Chaos, Inspiration, and the Creation of Creativity

By Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
Catherine Yang
April 22, 2017 Updated: April 27, 2017

For all of Joseph Haydn’s mastery of musical form—he is known as the “father” of the symphony and the string quartet, and credited with establishing the classical style of music—his greatest masterpiece may have been the oratorio “The Creation,” which begins with form-breaking, prescribed chaos.

“The Creation” was tremendously successful during the years of its premiere; it was translated into several languages and performed across Europe during Haydn’s life. And though it has been both derided and praised during different periods of history, today it is one of the most beloved of Haydn’s pieces.

In 1791, inspired by a festival where 1,000-strong ensembles of musicians performed George Frideric Handel’s sacred works, like the “Messiah” and “Israel in Egypt,” Haydn decided he needed to write a sacred oratorio as well—something that would resonate with everyone and be performed for ages.

According to some accounts, his friend François-Hippolyte Barthélémon pointed to a Bible and told Haydn to take that and start from the beginning. Other accounts say that before Haydn left London in 1795, Johann Peter Salomon, the impresario who produced Haydn’s concerts in the city, handed him a libretto titled “The Creation of the World.” It had been intended for Handel a half century before, but the composer had deemed it too long to be set to music.

In any case, Haydn brought the idea back to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, the imperial court librarian in Viennawho encouraged the project and put together the text in English and German. It draws from the Book of Genesis, John Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and various psalms to tell the story of God creating the world.

“The Creation” took the prolific composer an unusually long time to write, at least a year and a half. In one letter, responding to requests for him to finish the work, he replied that he could not rush the effort that should be afforded to such a work. He’d also written about the process: “Never was I so devout as when composing ‘The Creation.’ Every day, I fell on my knees and asked God to give me strength to enable me to pursue the work to its successful completion.”

The oratorio begins with the “Representation of Chaos” in the first movement, with harmonies and melodies that are not resolved as they would be in the classical style, then moves along to an inevitable climax at the moment when God declares, “Let there be light,” and the orchestra and chorus burst with a great explosion of sound. The shards of imagination floating around in chaos are concentrated by divine order and take form. In a performance Haydn attended a year before his death, when the music built to this point, the audience burst into applause for him. The composer then replied, pointing up to the sky, that it came not from him, but that “everything comes from up there!”

Color print, from 1909, of a watercolor on the lid of a stationery box made by Balthazar Wigand and presented to the composer Joseph Haydn. It commemorates Haydn's attendance, in extreme old age, of a performance of his oratorio The Creation. (The composer can be seen seated in the lower center of the image, wearing wig and hat.) The original of this picture was lost in 1945. (public domain)
Color print, from 1909, of a watercolor on the lid of a stationery box made by Balthazar Wigand and presented to the composer Joseph Haydn. It commemorates Haydn’s attendance, in extreme old age, of a performance of his oratorio The Creation. The composer can be seen seated in the lower center of the image, wearing wig and hat.  (public domain)

This idea that creation and creativity are an act of God, or that it comes from the divine, is one that has its roots in antiquity and across many cultures.

To Create

The word “creativity” today is synonymous with originality and always related to imagination. The common definition (established by professors Robert Sternberg and Todd Lubbart and used especially by researchers) is that something creative is “novel and appropriate.” The word did not exist as we know it until the mid-19th century; prior to that, “to create” or “creation” was understood as nothing short of an act of God.

Plato, notably, discussed how creation was of the realm of the divine, whereas humans could only make things and mimic ideal forms through their efforts. The idea is not entirely foreign even today, as writers, for instance, will quickly tell you that there are no new stories to tell—not that this detracts at all from the enjoyment of telling or hearing stories, no matter when they are conceived.

Other cultures, such as those in East Asia, India, and Southeast Asia, hold similar views. Lubbart’s conclusion, after reviewing close to a dozen other studies on the ideas of Eastern creativity, is that in these cultures the creative artist taps into some universal source and recreates, imitates, or develops something from it.

Cognitive psychologist and leading creativity researcher Mark Runco has written a history of the research on creativity in the Western world. He traces the history of the word “create” in the English language, from its Latin roots all the way to 1393, when Geoffrey Chaucer, considered the “father of English literature,” first used the term in reference to divine creation. 

William Shakespeare then used it in his tragedy “Macbeth” (1606). Twentieth-century novelist and academic Raymond Williams argued it was an early usage of “creation” as meaning human imagination. But Shakespeare’s expression was actually almost Platonic, calling imagination “a dagger of the mind, a false creation.” The word “creativity” supposedly entered the English language in 1875, but even then, it was rarely used.

While much has been written about the wellspring of creativity during the Renaissance, it was not even a word used during that time. Some research tracks a shift in thinking about creativity to the Renaissance, though other scholars say it occurred earlier, during the Middle Ages. 

