by Brian Hathaway
I have a confession to make. I am an unabashed space geek. I have always been fascinated by astronomy, astrophysics, and cosmology. When the race to the Moon with the Soviet Union heated up during the 1960’s I was there to witness it all. I was 12 years old when John Glenn orbited the earth in 1962 and 19 years old when Apollo 11 went to the moon and back in 1969. That passion has not waned. Several years ago, while attending a lecture by six-time Space Shuttle veteran astronaut F. Story Musgrave, I told him “Boy, I would love to spend an hour with you over a cup of coffee.” He told me “Yes….I could see it in your eyes…..you’re a believer.”
So, what does that have to do with Franz Josef Haydn and “The Creation”? Well in a manner of speaking, Haydn was a space geek too! But….I am getting ahead of myself a bit. First, there is the back story about how Papa Haydn came to compose his monumental oratorio, “The Creation.”
Those who have researched Franz Josef Haydn’s “The Creation” are aware that Haydn did not start composing an oratorio until late in life. The catalyst for his decision came from his trips to London in 1791 and 1794. Following the death of Prince Niklaus I in 1790, Anton, his successor at the Esterhazy Palace, had no interest in music and disbanded the Court Orchestra and released Haydn from his responsibilities. Anton’s father prior to his death granted Haydn a pension of 1000 Florins per year for the rest of his life. For the first time in decades, he was free to travel and accepted the invitation of violinist and promoter Johann Peter Salomon, who acted as concert Manager for Haydn’s first visit to England, to travel there. He arrived in London on January 1, 1791 and stayed until July 1792.
Haydn returned to London in January 1794 and stayed into 1795. During his visits to England, Haydn composed 250 works, a body of work equal to or larger than the career output of many other composers of his time. It was during these visits that Haydn was introduced to the oratorio form. George Frederic Handel was a revered composer in England, and Haydn attended festivals that featured Handel’s music. One such festival had over three thousand singers performing Handel’s “Messiah,” the likes of which Haydn had never seen nor heard. He was absolutely dumbfounded by the experience.
G. H. Purday (1799-1885) reported that his music-seller father had been present at that very moment. Josef Haydn mentioned that he would like to write an oratorio but was wondering where to start. François Barthélemon, leader of the London orchestra that played Haydn's symphonies, picked up a Bible and said: "There, take that, and begin at the beginning."
Upon leaving England in 1795, Johann Salomon presented Haydn with a poem titled “The Creation of the World.” Apparently, the poem had been offered to Handel, but he never set it to music. Haydn presented the poem to his friend, mentor, and librettist Baron Gottfried van Swieten when he returned to Vienna, and it was van Swieten who used the poem to develop a libretto for “The Creation” in both English and German.
Now, this is where it gets interesting. On June 15, 1792 during his first London tour, Josef Haydn visited astronomer William Herschel at his observatory near Slough. In addition to being an accomplished musician and composer, William Herschel was famous for discovering the planet Uranus ten years earlier. William Herschel was a consummate lens grinder, and he and his sister Caroline spent hours and hours grinding ever larger lenses to construct telescopes to view the heavens in great detail. During his career, William Herschel built over 400 telescopes. Some say that Herschel invited Haydn to view the heavens through his main telescope, a rather massive construction in the yard behind his home that was 40 feet long and had mirrors 48 inches in diameter. For 50 years, it was the largest telescope in the world.
There is only one problem. The guest book at the observatory in Slough for that day shows that Haydn visited during the day, when it was not possible to view the heavens. Furthermore, William Herschel was not there that day and was visiting friends in Scotland. However, his sister Caroline, who was his assistant, was there, and she most likely took Haydn on a tour of the observatory and had discussions with him about their observations.
Of course, in 1792 there were no cameras. To document their observations, astronomers would sketch them, and it is a good possibility that Caroline supported the descriptions of the “wonder of His works” with sketches of the more captivating images, such as Saturn with its rings, or drawings of nebulae, such as the NGC 1514 Planetary Nebula discovered in 1790 by William Herschel. In fact, on 26 February 1783, Caroline made her own first discovery. She had found a nebula that was not included in the Messier catalogue. That same night, she independently discovered NGC 205, the second companion star cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy.
One can only imagine what went through Haydn’s mind as he listened to Caroline Herschel and looked at those sketches of the heavens. Part of the discussion could have included the nebulae they were discovering and their role as the birthplace of stars. In a stroke of genius, Haydn starts out “The Creation” with a musical depiction of chaos before the formation of the Universe. One of the most profound moments to me is when the chorus begins singing “and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said: ‘let there be light’, and there was LIGHT!” What a tremendous opening! Could the inspiration for that opening have come from Caroline Herschel, a diminutive woman with a height of only four feet two inches?
She was a noted astronomer, accomplished lens grinder, also a highly regarded singer and soloist in a time when female scientists and soloists were as scarce as hen’s teeth. My hat goes off to Caroline. She became an acknowledged expert in astronomy and was honored for her work. The gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society was awarded to her in 1828 "for her recent reduction, to January 1800, of the 2,500 nebulae discovered by her illustrious brother, which may be considered as the completion of a series of exertions probably unparalleled either in magnitude or importance in the annals of astronomical labour." This was the first time a woman was ever honored with such an award in Great Britain.
Whatever the case may be, we are left with a profound musical legacy in Haydn’s “The Creation.” We are also left with an amazing scientific legacy through the work of William and Caroline Herschel. We are better off for having been exposed to their collective genius. The last time I sang “The Creation” by Haydn, my focus was on the exuberant tone of much of the music. This time, I will be thinking about the limitless universe that Haydn came to appreciate and depict in his music. I will also be thinking of Caroline Herschel, a woman way ahead of her time personally and scientifically who may have been Haydn’s celestial connection.
You too can experience “The Creation” by Franz Josef Haydn and draw your own conclusions. The Florida Orchestra and The Master Chorale of Tampa Bay will present “The Creation” on Friday, March 22 at Idlewild Baptist Church in Tampa, on Saturday March 23 at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, and on Sunday, March 24 at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.
The Master Chorale Beat