The Seasons (Haydn)

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Haydn in 1791

The Seasons (German: Die Jahreszeiten) is an oratorio by Joseph Haydn. An oratorio is a long musical work with orchestra, choir and solo singers. It usually tells a story from the Old Testament of the Bible. The Seasons is different. It is about the four seasons of the year. It describes nature and people's relationship to nature during the year.

The Seasons was the last big work that Haydn composed. He composed it in 1801. By this time he was the most famous composer in Europe. Mozart had died ten years earlier, and Beethoven was a young man who was just starting to become famous. Haydn was nearly 80 years old and his health was not good. Although he lived another eight years The Seasons was the last big work he wrote. Soon after he had composed it he stopped composing altogether.

Haydn had only written one big oratorio before The Seasons. This was an oratorio called The Creation. It had been performed in 1798 and was very popular all over Europe. The libretto (the words) had been written by Baron Gottfried van Swieten who was an Austrian nobleman who liked music. He had helped Mozart in his career and now he was helping Haydn. He wanted Haydn to write a second oratorio, so he wrote the libretto for The Seasons. He used a long English poem with the same title by James Thomson (1700-1748). He made it much shorter and changed it so that it was suitable to be set to music, and he translated it into German.

Haydn took two years to write the music. It was first performed in Vienna on 24 April 1801. The audience liked it, although not as much as The Creation. One problem was that Haydn was not very happy about the libretto. He thought that oratorios should be about serious, dramatic stories from the Bible or from classical mythology, not about everyday life. Van Swieten was not very happy when Haydn criticized it, but he did not change it, and Haydn did his best to make the work interesting.

The music[change | edit source]

The oratorio is divided into four parts, one for each of the seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. Each part lasts at least half an hour and consists of the usual recitatives (which tell the story), arias (songs), choruses (for the choir) and ensemble numbers (for the soloists together and often the chorus as well). There are three soloists (instead of the usual four). They represent three simple country people. There is a soprano called Hanne, a tenor called Lucas and a bass called Simon. Hanne is supposed to be Simon's daughter. There is no storyline in the normal sense: it is a series of poems and thoughts about nature during the year.

Part I: Spring[change | edit source]

The opening of Spring describes winter going away and spring awakening. There is a chorus which sounds very pastoral (like the countryside) with its 6/8 rhythm and drones (like country bagpipes). Simon then sings about the farmer sowing his seed. He is accompanied by a bassoon which sounds like a lively farmer tilling the earth. There is a gentle hymn of praise with a fugue which sounds like one from Mozart's Requiem. Hanne invites the girls and Simon invites the men to go to the fields and admire the earth, water and air. A chorus praises God.

Part II: Summer[change | edit source]

The music describes the countryside. The farmer is called to work in the morning (the oboe wakes him up). The sun rises. Again we thank God for nature. By midday it has become very hot. Later there are insects buzzing and we hear a shepherd playing on his pipe (the oboe). Everything is very dry at first, then there is a storm. The timpani make the sound of the thunder. When the storm has finished everyone is happy. We hear the birds singing, the frog croaking and the evening bell chimes eight times. The day's work is done.

Part III: Autumn[change | edit source]

The words at first are about hard work and the rewards for hard work (Haydn thought these were strange words to set to music). Then there is a duet for a loving young couple (Lucas and Hanne). This is the only time that the soloists feel like real characters in a story and talk to one another. Autumn is the hunting season, so there is hunting music. It sounds quite old-fashioned (like Baroque music). The bassoon is the hound (the dog). The hounds become hungry and the music gets faster and faster until, suddenly, the dogs and the music stop. There is a gunshot (timpani) as the deer is shot. Autumn finishes with a drinking chorus.

Part IV: Winter[change | edit source]

At first, there is thick winter fog. Then there is a short song (short because nothing grows in winter). Then there is a story about a traveller who is lost in the snow and comes to a cottage where he finds shelter. Hanne and the chorus sing a song about a spinning wheel. Many other composers later wrote music which describes a spinning wheel turning. There is another song which tells a story about a rich nobleman who tries to make love to a country girl but she escapes by riding off on his horse so he is left with no horse and no girl. At times this music sounds quite like the music in Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. Simon sings an aria which compares the seasons with the different stages of life (the seasons are used as a metaphor). Finally the chorus sing about the dawn of life in heaven. The oratorio and the seasons start all over again. The soloists, who have been three country people, are now three angels. There is a final hymn of praise.