The Exceptional and the Inspired

During the Middle Ages, or the medieval period, one with a special talent or ability was seen as being a conduit from an outside force—something greater and most likely divine. Humans were not yet creators but makers who could be divinely inspired. This long period makes up a great bulk of Western history, lasting a millennium from the fifth to 15th centuries.  

Then during the Renaissance, which lasted across Europe as a whole from around the 14th to 17th centuries, people believed it was more than just divine inspiration; they believed the human mind could act independently of nature or the supernatural as well. Great art and great works were the result of exceptional abilities and the artists’ perspectives. This did not actually denote a massive shift in thinking for people of the time, though for scholars today it is a huge marker for the beginnings of the idea of creativity.

Now that creativity had been established, the analysis could begin. Creative people are somehow different and also exceptional, we assume, so we try to examine why. Runco and co-author Robert Albert, in their chapter on creativity research in The Cambridge Handbook of Creativity, seem to propose that the creatives thereafter view each of their respective eras in dichotomies.

During the Enlightenment, the era of ideas, also known as the Age of Reason, creativity was alive in the fervent support for independent thinking versus the restraint of various institutions. This is the period that invented research, and scientific discoveries were toppling systems, one after another: Copernicus and Galileo with their studies of the solar system, Newton with his laws of physics, Lavoisier with his discoveries of oxygen, hydrogen, and the seeds of modern chemistry, and more. Writers championed freedom and individuality and made a distinction between talent, which could be learned, and the kind of genius that was innate and original.

During the Romantic era, creativity existed within the Bohemian lifestyle of artists who reacted against the mass industrialization that had seized the continent. By then, science was seen as having been systematized by the scientific method to the point of squashing innovation. The new conflict identified was between the “overly rational scientist and the artist as the misunderstood genius,” according to Runco and Albert.

Then during the early 20th century, with thinkers like Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud calling for the examination of human nature, the concepts of creativity and the human mind came under a microscope. Runco and Albert add that every major 20th-century psychologist has taken creativity seriously, and that the research that began that era “can be described only as explosive.” Thinkers became very interested in why people are the way they are, independent from culture and, diverging from every theory and era that came before, independent from spiritual forces.

During the Cold War era, creativity was seen through the dichotomy of individualism versus the collectivism of the Soviet Union. 

Creativity as a Cold War Invention

In the 1950s, Joy Paul Guilford, one of the most cited psychologists by his contemporaries, urged his colleagues to further their research into creativity. In 1966, Ronald Reagan, then running for governor in California, delivered a speech that spoke of “a creative society” that could tackle the nation’s problems. In roughly the period between those two speeches, there were as many papers written on creativity as there were in the 200 years before that, according to creativity scholar Camilla Nelson

“Much of this work was funded by military and defense concerns,” Nelson wrote in a paper. She pointed to Hyman Rickover, the U.S. Navy admiral best known for directing the development of the nuclear submarine, who had said things similar to Reagan. Rickover supported education that could produce creative people, which he saw as the key to countering the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. 

In “Designing the Creative Child,” professor Amy F. Ogata examines the critique of social conformity that grew during the Cold War, and how this idea of children being naturally imaginative and creative was “constructed, disseminated, and consumed” across the United States. Children’s toys, programming, and museums were engineered to cater to this idea beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, and this is the prevalent understanding still today.

In 2010, a survey of 1,500 CEOs from 33 industries worldwide said that, more than management discipline, rigor, integrity, or vision, it was creativity that was most required to succeed in the world today. A 2013 Time magazine poll showed that 94 percent of Americans valued creativity in others, making it the most valued characteristic over intelligence, compassion, humor, ambition, and beauty.

Why Create?

Perhaps one consistent thing about creativity is that it has always been vague: First, there was no word for it at all, then it became a catchall term for various traits, and now it is one of our most popular buzzwords. We consider creativity to be exceptional, sometimes artistic, and often original, and thus researchers have traced its evolution through the ages by aligning its definition with the traits deemed as such at the time.

Why value creativity? Well, the ability to create something from nothing, or something new from long-held beliefs, is remarkable.

Runco and Albert suggest that the research of creativity is basically the research of human nature; there has always been self-examination throughout history and an interest in understanding how and why some people are more exceptional. 


But it is likely that Haydn’s “The Creation” still resonates and pleases so many of us today not because it seems especially creative—and it certainly wasn’t a product of spontaneous genius, as he expected to need to toil over it—but because he intended to do something good for humanity. 

The chief criticism of the work came from Romantics (in the late 18th through the early 19th centuries) who found it to be naive either in its composition or in its representation of the creation of the world. As the popularity of the work rebounded after that period, musicologists wrote that rather than naiveté, it was optimism that Haydn sought to impart, and rightly so.

In replying to a letter from a fan of his work in 1802, Haydn wrote:

“Often, when I was struggling with all kinds of obstacles … a secret voice whispered to me: ‘There are so few happy and contented people in this world; sorrow and grief follow them everywhere; perhaps your labour will become a source from which the careworn … will for a while derive peace and refreshment.'”