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Academy of Ancient Music: Haydn's The Seasons

Painting of rolling hills at golden hour

Mark Berry takes a look at the inspiration behind an oratorio that perfectly blends the sacred and the secular.

If Haydn, for posterity, has suffered for not having been Mozart, The Seasons has suffered similarly for not having been The Creation. Like Haydn and Mozart, Haydn’s two late oratorios merit comparison and contrast; Marc Vignal once suggested that we consider them a single ‘immense sacred opera’. In some musical respects, The Seasons is the more forward-looking of the two, not least in its anticipation of German Romanticism beyond Weber’s Der Freischütz at least as far as Wagner’s Flying Dutchman. Theologically, the picture is more complicated: Haydn’s two collaborations with librettist Gottfried van Swieten might be viewed as a stroll towards and retreat from Enlightenment elision of God and Nature. The Seasons presents Nature as something of a metaphor for spiritual renewal; we meet a reconciling God, recognisable both to Christian intellectuals and to those of a simpler faith. 

Van Swieten was the son of Empress Maria Theresa’s physician and spent the early years of his career in the Austrian diplomatic service; this did not seem to interfere with his literary and musical interests, for he found time to compose operas and symphonies. His correspondence frequently mentions Enlightenment writers, many of whose censored or proscribed works – sometimes by his government, and at any rate, by the Roman Catholic Church – he procured for the Empress’s own chief minister, Prince Kaunitz. The Viennese Papal Nuncio commended van Swieten’s intelligence, yet lamented its use in the service of ‘moderno filosofismo’. Upon Maria Theresa’s death, Joseph II appointed van Swieten to the Presidency of the Educational Commission, where he aimed to underline the identity between religion as revealed in Scripture and as experienced in Nature. This would involve a thorough grounding for ‘future instructors of the people’ in philosophical ethics and in ‘natural theology’: that is, arguments for the existence of God through observation of His presence in Nature. The more utilitarian-minded Emperor, interested primarily in parish priests’ agricultural expertise, was unimpressed.

After Joseph’s death in 1790, however, his brother and successor Leopold II relieved van Swieten of responsibilities other than his longstanding and inoffensive duties as Imperial Librarian, leaving him to concentrate on his musical activities. During a posting to Berlin, van Swieten had encountered Handel’s oratorios and other early music. In about 1785 he had organised a society of Viennese aristocratic patrons to mount private, Sunday morning performances of oratorios, above all those of Handel. It was that society which commissioned both The Creation and The Seasons; it probably rendered van Swieten’s position as Haydn’s librettist a fait accompli.

Although Haydn was acquainted, through van Swieten’s Vienna performances, with many of Handel’s oratorios, nothing had prepared him for the 1791 Westminster Abbey Handel Festival, which boasted over a thousand performers. Thus inspired, Haydn had resolved to write a new oratorio on the subject of the Creation. Following its great success, a second collaboration was planned, in which van Swieten would play a still greater part. This was The Seasons, loosely based on James Thomson’s celebrated poem of the same name, whose length and patent unsuitability of many passages for musical setting necessitated the input of van Swieten.

The music writer Donald Tovey, a great admirer, exaggerated when he suggested that the composer ‘refrained from announcing The Seasons as an oratorio, because only a small part of the work has any pretensions to be sacred music at all’. Although in Hummel’s 1806 catalogue of the Esterházy collection it is listed as a cantata, 18th-century conceptions of the sacred were considerably broader than ours. The Creation takes us from the sublimity of God’s creation of the world itself to the human realm, for better or worse, of Adam, Eve and, ever so briefly, the serpent; while The Seasons explores the day-to-day, year-to-year life of God’s human creatures.

For van Swieten and in many respects for Haydn, too, religion was essentially a practical matter. One should do God’s work here on earth and, like the inhabitants of Voltaire’s paradise of Eldorado in Candide, ‘thank Him unceasingly for everything He has given, and worship God from morning till night’. In The Seasons, the characters, perhaps like the audience, are gently reminded, when they have stepped away from worship, of their need still to do so. Haydn’s faith was certainly cheerful and genuine. His pupil, Georg August Griesinger, recalled having heard him say: ‘If my composing is not proceeding so well, I walk up and down the room with my rosary in my hand, say several Aves, and then ideas come to me once again.’ Such popular piety was not van Swieten’s; we may even notice a tension between composer and the librettist. It should not, however, be exaggerated.

