Seasons Seasons

Severance Hall
January 18 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
January 20 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.


The Seasons

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
composed 1799-1801

At a Glance
Haydn composed The Seasons, one of his last major works, between 1799 and 1801, during a period when he was dealing with a decline in his health. The libretto (with versions in English and in German) had been assembled by Gottfried van Swieten, utilizing some parts of a volume of poetry by James Thomson. The composer led the first performance, for a select audience of aristocratic patrons, on April 24, 1801, and the general public premiere on May 29, both in Vienna.

The Seasons runs about 140 minutes in performance (plus intermission). Haydn scored it for 2 flutes (first doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, timpani, percussion (triangle, bass drum, cymbals), fortepiano, and strings, plus mixed chorus and three soloists (soprano, tenor, and bass).

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Haydn’s The Seasons during the 1922-23 season. Robert Shaw led performances during the 1965-66 season, at Severance Hall and at Carnegie Hall in New York. The most recent Cleveland Orchestra performances took place in April 2013, conducted by Franz Welser-Möst.

About the Music
Following the enormous success
of his visits to London in the 1790s, it would have been easy enough for Joseph Haydn to rest on his laurels. He had labored for decades in obscurity, but this vote of confidence from the English public enhanced his international stature by several magnitudes and shored up the financial confidence of a composer who had spent the bulk of his career as a servant at the pleasure of his aristocratic patron.

Even so, Haydn was eager to accept new creative challenges after he returned to Vienna in 1795. The London sojourn had exposed him to stirring encounters with Handel’s oratorios (in particular, Israel in Egypt and Messiah). A large-scale commemoration of Handel given in 1791 in Westminster Abbey in particular left a deep impression. Haydn “was struck as if he had been put back to the beginning of his studies and had known nothing up to that moment,” an early biographer recalled him remarking. “He meditated on every note and drew from those most learned scores the essence of true musical grandeur.”

It wasn’t the music alone that Haydn found so awe-inspiring, but Handel’s remarkable ability to move a diverse audience as well. “I want to write a work that will give permanent fame to my name in the world,” he was reported to have said. So when the opportunity to try his own hand at English-style oratorio arose, it’s not surprising that Haydn eagerly took it on. Thus the composer so often regarded as the founding father of the instrumental genres of the symphony and the string quartet crowned his glorious career with a final flowering of choral music. While Beethoven would incorporate the human voice into his final symphony, Haydn’s symphonic odyssey took him to a limit of expression beyond which he ventured directly into the oratorio.

Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815), the impresario who had organized Haydn’s lucrative series of London concerts, provided him with an English libretto recounting the biblical creation story — a libretto allegedly once offered to the old master Handel himself (which may have added a competitive thrill to Haydn’s undertaking). The decisive catalyst was provided in Vienna by the Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803), the music-loving diplomat, librarian, and artistic busybody who had earlier enlisted Mozart to retool several of Handel’s oratorios in a style more attractive to contemporary Viennese audiences (in order to present them for the first time in the Hapsburg capital).

Van Swieten tailored the English libretto into a version suitable for Haydn, who set about composing The Creation in simultaneous German and English versions. In the 1770s, Haydn had had mixed success with his foray into the Italian-style oratorio in his Il ritorno di Tobia (“The Return of Tobia”). But The Creation, cast on a monumental scale in three parts, signaled an entirely new level of ambition, costing the composer great effort accompanied by a surprising degree of self-doubt.

Nevertheless, The Creation earned Haydn even higher praise than before; its premiere in April 1798 in Vienna in fact marked the climactic triumph of his career. And the process of writing The Creation opened up new floodgates of inspiration and led soon thereafter to the idea of a companion oratorio, Die Jahreszeiten (in German) or The Seasons (in English), set, like The Creation, to both German and English versions of the libretto so that Haydn’s large English following could experience the work in their native language. Along with these late-period oratorios, Haydn continued with this outpouring of choral works in a series of Masses. All of these works combine to present a grand summation of Haydn’s artistry, including his mastery of the orchestra.

By the time he began The Seasons, the sixty-something composer’s own longevity had made him a statistical anomaly for this era. He had been born into the waning years of the Baroque and lived through the Enlightenment reforms introduced by Emperor Joseph II as well as the first stage of the old order’s reaction to the revolutionary changes unfolding in France. Napoleon was consolidating power and already campaigning in the Middle East and would soon invade the Austrian Empire itself. Haydn died just a few months after Vienna fell a second time to Napoleon’s Grande Armée in 1809.

