Haydn always intended The Creation to be a bilingual work. It was published in 1800 (two years after the first, private, performance), in both German and English, with a bilingual title page. The original English libretto, based principally on the first chapter of Genesis and Milton's Paradise Lost, had been given to Haydn during his second trip to London in 1794-95. Feeling that his command of English was inadequate to set the text properly, Haydn took it back with him to Vienna, where his patron Baron Gottfried van Swieten translated it into German, intending the German and English texts to fit the same music. Swieten then underlaid the German text with English in preparation for publication, in such a way that few musical changes would be required.
Neither the German nor the English text, as published, is ideal, since, although Swieten's adaptation attempted to match the exact meaning, rhythm and word order of the original, he was not fluent enough in English to avoid numerous errors and distortions. Most performances today, even in English-speaking countries, are in German, either because of a belief that it is more authentic, or in an attempt to conceal the problems of the text.
Nicholas Temperley's recently-published English version attempts to solve the many linguistic difficulties without doing violence to Haydn's music. In essence, it is a reworking of the original, by a native speaker of English rather than German.
Even the best translation, though, changes meaning. As an example, we can look at the very first line of text ("In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth"). Haydn's setting places the greatest stress on the word "God"; Temperley's modification of the matching of verbal with musical texts makes the word "heaven" equal to it in weight - a change in theology as well as stress.
By reverting here to the composer's original text setting, in a performance which otherwise follows Temperley's version carefully, we emphasise Haydn's carefully-plotted progression from an initial concentration on the divine origin of all things in Part One, to a focus on Man (and Woman) in Parts Two and Three. Raphael's Air in Part Two suggests that the purpose of Creation is the establishment of humanity in order to praise God on earth, as the angels do in heaven - a very kabbalistic approach indeed. Musically, however, the work suggests that the purpose of Creation is the created themselves: the oratorio positively glories in its earthiness. Though the regular infusion of praise to the Creator disguises this slant, the attention given to Adam and Eve in Part Three confirms the ultimately humanistic tone of the work. The only Christian concept in The Creation is the idea of creation as a six-day affair culminating in Man, rather than the original (Jewish) biblical concept of the seven days of creation, including the day of rest.
The conflict between godly and humanistic in The Creation mirrors the conflict between Faith and Rationalism that prevailed in the late eighteenth century, a conflict that was part of Haydn's own experience as well. The sung text, though not initiated by the composer, nevertheless reflects his own conscious and subconscious struggle to be a believer, in a fast-changing world in which long-held stable values are threatened by new discoveries in science, and new ideas of the place of Man in the world.
- Jerome Hoberman -