What Haydn’s ‘The Creation’ Taught Me About the Holy Spirit

By Jules Gomes Published on March 20, 2024

In 1791 and 1792, the Austrian composer Franz Josef Haydn visited London for the first time. In Westminster Abbey, he heard more than a thousand performers sing two of Handel’s most famous oratorios, Messiah and Israel in Egypt.

Haydn was bowled over by the vivacious orchestral effects of Israel in Egypt. Handel’s musical depictions of buzzing flies, jumping frogs, and a thunderous hailstorm brought to life the biblical centerpiece of the exodus of the Hebrew slaves from the tyranny of Egypt.

Returning to Vienna with this treasured memory, Haydn composed his greatest work, Die Schöpfung (The Creation.) His personal statement of faith, it is based on Genesis, Psalm 19, Psalm 104, and Milton’s Paradise Lost. The text is profoundly biblical.

Many Christians will have sung or heard the euphoric anthem “The Heavens are Telling the Glory of God!” from The Creation in a church service. Choirs love to belt out this rendering of Psalm 19 at the Harvest Festival in the British Isles.

When I served as chaplain to the Old Royal Naval Chapel in Greenwich, England, we would often sing Haydn’s Masses. The Kleine Orgel Messe, Haydn’s “Little Organ Mass” in B flat major, composed with a twinkle in Haydn’s eyes, would transport me straight to heaven. When, as a chorister, I sang The Creation, it transported me right back to the Garden of Eden. Singing Haydn’s Creation was joyful and exhilarating.

Primeval Armageddon in Genesis

But the opening movement of The Creation was a deeply disturbing and dislocating experience. Haydn was tossing me rather brutally into the terrifying trauma of a primeval Armageddon at the beginning of creation.

Haydn knew the Holy Scriptures. He rightly sensed that Genesis does not begin with the order and structure of God’s good creation but with the convulsions of cataclysmic chaos.

After the first verse of Genesis, a text many Old Testament scholars understand as a summary statement or headline to the story of creation, we read in 1:2: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.”

Eugene Peterson renders it more dramatically with a thunderous roll of his verbal timpani in The Message: “Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.”

Of course, Genesis 1:2 can also be understood as an interlude. In this interpretation, while Genesis 1:1 portrays God’s finished creation, this is then interrupted by the forces of cataclysmic chaos and destruction. God intervenes in Genesis 1:2 to subdue the chaoskampf so that he can renew his creation (as He does in the rest of the chapter).

God’s Thunderous Tornado

The scholarly variations don’t matter too much because everyone agrees that the protagonist, the main actor, the hero who acts to vanquish this cataclysmic chaos, this primeval Armageddon, is none other than the Spirit of God (ruach Elohim).

And the Spirit of God in Genesis 1 is not the docile dove of later Christian imagination. On the contrary, He is a thunderous tornado, a violent tempest, a volcanic eruption of God’s creative and combative power.

That is how Haydn portrays the Holy Spirit in The Creation. His overture is titled “The Representation of Chaos.” It begins with “a mighty and oppressive unison forte C played by nearly the full orchestra,” writes musicologist Melanie Lowe.

Haydn represents chaos in the key C minor and eventually resolves this unbearable tension for the listener on the famous “Light Chord” — when the choir bursts into a fortissimo singing Genesis 1:3b: “And there was light!” God doesn’t need to shout out: “Let there be light!” He merely whispers it — Haydn’s pianissimo says it all — and it is done!

The listener can anticipate the resolution of the tension when the choir begins to sing sotto voce the words: “And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Haydn introduces the Spirit with an incredible sense of sweetness, comfort, and stability — it is this Spirit who, paradoxically, will destroy the chaos, fill the void, and give life to God’s creation.

Lowe uses the term “primordial stew” to describe Haydn’s use of almost irrational harmonic combinations, tonal organization, and unresolved dissonance in the chaoskampf. Haydn “uses the means of art to frustrate the effects of art,” to paint a picture of chaos in the first seven to eight minutes of his two-hour work, James Webster agrees.

The Holy Spirit as God’s Stealth Bomber

Why am I stressing this theme? Because most of us imagine the Holy Spirit as a gentle dove. We get this image from the scene of Jesus’s baptism, in which all four gospels describe the Holy Spirit  as a dove descending on Jesus (Matthew 3:16, Mark 1:10, Luke 3:22, John 1:32).

But the Bible does not portray the Holy Spirit as only a dove. In sharp contrast to this gentle image, Genesis 1:2 portrays the Holy Spirit as what I think is the equivalent of the American stealth bomber — the most expensive and the most powerful aircraft in history.

The stealth bomber looks like a black bat, not a white dove. Its full name is the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit stealth bomber. It can reach any point in the world within hours. It is armed with thermonuclear bombs that would make Hiroshima look like a picnic.

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So what is God’s ruach Elohim doing in Genesis 1:2? Like the B-2 stealth bomber, the Holy Spirit is waging war on the monsters of chaos that threaten to annihilate God’s creation. This is where it helps to understand the creation stories of the Ancient Near East — especially the Babylonian creation story, which serves as the backdrop to Genesis 1.

Nuking the Dragons

Have you ever wondered about the dragons or the sea monsters popping up in the Old Testament? The Bible gives these monsters names like Leviathan and Rahab, and uses the imagery of a conflict between these dragons and Israel’s God.

Psalm 74:14 sings of God “crushing the heads of Leviathan.” The very next verses use phrases from Genesis 1 to talk about God creating the world: “Yours is the day, yours also the night; you have established the heavenly lights and the sun.”

Psalm 89:10 praises God for “crushing Rahab like a carcass.” In the very next breath, the psalmist sings: “The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.”

Isaiah prophesies a day when “the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Isaiah 27:1).

The prophet goes on to compare God destroying the dragon to God destroying Egypt’s Pharoah and drying up the waters of the Red Sea: “Was it not thou that didst cut Rahab in pieces, that didst pierce the dragon?” (Isaiah 51:9).

The monsters Leviathan and Rahab are inextricably linked to both: creation and redemption. And God creates and redeems by nuking and neutralizing the demonic dragons of chaos.

The Final Victory

The biblical drama reaches its conclusion with the Spirit-empowered Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, vanquishing the sea dragons of chaos by rebuking the wind and the waves (Mark 4:39).

And in the Acts of the Apostles, the same B-2 stealth bomber Holy Spirit, zooms over and into the first church with supersonic intensity — enabling and empowering believers to rock the strongholds of Satan and usher in the Kingdom of God by preaching the Gospel.

In the book of Revelation, God’s victory over the sea dragons is complete. “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more” (Rev 21:1).

The Bible begins with the Holy Spirit hovering over the face of the sea. It ends with the Holy Spirit accomplishing his task of nuking the sea monsters once for all.

Revelation climaxes with the River of Life, but the sea is obliterated. God has won the final battle over the chaos monsters of sin, Satan, and death.

Now think about what Paul says: “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost, which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?” he writes in 1 Corinthians 6:19.

God’s stealth bomber — the third Person of the Holy Trinity, who is unimaginably greater, incomparably mightier, and immeasurably more powerful than the B-2 stealth bomber — dwells within you if you are a Christian. Can you fail to attempt mighty things for God, and accomplish mighty things through the Holy Spirit?

 

Dr. Jules Gomes (BA, BD, MTh, PhD) is a biblical scholar and a journalist based in Rome.

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