Perhaps the unsettling awareness of a changing world that formed the bass line of life during Haydn’s last decades encouraged thoughts of a countervailing stability, as represented by the recurring patterns of nature. Even after composing The Creation — in which Haydn had undertaken to depict nothing less than the majesty of the cosmos — his gift for representing nature in music was hardly exhausted.

Like its predecessor, The Seasons is a testament to Haydn’s evolution as an artist and to the formidable scope of his genius. The score fuses his appreciation for the rhetorical brilliance of the high Baroque with the Classical style Haydn himself had been so instrumental in shaping — all in the service of the Enlightenment-inspired optimism that radiates through his mature works. The Seasons, moreover, anticipates something of the sensibility of the new century being born. The sensational reception of The Creation, however, was not extended to The Seasons when it premiered in 1801, and ever since it has tended to be eclipsed by the earlier oratorio’s reputation.

The Text
While van Swieten began with a pre-existing English libretto for The Creation, in the case of The Seasons he himself designed the text using a popular, epic-length work by the Scottish poet and playwright James Thomson (1700-1748). Van Swieten inserted some extraneous sources as well into the final part. Beginning with Winter, Thomson originally wrote separate poems for each season (not in sequence) and then gathered and revised these as the epic The Seasons, totaling well over 4,000 lines of blank verse. It became popular throughout 18th-century Europe. (Hadyn may even have read the poems as they were being published.)

From this mass of material, van Swieten culled a few dramatic episodes sure to trigger Haydn’s musical imagination and simplified the verse. He also invented a trio of characters to be represented by the soloists: Simon, a farmer (bass); his daughter, Hanne (soprano); and a young farm worker, Lukas (tenor). These aren’t fully characterized individuals but human archetypes who contribute observations about nature and its effects to complement the ongoing commentary of the chorus.   Hanne and Lukas play a pair of sweethearts in the “Summer” section.

The rapport between Haydn and van Swieten, a sometime-composer himself, was by no means smooth sailing. The librettist felt no restraint in offering musical recommendations to a composer of Haydn’s stature as to how best to set his text. And van Swieten made sure to include an abundance of animal imagery (leaping lambs, milk-white steeds, and, most notoriously, croaking frogs) so as to capitalize on Haydn’s widely celebrated gift for uncannily eliciting pictorial detail in sound. To a colleague who prepared a piano reduction of the score for rehearsal, Haydn indiscreetly complained about the imitation of frogs at the end of the “Summer” section, scribbling a note that he “was forced to write this Frenchified trash.” Van Swieten got wind of this harsh critique, according to Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon, though a potentially lasting break with the composer was apparently mended.

For contemporary audiences, the text derived from Thomson’s poem can seem stilted, though Thomson wielded great influence among his own contemporaries and into the 19th century. Some of the difficulty has to do with van Swieten’s own problematic mangling of the original in his German version and in his “retranslation” of the latter back to English to fit the music. One novelty of the way Haydn introduced the score is that he insisted it be published in a bilingual edition, with the German and English versions side by side.

The Meaning and the Music
Still, van Swieten designed a structure of neatly proportioned contrasts that served the composer well. “Spring” presents a paean to nature that gravitates toward praise of the Creator, anticipating the utopian vision reached by the end of the work. But “Summer” introduces a contrastingly conflicting portrayal of nature as both triumphant and endangering, with its climactic thunderstorm at last yielding to idyllic repose.

The remaining two seasons mirror this pattern — the unified focus on the bounty of the harvest in “Autumn” gives way to the divergent moods found in “Winter.” And the ambivalence of this last season is especially multilayered. Human community provides shelter from the bleakness outdoors, but with the triumph of Winter, “silent fear oppresses nature all around.” The oratorio’s focus subsequently turns toward the spiritual realm to find meaning in this endless cycle of birth and death.

“Often, in pastoral music of the 18th century, the disruption of an idyll is represented merely as a misunderstanding between lovers or the arrival of bad weather — tempests, storms, lightning and thunder — soon followed by the return of calm,” writes Maynard Solomon in his insightful book Late Beethoven. He draws attention to the philosophical significance of Haydn’s approach to this pastoral subject matter: “At the loftiest level of this process, Haydn’s oratorios The Seasons and The Creation are versions of a rational Enlightenment pastoral that locates harmonious patterns everywhere in a divine hierarchical arrangement of the universe.”

