"What can aesthetics have to say," Johann Triest complained of Haydn's Creation two years after its premiere, "to a natural history, or geogony, set to music, where objects pass before us as in a magic lantern?" By contrast, Carl Friedrich Zelter praised the oratorio as a "fine shadow-play." Both agreed, however, that the work was like an optical entertainment. Triest's and Zelter's metaphors point to a hitherto unexplored context for The Creation's early reception that contributed at once to its popularity and to its dubious status. Retrieving the exhibition practices employed by itinerant magic lanternists reveals that barrel organ music had an established place in their entertainments and that certain numbers of The Creation echoed the auditory component of magic lantern shows. For Triest, the resemblance of these numbers to a magic lantern presentation suggested that tone-paintings were meaningless without verbal specification, and that in composing the oratorio Haydn was much like an organ-grinder cranking out a predetermined tune. In Zelter's counterargument to the magic lantern, the shadow-play characterized Haydn's oratorio as a species of illusionistic display demonstrating mastery over the raw materials of music. The alternative framework Zelter developed for Haydn's oratorio placed the work alongside fireworks and other philosophical entertainments that inspired awe at human accomplishment. Together, Triest's and Zelter's metaphors suggest that optical entertainments provided terms not only for describing the oratorio and the experience of listening to it, but also for elevating Haydn to the status of master over nature——-or else lowering him to the status of machine.
- ©© 2010 by the Virginia Allan Detloff Library, C.G. Jung Institute of San Francisco