When scholars look at orchestration and concepts dealing with timbre, they often start with Berlioz. This makes sense, to a degree, considering that Berlioz was a huge innovator in these subjects. But earlier composers used timbre and orchestration in innovative ways as well. For example, Haydn.
Haydn, christened “father of the symphony,” composed during a time when the majority of musical instruments he called for would be used in performance. This was different than the music from composers of previous eras (think Middle Ages and even Renaissance), for whose works we have notated music, but no real idea of the instrumentation. This is a really important concept because it means he was definitely thinking about exactly how his works would sound as he was composing. In some works, Haydn even called for particular instruments that were unusual for orchestras of the day (like timpani and trumpets) and would have to be borrowed (from the military).
Haydn’s oratorio, “Die Schöpfung,” or “The Creation,” is a beautiful work that relies a good deal on timbre to convey its meaning. Composed at the very end of the 18th century, this work uses text from the Bible and Paradise Lost by John Milton to depict the creation of the world (as told in Genesis). The text and music are closely tied together, each building off the other to create a complete story.
The beginning of this work is intended to portray the world before creation; it is Haydn’s depiction of chaos. And he does this quite well; in fact, I would not guess him as the composer until at least 1:45. The chromatic, wandering lines he writes are far more typical of the Romantic Era, and he is more concerned with aural effect than melody or form. In the Classical Era, this chromaticism and loose structure would have been interpreted as chaotic.
This famous recitative section is absolutely amazing. Listen for yourselves through the first two minutes to the words and the way Haydn sets them. The most incredible moment comes around 1:44, with the words, “and God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Haydn sets the final “light,” on a fully orchestrated, triumphant C Major chord. The chord is so powerful for a number of reasons: its juxtaposition to the previous material, the pitch range used, the number of different instruments, and the contrast of the “darkness” and “brightness” of the instrumental sounds. To give you a visual, here is what the spectrograph captured from 1:45-2:20. The x-axis is time, the y-axis is frequency in Hertz, and the intensity of the color indicates the intensity of the relative frequencies.
The music in this section, beginning at 0:41, depicts the newly-created “stormy seas.” Here, Haydn draws upon an idea now referred to as “Sturm und Drang,” or “Storm and Stress.” This encompassed a period in art, literature and music in which dramatic depictions of expression and emotion took precedence over the restraint of the Enlightenment period. Though Haydn would not have referred to this type of music with precisely that title, his use of this style was deliberate in painting an aural picture. “Sturm und Drang” in music is associated with drama, driving rhythms, and minor keys, all of which we hear in this section. Listen to the first 20 sections a few times and see if you can pick out the different musical layers. Here is what I’m hearing:
- low strings set a driving rhythmic pulse for the section
- the middle strings play continuous runs, which I hear as rollicking seas or howling winds
- upper strings have an angular melody, dramatic melody
- winds have sustained pitches that cut through the sound because of their relatively high spectral centroid, or “brightness”