The ideology of musical ”greatness”: Haydn’s late oratorios in a political context

Haydn ceased to write symphonies precisely at the moment when the genre started to gain its new cultural prestige.[1] Instead of crowning his symphonic career with an Eroica, he turned to large-scale vocal works. The main endeavour was an oratorio trilogy: The Creation, The Seasons, and The Last Judgement, which Haydn only planned. H. C. Robbins Landon claims that Haydn made this turn towards monumental vocal works because he felt that he had exhausted the possibilities of symphonic writing in his works for London (Symphonies nos. 93-104). According to Landon, Haydn’s turning to religious subjects enabled him to achieve an even greater emotional depth and artistic profundity than he had done in his orchestral works.[2]

Posterity’s attitude towards these late oratorios has been ambivalent.[3] The elements of tone painting in the oratorios were dismissed as ”childish” already in Haydn’s time. In the longer run, it was Beethoven who became the strong, masculine ”hero” of modern western music, while old ”Papa” Haydn ended up symbolizing the ancien régime. Musicological interpretations of the oratorios have generally focused on notions about them embodying ”Enlightenment” ideals of intellectual freedom, tolerance, equality and the brotherhood of all human beings – presented in a conservative, backward looking aesthetic. We will try to show how The Creation and The Seasons on the contrary make interesting comparisons with Mozart’s Da Ponte operas. It will be one of our aims to demonstrate in which ways all these works may be said to stage politics and society, and how they all in interesting ways reflect on their own immediate surroundings.
But what exactly is staged in Haydn’s oratorios, except from angels, fish, peasants and bad weather? In contrast to Da Ponte, Haydn’s librettist Baron Gottfried van Swieten seems to steer away from his own, historical times, as he also turns away from the texts Handel used for his great works in the genre, the Old Testament tales of ancient kings and political conflicts. Van Swieten turned to ”timeless” and ”universal” topics, starting with the Genesis, continuing with The Seasons, as an allegory of the four ages of Man (birth, youth, maturity and death), and (intentionally) ending with The Last Judgement . However, the concern with the timeless should not be unerstood as a lack of concern with society.    

The libretti of Da Ponte and van Swieten are separated by different concepts of time. An obvious condition for the employment of social tensions in Mozart’s operas is the fact that the action takes place in historical time. The action may not be contemporary in any strict sense, but the Da Ponte operas do not unfold in mythical time, as does the typical baroque opera, or even Gluck. They relate to the world of here and now. With Lully, the political function of opera was to portray absolute power as given, natural and timeless – permanent like the myths themselves. By placing his characters in the sublunary, Mozart turned opera and the operatic stage into an arena for real discussion of contemporary issues.
 Here, with the topics of treatment of historical and mythical time, we touch upon an important layer common to all our four case studies, a topic whose different treatment in each case both unifies our four studies and seems suited to make clear the specific differences between them.

  Haydn’s trilogy of oratorios, in contrast for instance to the temporality of Mozart’s operas, constitute the framework of a-historical, religious time: The beginning and the end of the world, with a cycle of seasons and the Ages of Man. This static view of time is a basic element of ordered society, but Haydn does not simply stage cyclical time and a world without change. His oratorios are works of the Enlightenment, both with librettos based on modern texts, that is, by Milton and Thomson. Both The Creation and The Seasons are related to literary genres typical of the Enlightenment, the providential reflections on Man and mankind, and the works on natural history. In other words, Haydn’s quest for greatness consists both in an attachment to great music, as well as to great literature.
Greatness might be said to be the key word here: The greatness of the Creator and the Creation, as well as what is being created. In the late 18th century, greatness had a richer meaning than now. Greatness was the emblem of the hierarchies that permeated the society of orders: religious, moral, and political. We will try to demonstrate how Haydn’s oratorios turned into an attempt to stage the hierarchical as such – not as a set of conflicts, as in Mozart’s operas, not as a mere worldly political alliance between the nation’s King and his subjects, as in Gustavian opera, but as an enlightened revelation of mankind. Paradoxically, then, we will attempt to interpret Haydn both as conservative and progressive: He is conservative in his staging of an hierarchical world as a God-given fact, framed by static, cyclical time, but he is distinctly modern in his fascination with nature, mankind, and the matter of the present.

