Creation myths are as old as civilization. I’ve been collecting examples of creation expressed in classical music for years. What would you like from a creation composition? Coming from physics, I prefer the image of order arising over time out of loud, hot chaos. Let’s see whose works might abide.
The obvious place to start is Haydn’s Die Schöpfung—literally, The Creation. It opens with The Representation of Chaos. After one initial burst, some thoughts drift by with some nice dissonance later on, but it’s largely in a regular meter in a diatonic key, which is to say, quite ordered. I find Haydn reliably boring, and while this is certainly one of his more stimulating pieces, this is not one I come back to. Disappointed, not surprised.
Speaking of boring, I think also of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, though I do frequently return to this one. Here, 16 hours of music and drama begin with 16 bars of a gentle, low E-flat. Then, softly, in no hurry, one after another, 8 French horns begin scaling arpeggios, a continuous rush of growth. Then the strings join with undulating waves and tides. They roll and quicken, steadily rising in pitch and intensity. We find ourselves in the Rhine river. There, the Rhine maidens appear singing nonsense babble before intelligence and speech emerge moments later… I love this opening so much, but it’s the opposite of the creation I imagine.
Related to the sound of creation is the sound of awakening. One thinks of Grieg’s iconic Morning song, of course. But also Mahler. His first symphony starts with a thin, mysterious drone. Two extended pulses shed energy into that fabric. False starts to a motif that soon finds substance, accompaniment, evolution, activity. Nature awakens. I mention because it’s another marvelous opening that might have stood for creation in another program, but again, it’s the opposite of the hot mess I’m looking for.
One piece that always wakes me up is Beethoven’s 9th, that architectural triumph. We all remember the Ode to Joy, but how does it begin? With the creation of a world from an unstable, shimmering fundament. You can almost hear the Higgs mechanism releasing a wild inflationary epoch where mass-energy explodes into the cosmos until the constituents of matter order and galaxies ignite. (Of course, that’s a ridiculous hearing, but humor me.) This opening is satisfyingly violent, but I still hear it through conventional musical devices. It’s still ordered and consonant.
Finally, we chance upon Jean-Féry Rebel who was writing generations before the others. I have to credit the discovery to friend and teacher, Rebecca Ariel Porte, who highlighted him at a recent podcast recording. His suite, Les Élémens (The Elements), begins with Le Cahos (The Chaos). Like Haydn, it begins with a single chord, only this one is deeply discordant. Maximally so. Every note in the octave is intoned, split across the voices. This is followed by several attempts at order punctuated with gross disorder, until it eventually relaxes into a major-key foundation that grounds the rest of the suite. Here, at last, is an explosive creation from true disorder! While Rebel was invoking the separation of the four classical elements from each other, you could substitute the four nuclear forces distinguishing themselves in the early, expanding, cooling universe. It’s exactly what I wanted, and the striking modernism of a piece written in 1737 makes it all the more marvelous.
And that covers what the Western tradition has granted enough import for this Alfred to have noticed it. Any favorite examples of your own?