One of Haydn's two greatest choral masterpieces, his oratorio The Creation was composed during 1795, to a libretto specially prepared by the Baron Gottfried von Swieten, and based jointly upon the Book of Genesis, supplemented by appropriate sections of the Book of Psalms, and on John Milton's allegorical study of the creation and fall, Paradise Lost.
By this time, however, the once seemingly unstoppable Handelian cult of oratorio was rapidly becoming outmoded and unfashionable, in the face of the Enlightenment's call to reason and the rejection of religious dogma in favor of the pursuit of material objectivity. It seems not a little ironic, in retrospect, therefore, that a theme already rejected by Handel himself should provide a point of convergence for Haydn's devout religious faith and the prevailing intellectual climate of the age, engineering at the same a new-found confidence in a genre which seemed to have had its day. The scholar Hans Schnoor called this "an exceptional instance of the complete musical interpretation of the social and individual psyche," and it was doubly remarkable considering the eccentricities and idiosyncrasies which are to found peppering von Swieten's text.
The oratorio begins with one of the most futuristic episodes to be found in any pre-Romantic music. This is the famous "Representation of Chaos," which serves as a preface to the work. The unfocused harmonic textures and atmosphere of vague formlessness must have stunned Haydn's contemporaries, and the section still sounds uncanny and highly impressionistic to modern ears.
Another equally inspired moment, and one of which John Milton would doubtless have approved, comes as the chorus sings over a hushed, slowly pulsing orchestral background "And the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters...."
Suddenly, incredibly, "There was light!" sing the chorus, in one of the most spine-tingling C major fortissimo eruptions to be found anywhere in music! It was a logical, natural move, and one which was wholly characteristic of late, great Haydn at the summit of his powers. There now follows one exultant outpouring after another, as the chorus of the heavenly host sing praises in honor of each successive day of creation.
Narrative or purely descriptive numbers are given over to the three soloists, named after the archangels Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael, supported by orchestra alone. However, Haydn's expertly applied technical skills ensures that there is a pleasing balance throughout between the respective vocal and instrumental forces, as can be heard whenever chorus and soloists are heard together. Good examples of this are "The marv'llous work behold amazed" for soprano with chorus, and the trio "Most beautiful appear," which leads directly to the chorus "The Lord is Great." In this section, all three soloists and chorus are employed, with orchestra, as they are also in the most famous section of the oratorio "The Heavens are telling the Glory of God."