In Haydn’s oratorios, then, society is staged not as class conflicts or as political history. It is our thesis, that Haydn’s aim is not to stage upheaval, but to present a new, informed, enlightened and even democratic perspective of the world – which then in turn is elevated to greatness, together with the music, and with Haydn himself. This striving for greatness was in itself a novelty. In Haydn’s time, ”great music” did not even exist. Haydn’s encounter with Handel’s oratorios in London may have been the first time he experienced that canonical status could be given to works of music. As William Weber has shown, the ideology of a ”canon” of old masters was established in England in the eighteenth century by a group of aristocrats running the concert association The Concert of Ancient Music.[4]

The music performed had to be at least 25 years old, in sharp opposition to the fashionable concerts of modern orchestral music at London’s West End, where Haydn was fêted in the 1790s by the city’s social elite. Similar things were happening in Vienna towards the end of the century, and the key figure in the emerging discourse of musical ”Greatness” in Vienna is the ubiquitous Baron Gottfried van Swieten – the librettist of Haydn’s oratorios. The main difference between London and Vienna was that in the latter city, musical ”Greatness” also included contemporary composers: Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. It is our aim to analyse in detail this specifically Viennese connection of historical and contemporaneous ’greatness’, linked to Haydn and van Swieten.

van Swieten was a leading figure in Austrian internal affairs during the regime of Joseph II. His interest in old music was a result of his seven years as Viennese ambassador at the court of Frederick the Great, where C. P. E. Bach introduced him to the music of his father. Later, van Swieten became a patron of both Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and he arranged weekly informal gatherings in his own lodgings where the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and Handel was played and discussed. In the 1780s van Swieten established a group of aristocratic sponsors, the Gesellschaft der associierten Cavaliers, to promote oratorios of the old and a few new masters, the main focus being on Handel’s works – in Mozart’s arrangements. Haydn’s choral piece The Storm, composed for his first London visit, was performed at the concert in 1793. The great climaxes of the concert series of the Associierte were the choral versions of Haydn’s The Seven Last Words (1796), The Creation (1798), and The Seasons (1801).

Haydn’s attitude towards van Swieten was ambiguous, but he was obviously not adverse to seeing himself as a ”Great Composer” in a line going back to the baroque masters. In rejecting the symphony after 1795, Haydn turned away from a genre that for many was simply aristocratic entertainment. The symphony was to Haydn (in opposition to Beethoven) a genre that had no past. The oratorio, however, was a genre whose greatness was sanctioned by tradition as far more serious and morally edifying. As the Baron wrote in an open letter to Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung: “I recognized at once that such an exalted subject [The Creation] would give Haydn the opportunity I had long desired, to show the whole compass of his profound accomplishments and to express the full power of his inexhaustible genius”. A conversion to the oratorio was a conversion to musical Greatness.

An important part of this project will be a closer examination and reevaluation of the activities of van Swieten and his circle of aristocratic sponsors, both in aesthetic and political terms. The ideological elements involved in this have been more or less ignored by modern scholarship, which has emphasized that van Swieten was ”a well-informed scholar and music enthusiast”.[5] Van Swieten may have been a defender of the Enlightenment, but he also was a defender of the throne and the old order, in the face of the emerging Jacobinism in the years after the French revolution. The attempt to establish a modern discourse on greatness has to be seen in this perspective – and it was this discourse that was staged by Haydn.

Another important part of the study will be the musical analysis and interpretation of how Haydn staged himself as a Great Composer, self-consciously displaying an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of aesthetic discourses and musical styles. We will attempt to show, analytically, how the compositional techniques involved are (even for Haydn’s standards) unusually varied and flexible, including from Handelian choruses in the ”elevated” style, arias in the ”naturally expressive” singing style promoted by enlightenment musical aesthetics (Rousseau, Sulzer), elements of tone-painting, and an orchestral evocation of the ”Sublime” that is pure romanticism. All this is brought together in an autonomous musical rhetoric (not unsimilar to Mozart’s operatic ensembles), utilizing Haydn’s experience from symphonic writing. By uncovering the ideological elements of the works, and by untying them from established narratives of the ”social character” of the Classical style, this study also hopes to contribute to a reevaluation of Haydn’s late oratorios as progressive, complex, and complicated works.


[1] See for example Larsen 1980, p. 358.

[2] See Landon, 1955, p. 604

[3] See Temperley, 1991, pp. 42-46.

[4] See Weber 1992.

[5] MacIntyre 1998, p. 49.

Published Sep. 5, 2008 1:43 PM - Last modified June 4, 2010 12:23 PM