Playing Before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn

Playing Before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn
By Calvin R. Stapert
William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company; 267 pages
A review by R. C. Speck

How does one write a biography of a man whose personal life could charitably be referred to as humdrum? How does one write a biography of a man who believed his own story “could interest nobody?”

By selecting the great composer Joseph Haydn as the subject of his remarkable biography Playing Before the Lord, author Calvin Stapert makes it look easy.

Through Stapert’s clear and insightful narration, we are treated not only to a condensed retelling of the highs and lows (but mostly highs) of Haydn’s life but also to the greatest hits, so to speak, of his work. Stapert recognizes the pitfalls in writing about music and instead offers to “guide a listener’s ears to be more perceptive.” He does this with staff notation, charts, and in-depth critical assessments of Haydn’s most important pieces.

One recurring theme is Haydn’s use of surprise. Of course, there is the Surprise Symphony (no. 94). But what about the unexpected use of minor-key countermelody in his Horn Signal Symphony (no. 31) or the unprecedented barrage of percussion in his Military Symphony (no. 100)?

Another theme is Haydn’s ability to innovate. After all, he established the structure of the symphony which persisted nearly unchanged into the 20th century. And this says nothing of what he did for the string quartet, which may not have existed as we know it without him.

Stapert reminds us that Haydn may lag in popularity these days when compared to his two younger contemporaries, Mozart and Beethoven. But this is undeserved. Stapert’s deft pen rights this wrong with Haydn’s lesser known works as much as with his hits. For example, Stapert spends much time on Haydn’s later quartets, his Sixth Symphony, his Stabat Mater, and his keyboard trios and sonatas. As for the hits, Stapert also comes through, as with Haydn’s London Symphonies, his quartets (opuses 20 and 33 especially), and, of course, The Creation.

Alongside this is Haydn the man. While not as boring as Haydn himself claims he was, he resembles a Horatio Alger character: always conquering adversity with optimism, faith, and hard work. Haydn didn’t always do this with talent, such as when he sold the same work to different publishers or once passed off his student’s work as his own!

In the end, Haydn was loved the world over. Stapert endeavors to explain how Haydn’s music provides “rest and refreshment” by “awakening our sense to a deeper reality than the confusion, ugliness, and troubles…on the surface of our daily lives.” In Playing Before the Lord, Stapert goes well below the surface of Haydn’s music to do this, and he makes us want to go there as well.

This book review appeared in the winter 2015–16 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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