There may be perceived in the oratorio a related shift from rational contemplation of Nature towards a more emotional response. That certainly reflects a growing tendency during the course of the 18th century; Thomson’s poem notwithstanding, the libretto to The Seasons is probably about 50 years younger than that to The Creation. Thus, in Simon’s first aria, we hear of the eagerness with which the husbandman begins his tilling, how he whistles as he works as he fulfils Creation’s duties of stewardship; this offers ample opportunity for a musical pictorialism to which Haydn was more resigned than devoted. In general, it is only in the music that a truly popular note is struck: for example, at the opening of Hannah’s Song (in Summer) or in the playful flirtation of the Autumn duet between Lucas and Hannah. Van Swieten’s humanism did not extend to seeing the divine in superstitious peasants; his desire remained to enlighten them – and perhaps, while remaining aware of what Haydn was willing to set, even to enlighten him too. 

Practical religious concerns are aired in Spring’s Chorus with solos, ‘Heav’n be gracious’. Peasants beseech gracious Heaven to be merciful and water their fields; certain of that outcome, they extol heavenly goodness. Rural life is to be enjoyed; depiction of that enjoyment by city-dwellers is also to be enjoyed. The religious message is more explicit in the following duet with chorus, subtitled ‘Song of Joy’. It opens with a delight similar to that heard in The Creation, albeit lacking the rapture of that first discovery of Nature. Van Swieten tells us of the joys of green meadows, lilies, lambs and bees, but the picture is also less static: ‘All is stirring, all is quiv’ring, Hark how lively Nature wakes!’. The sentiments this evokes are first described as joy and rapture, swelling the heart, but Simon explains that what the peasants feel in their hearts is ‘the mighty Creator’s will’. God’s presence in Nature is reinstated gently, without hectoring, before a final vast paean concludes Spring. 

And so, in Winter, when we hear tell of a wanderer lost in the snow, his spirit – and ours? – at its most subdued, those daily, seasonal, annual routines continue to progress. The revived traveller finds relief in the light and warmth of a nearby house, a reversal for which Thomson affords no source. Following severe winter chill, the temperature, indoors at least, is warmed through homespun (literally, in the spinning chorus) wisdom from Hannah and the chorus: perhaps the clearest instances of that folkish mood tending towards Weber’s Freischütz. Simon’s final aria turns towards the mortality of man, the seasons presented as an allegory of the human lifespan. The ailing composer himself acknowledged an autobiographical content, while touchingly paying homage to Mozart in quoting from his Symphonies Nos 39 and 40 at the phrase ‘The Summer spirit long pass’d by’. If Haydn hints at the pleasures of a life well lived, and in Mozart’s case a candle well burned, van Swieten offers a sterner message, quoting directly from Thomson: ‘Only Virtue lasts’. 

The Seasons does not, however, end on so austere a note. Trumpets herald the glorious morn, an awakening to new life. Thomson had said something similar, but for him the ‘glorious morn’ had merely been the dawning of spring. For Haydn and van Swieten, it is also a unique event: the Resurrection of the Dead. A Handelian double chorus is here put to very different use from that in Israel in Egypt. This instead is a question-and-answer session of salvation; a trial, but one which can be passed. Haydn, moreover, triumphantly reconciles the light first dazzlingly evoked in The Creation with an outpouring of joy in the form of fanfares for massed trumpets and horns. The Haydn of old, who confessed that his heart would leap with joy upon thinking of God, is still with us. 

© Dr Mark Berry 

The visuals created by Nina Dunn’s Studio, PixeLux, are a ponderous promenade through the familiar landscape of subtly shifting seasons. The music and visuals go hand in hand to transport you to a place where you have been many times and to where you wish to return with a fresh gaze. The scenes have been inspired by the emotive quality of impressionistic painting by the way seasons have been represented through the ages. The studio team, led by Matthew Brown, worked closely with the Academy of Ancient Music to translate into movement and colour the already powerful ambience of Haydn’s music, underlying moments of beauty and the universal human experience.

© Nina Dunn Studio

Programme and performers

Joseph Haydn The Seasons

1. Spring

2. Summer


3. Autumn

4. Winter

Academy of Ancient Music

Laurence Cummings conductor

Rachel Nicholls* soprano

Benjamin Hulett tenor

Jonathan Lemalu bass-baritone

Nina Dunn Studio video and projection design

Martin Parr staging director

*Due to ill-health, Sophie Bevan has sadly had to withdraw from this engagement. We're grateful to Rachel Nicholls for agreeing to step in at short notice.


English translation © Paul McCreesh

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