Haydn’s Creation

I am listening to Haydn’s Creation (1796-1798) right now.  It is the Representation of Chaos, when the earth is formless and void.  After this powerful representation, the angel Raphael shall begin the tale of how God spoke the universe into being.  It’s all in German, and I don’t have the libretto, but I know when he says, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,'” because then the orchestra produces something more glorious than the power of Chaos.

It makes the sound of light.  There is no other description for what the strings do at that point of the oratorio.  (It just happened.  Tingly.)

Shortly before CBC butchered Radio2, I heard the beginning of this magnificent oratorio.  The announcer mentioned that many people don’t like the Creation because they think it naive.  Yes, naive.

I don’t really know how an oratorio can be naive.  Now, the reason for the alleged naivete of the Creation is the fact that it recounts the six-day creation of Genesis.  Due to the polarisation of popular opinion in the ill-starred Creation-Evolution debate, people are blinded when they come to a piece of art such as this.  They think, “Sure, the music is nice, but the content — so naive!”

I would like to argue that there is nothing naive in Haydn’s Creation at all.  My first reason is that the claim is utterly ridiculous.  If the literal six-day creation of Genesis 1 is simply Hebrew mythology, to make a piece of art representing this story is not naive, as the Creation‘s critics imagine.  It cannot be, unless we are to therefore declare Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, Mozart’s Idomeneo, Wagner’s Ring Cycle and countless other operas naive because they represent mythology.  If you disbelieve Genesis 1, this does not mean that art based on the creation story is naive.

Second, you cannot say that an oratorio or an opera is naive because of the contents of the words.  In oratorio, the words are an important aspect.  Handel’s Messiah would be far less potent without the force of the words combining with the force of the music.  Nevertheless, the music is at least, and in some opinions, more important than the words.  Haydn felt that an oratorio based on the biblical account of creation was a worthy piece of art.  Whether he believed in a literal interpretation of this passage or not has nothing to do with the piece of art ultimately produced.  He produces music to enrobe the words of Genesis, to encapsulate them, to imbue them with a life that the word on the page lacks.  There is no naivete here, my friends.

Finally, this question raises the question of the interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis.  Is it necessary to believe that something must be literal in order for it to be true?  I would say no.  I would say that if it turns out that God chose to create the universe over billions of years rather than six days, Genesis 1 is still true and relevant to our lives and our art.  Myth can be true without being literal (history cannot; is Gen 1-3 myth or history?).

Genesis 1 speaks a deep truth about the universe.  Almighty God brought it into existence out of nothing, ex nihilo.  He is creator of all things that are, were, and ever shall be.  He brought order to chaos.  He hung the stars in the sky.  His word went forth, and things were made.  He looked upon all that he had made, and each stage of creation was individually labelled as good.

The God of the Bible is a Creator God.  What he has created is good.  These are the foundational statements of the doctrine of creation.  And from these and other biblical passages stream the Christian ethic of creation.  And God’s creative action in bringing the universe into being, that story we see in Genesis, as a doctrine, has nothing to do with the debate between “creation” and “evolution.”

How, therefore, could Haydn’s Creation be naive?  I would argue instead that its critics are naive in saying such.

NB: This is the post promised at the Random Ramblings.

4 thoughts on “Haydn’s Creation

  1. Based upon your comments, I suspect that you are a “theistic evolutionist” (i.e., you believe that the world – or at least life – came about through the process of evolution over billions of years, but that this process was directed by God). The problem with this notion is that according to the TOE the natural world evolved ENTIRELY by random natural events – by chance, in other words. Consequently, there is no place in this theory for a Creator, or God. This fact is made very clear by the fact that the textbooks used to present the theory in our public schools NEVER acknowledge God as the Creator.

    Theistic evolutionists allow atheistic evolutionists to have total control over the teaching of origins to our children. Is this really what you want?
    I can tell from your article that you are a devout Christian that truly loves the Lord. This being the case, I assume that your answer to my question must be “No” – as it should be.

    If you are interested in discussing this matter, I would be happy to oblige. On the other hand, I completely understand if you prefer not to.

    God bless you.


    • Actually, I’m neither. Which is just so much fun to be! Some days I’m a young earth creationist, some days I’m a theistic evolutionist, most days I hold no firm opinion. The theory of evolution as pure science does not preclude the possibility of the divine hand guiding the evolutionary process. It is a real problem that the atheists have a stranglehold on the scientific community, and I think that someone needs to stand up and say that the various academies of science need to become truly secular and neutral, leaving the question of God — one of metaphysics and therefore philosophy — out of the equation as they present their evidence for cosmology.

      However, I have found myself in a strange, non-polarised position on the origins of the universe because I realised that whether creation is literally six days or actually six billion years really doesn’t matter. What matters is what Genesis is actually saying, and it’s saying things about God and his relationship to the universe, to the created order, of which we are a part. I see both sides and sometimes wonder, “What’s the fuss?” I pray that the theistic evolutionists in the scientific community would stand up for people of faith and that young earth creationists would cease vilifying theistic evolutionists. On a non-credal, non-ethical, non-salvific, non-essential question such as this (ie. How exactly did God go about creating?) we should be far less vociferous than we have been.

  2. “I think that someone needs to stand up and say that the various academies of science need to become truly secular and neutral, leaving the question of God — one of metaphysics and therefore philosophy — out of the equation as they present their evidence for cosmology.”

    Exactly. Using this quotation in response to Steve, you must understand that any idea of creation or intelligent design is left out of the classroom *not* because atheists ‘control’ the teaching, but because such ideas are wholly and inherently *unscientific*.

    As for Haydn’s ‘Creation’, I am surprised to hear that people shy away from it because of its contents. I could perhaps understand this viewpoint more if it had been composed in the 21st century, when theistic beliefs are inappropriate, but Haydn’s belief in a deity is wholly understandable given his historical position. Just as with any ballet, any symphonic poem, or any opera, the music should be treated as based on a piece of literary fiction, as that is what all holy books are, and this does not in any way detract from the brilliance of the music.

  3. […] Historically, the arts show us to what heights religion can take man, even if today’s “Christian Art”, be it music, novels, or trashy Jesus paintings, makes me shudder.  We have the glories of Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli, of Bach’s St. John Passion, of Handel’s Messiah, of Haydn’s Creation (my post on that last one here). […]

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