rather Austrian; though the replacement of the nonsensical German refrain “Heysa, hopsa! Juche, juche, juh” by the more idiomatic “Hip, hip, hurrah”, and the insertion of lines from “The Wait’s Carol” of 1640, “Hang Sorrow! Let’s cast care away!” both endeavour to place it in a rural English context. By chance I discovered that the Romance for Soprano & Chorus (no. 40) originates from the English folksong “Lovely Joan”. As a result I have put as much of that back in as I could.
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