As a writer, he is entitled to one praise of the highest kind: his mode of thinking and of expressing his thoughts is original. … His numbers, his pauses, his diction, are of his own growth, without transcription, without imitation. He thinks in a peculiar train, and he thinks always as a man of genius; he looks round on Nature and on Life with the eye which Nature bestows only on a poet; the eye that distinguishes in everything presented to its view whatever there is on which imagination can delight to be detained, and with a mind that at once comprehends the vast and attends to the minute. The reader of the “Seasons” wonders that he never saw before what Thomson shows him, and that he never yet has felt what Thomson impresses., … . His descriptions of extended scenes and general effects bring before us the whole magnificence of Nature, whether pleasing or dreadful. The gaiety of Spring, the splendour of Summer, the tranquillity of Autumn, and the horror of Winter, take in their turns possession of the mind. The poet leads us through the appearances of things as they are successively varied by the vicissitudes of the year, and imparts to us so much of his own enthusiasm that our thoughts expand with his imagery and kindle with his sentiments. … His diction is in the highest degree florid and luxuriant, such as may be said to be to his images and thoughts “both their lustre and their shade;” such as invests them with splendour. …
— Samuel Johnson, “Thomson,” The Lives of the Poets
I wrote the following note (scribbled hastily in a pub in Manhattan where I was reading Thomson’s The Seasons) to myself last week while immersed in Thomson’s “Spring”:
One might be inclined to say
when it comes to nature
it’s all platitudes
Thomson shows this is not the case
His inspiring paean to spring and the seasons
is based upon minute observation and acutely felt experience
I myself have never forgotten the splendid fall in Massachusetts when I was fourteen years old, The warm sun, the crisp air, the colors, the foliage. It was nature at its most glorious. In a particular time and place.
Thomson’s poem (which provided the basis for the libretto of Haydn’s The Seasons) was based on minute, loving observation – rendered in beautiful verse.
Beethoven was a student of Haydn’s and was influenced by him. Below is a movement from the first part (Spring) of Haydn’s oratorio Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons).
Nr. 2 – Chor des Landvolks
Komm, holder Lenz,
Des Himmels Gabe, komm!
Aus ihrem Todesschlaf
Erwecke die Natur!
WEIBER UND MÄDCHEN
Er nahet sich, der holde Lenz;
Schon fühlen wir den linden Hauch, Bald lebet alles wieder auf.
Frohlocket ja nicht allzufrüh!
Oft schleicht, in Nebel eingehüllt,
Der Winter wohl zurück und streut Auf Blüt’ und Keim sein starres Gift.
Komm, holder Lenz,
Des Himmels Gabe komm!
Auf unsere Fluren senke dich, Komm, holder Lenz, o komm!
Und weile länger nicht!
Come, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness come!
Out of her wintry grave bid drowsy nature rise.
At last the pleasing Spring is near; the softening air is full of balm.
A boundless song bursts from the groves.
As yet the year is unconfirmed, and Winter oft at eve resumes the breeze,
and bids his driving sleets deform the day and chill the morn.
Come, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness come!
and smiling on our plains descend, while music wakes around.
On January 24 of this year, I saw a performance of Die Jahreszeiten by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Wesler-Möst, at Carnegie Hall. It was an incredible experience for me and a revelation to see the work performed live, with me holding the libretto in my hands and following the words.
The libretto is based on a long poem by the English poet and playwright James Thomson (1700-1748): The Seasons. With some difficultly, I was able to find and purchase a copy of this book length poem, which I am reading by fits and starts. It’s quite good. It conveys a sense, with Miltonic scope (Thomson’s work has echoes of the cadences of Paradise Lost), of the essence of the countryside in all its various guises and in its plenitude — the rhythms of work and daily life as the seasons change — and how they were experienced by people at the time, which is to say before the Industrial Revolution. Haydn captured this brilliantly. The libretto of Haydn’s oratorio was written by Gottfried van Swieten, who adapted Thomson’s poem for the oratorio. (van Swieten was closely associated with Mozart. He introduced both Mozart and Haydn to Handel.)
COME, gentle Spring, ethereal mildness, come;
And from the bosom of yon dropping cloud,
While music wakes around, veiled in a shower
Of shadowing roses, on our plains descend. …
And see where surly Winter passes off
Far to the north, and calls his ruffian blasts:
His blasts obey, and quit the howling hill,
The shattered forest, and the ravaged vale;
While softer gales succeed, at whose kind touch,
Dissolving snows in livid torrents lost,
The mountains lift their green heads to the sky. …
White through the neighbouring fields the sower stalks
With measured step, and liberal throws the grain
Into the faithful bosom of the ground:
The harrow follows harsh, and shuts the scene.
A few days after the concert, I wrote in an email to a relative of mine:
In “The Creation,” you feel you are experiencing nature and the countryside as people did in 1800. You’re right there: a farmer plowing a field, dawn, a loaded cart with produce from the harvest, lovers under a tree (and the male throwing a chestnut when climbing it at the unsuspecting girl he admires as a joke), a thunderstorm, a hunt for hares, etc. Haydn is totally unpretentious, he can be funny, and the music perfectly fits the text.
Haydn is the consummate composer. He never overreaches. The music is unpretentious, yet he is a master of form.
The program notes for the performance note: “fresh feeling of innovation” … “[we] are never overpowered by the orchestrations” … “balances expression with refinement.” All of this is very true.
Here is a page from Haydn’s score for the appropriate part of Die Jahreszeiten. The score, which I purchased in book form after the concert, is 309 pages long. It kind of shows graphically — for the uninitiated such as myself — what effort must be involved in composing a musical work of this magnitude.
And, while we are talking about nature (as experienced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), the following is a favorite Keats poem of mine. It came alive for me when I heard it out loud. I wish I could find a good recording to share.
By John Keats
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.