Van Swieten also supplied brief descriptions for what the purely instrumental introductions to each season should conjure. In part one, devoted to “Spring,” the first music we hear is, surprisingly, of a gloomy G-minor cast, suggesting “the passage from Winter to Spring.” The richness of invention in this prelude announces that Haydn intends to draw fully on his combination of craft and imagination as a symphonist. In terms of the Classical orchestra, the ensemble is remarkably expanded and includes a sizeable brass presence. This vividly energetic music stands as a microcosm of the ever-changing face of nature itself. And right from the beginning, Haydn establishes a fundamental tension that underlies The Seasons as a whole — nature’s bountiful and life-enhancing dimension is juxtaposed with a reminder of its darker power.

The human voice at last enters as each of the soloists hails the departure of Winter. For all the variety of his moment-by-moment musical gestures, Haydn is a careful architect of the cumulative effect, always reinforcing the unity of his design over the large scale. The gentle, lilting first chorus is only the first stage of a gradual crescendo of joy registering the effects of Spring’s reawakening. This continues through Simon’s aria of the husbandman (here Haydn quotes the famous tune from the Andante movement of his “Surprise” Symphony No. 94, changing the surprise to the appearance of a “whistling” piccolo) and the marvelous catalog of creatures sung by the trio, right up to the invocation of the divinity at the end of “Spring.”

With a dramatically abrupt shift in tonality (from D to B-flat major), Haydn moreover establishes another significant pattern. Focus on the manifestations of nature in the here and now is enlarged to embrace a cosmic, deistic perspective. It’s often been noticed that The Seasons provided Beethoven with a model for aspects of his Sixth Symphony (nicknamed “Pastoral”) — especially the storm sequence in “Summer” — but this harmonic gesture also looks ahead to a similarly awe-inspiring moment and shift of focus in the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

The introduction to “Summer” also starts in a minor key (C minor) and gives us a picture of night yielding to dawn. This occasions a splendid instance of Haydn’s signature musical pictorialism (a full century before Richard Strauss’s primal sunrise at the start of Also Sprach Zarathustra) — the glorious arrival of the new day, which forms the first big climax of this second part. Yet however much this passage makes us think of “programmatic” musical feats of the later Romantics, Haydn literally puts his music first. An often-noted feature of The Seasons is that the musical image usually precedes the verbal one. Even more, Haydn’s music generates feelings of tension and release that have an inherent logic of their own, as we experience in the sluggish but anxious moments presaging the gathering of energy for the storm’s outburst and the newfound sense of peace as the day draws to its quiet close. Nature’s patterns and cycles, in a sense, almost seem to mimic musical ones.

Beginning with “the farmer’s delight in the abundant harvest,”Autumn” includes some of the most memorable genre painting of The Seasons. Despite its pious ode to labor, this is perhaps the most pagan of the oratorio’s four parts. Like a symphonic scherzo, it certainly contains the most unbridled revelry, and the fun begins in earnest with the innocent pleasure of the lovers, continuing on into the sequences of hunting and drinking. Thomson’s depiction of this hunting episode in his original poem was actually intended as a passionate protest against the practice, lamenting our capacity “to joy at anguish, and delight in blood.” For his part, Haydn creates the musical equivalent of a Dutch master’s lively detail in evoking the fall of the shot bird and, in the quickening string figurations juxtaposed with the hunting calls of horns, the stag’s futile flight; the final wine-fueled carousel sets off an intensifying whirl of counterpoint.

With yet another C-minor prelude — now suggesting “the dense fog which marks the beginning” of “Winter” — The Seasons launches its most revelatory section. As in Thomson’s poem, the cycle of seasons is seen to project an allegory of the stages of human life and its inevitable demise. What does all this gathered experience amount to? Haydn, looking back over his own career, seems to have included in The Seasons an element of self-portraiture. The genre scene in the inn (in which Haydn sets texts interpolated by van Swieten that were not in Thomson’s poem) offers momentary respite through the patterns generated by art, but the story told in “Winter” must return to the inescapable reality of our mortal nature. By contrast, The Creation had concluded with Adam and Eve still in Paradise, their fall still in the future.

The tonal meandering of Simon’s final aria — a single voice left to contemplate life’s dissolution — conveys an extraordinary restlessness, into which Haydn introduces dramatically resonant silences. At last a resolution is achieved in the exultant concluding trio and double chorus. The journey has come full circle, but — as in a symphonic recapitulation, following a richly worked-through development — the perspective is new, hard won, sublime. Haydn’s love of nature expressed throughout The Seasons reaffirms his faith in a beneficent order behind its patterns, to which his music now gives reverberant voice. —Thomas May © 2018

 Thomas May writes regularly about music and theater. His books include Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.