Haydn’s oratorio-making covers a quarter of a century, a period during which major spiritual changes took place. For Il ritorno di Tobia (1775), Haydn went back to A. Zeno’s text, revised for him by G. G. Boccherini. This oratorio conforms to the Viennese tradition, as regards both libretto and style. Its subject-matter, already set by various composers, corresponds to the ideas of political absolutism.
With the later setting of the Sieben Worte, Haydn’s vocal writing became closer to the type of the German-language oratorio, just like the tradition of the sepolcro. For the first time, he followed the advice of G. van Swieten in his textual revisions.
Stimulated by his experience of Handel’s oratorios in London, Haydn responded to Swieten’s advice to try and follow new directions. Swieten adapted and translated Milton’s Paradise Lost. Despite its religious content, the oratorio was heavily criticised by the Church. Swieten’s origins from Protestant Holland – where, though a Catholic, he was educated in a Protestant school –, his long-time diplomatic activities with Frederick the Great and his involvement in Freemasonry must have left a mark on his non-conformist beliefs.
In his introduction to The Seasons, one can detect deistic ideas, which Haydn willy-nilly followed. Only the final chorus is directly addressed to God, as in the tradition. The step towards secular oratorio is thus accomplished, and opens a new chapter in the history of oratorio.
Joseph Haydn und Europa
Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien
Gottfried van Swieten und Joseph Haydn - ihr gemeinsamer Weg zur Säkularisierung der Oratorien