"Begin at the Beginning": Milton, Handel, Haydn, and the Origins of The Creation
“Begin at the Beginning” examines the nature of the relation between Franz Joseph Haydn’s oratorio The Creation and Handel’s great oratorio of some forty years earlier, The Messiah. The example of Handel’s Messiah is never far from Haydn’s mind. And it is in part as a means to negotiate his relation to the overwhelming reputation of Handel’s work that Haydn chooses for the libretto of his own oratorio a text based on Book Seven of John Milton’s seventeenth-century epic poem, Paradise Lost, a work obsessed in its own ways with the problems of cultural origins and artistic originality. In a close imitation of the rhetorical strategies by which Milton attempts to pre-empt or outdo the great early epics of Homer and Virgil, the Milton-soaked libretto of The Creation labors to sideline the religious importance of the Christian story at the heart of Handel’s Messiah. The Creation’s libretto reimagines Christian history by diminishing the import of the Fall and by rendering man’s redemption by a Messiah unnecessary or irrelevant.