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Playing before the Lord by Calvin R. Stapert

Stephen Michaud

Playing before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn, by Calvin R. Stapert. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014, 282 pages, $24.00.

Presbyterians have long enjoyed the music of Haydn in their worship, whether singing “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” to the majestic tune Austrian Hymn, or “Exalt the Lord, his Praise Proclaim” to the uplifting melody extracted from Haydn’s sublime masterpiece, the Creation oratorio. But lurking just underneath the surface of the more familiar oeuvre of the old master, a tremendous goldmine of unforgettable music awaits to be discovered—all the more so for Christians, as some of Haydn’s music is powerfully imbued with distinctly biblical themes. One of many poignant examples would be Haydn’s setting of the seven last words of Christ to the string quartet medium. This alone should be enough to whet the appetite of any warm-blooded saint who desires to explore some profoundly moving music. Of course, the more religiously-themed works yield a high rate of devotional return for the Christian, but it is really the exuberant joy running through much of Haydn’s music which helps the listener to meditate on the God-given happiness still to be enjoyed in this fallen world.

Joseph Haydn, however, was such a prolific composer, that the sheer vastness of his output can be intimidating. How helpful would it be to have a book which provides the important background to understanding this composer and his music! Thankfully, in Calvin R. Stapert’s new book, Playing before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn, such a resource has been provided.

Clearly, this is an author with a mission. For him, Haydn belongs to the upper echelon of the great composers. Sadly, the more recent diminishing of Haydn’s reputation—no doubt due to the “happy” tone of his music which is seen to be somewhat escapist and out of step with reality—has led some to think (erroneously so) that this composer lacks the depth of the best composers. But Haydn, though certainly not avoiding the darker elements of life in his work, has nevertheless chosen to paint his musical vision in the shades of light and beauty for good reason: in the words of the author, here quoting Abraham Kuyper, “Haydn’s music is fulfilling art’s ‘mystical task of reminding us of the beautiful that was lost and anticipating its perfect coming luster’ ” (257).[1] Stapert, resonating with this vision, thus seeks to persuade his readers to love Haydn’s music. He sees himself as writing in the same spirit as the seventeenth-century minister and metaphysical poet Thomas Traherne, whom he quotes as saying, “You never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it” (x).[2] Indeed, the author’s enthusiasm for his subject is contagious throughout, making this a very engaging read.

Stapert explains that his book is both a biography and a “listener’s guide,” giving first a bird’s eye panorama of Haydn’s work, but also providing more specific summarizations of representative pieces from various genres, that the reader might listen to other works more perceptively. In a few instances, the book even provides a much more detailed analysis of several pieces. While there is a certain amount of technical language in these portions of the book, the text does not allow itself to get overly bogged down, and the author wisely includes a glossary at the end of the book to aid the reader.

At first, the book leans heavily on the biographical, focusing on Haydn’s ancestry and boyhood years in Rohrau and Hainburg, through his years as a choirboy at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna, then to the years he spent literally cast out on the streets. One marvels at how Haydn worked so industriously despite his “wretched existence,” eventually becoming a freelance musician and music director for Count Morzin. It is at this point that the reader is introduced to some musical analysis of an early work, the Salve Regina, scored for soprano, choir, and strings. The first of his string quartets were soon to follow. Haydn, frequently called the “father of the string quartet,” would go on to write sixty-eight such pieces—more than any other composer. Not surprisingly, he is also known as the “father of the symphony,” as attested by his 104 works in that genre, and Stapert takes a good amount of time dealing with these two important categories of Haydn’s music.

In order to get the full and intended benefit from this book, the reader should seek to acquire recordings of the pieces which are described. Most of Stapert’s analysis of Symphony no. 15, for example, would be lost on the one who was not doing some listening in tandem with the reading. This by no means is a shortcoming of the book; on the contrary, the author himself stresses at the outset that his book is a listener’s guide and thus intended to accompany the actual hearing of these pieces.

At this point, the book moves to the period in which Haydn was employed as Vice-Kapellmeister at the Esterhazy Court—a period which yielded, among other things, a trilogy of symphonies, nos. 6, 7, and 8. Stapert offers a helpful diagram of Symphony no. 6 that can be consulted throughout his analysis. With Symphonies no. 7 and no. 8, the author notes the programmatic features of these works as well as their respective influences. While there is some musical notation given in Stapert’s analysis, it is not overly cumbersome and can be skipped over by the non-technical reader without too much loss of benefit. The same could be said of the description of musical examples peppered elsewhere throughout the book.

The remaining bulk of chapters finds the author deftly weaving the unfolding phases of Haydn’s life with key works of these periods, from his church music, to the Sturm and Drang symphonies, to the Divertimenti, Sonatas, Quartets, and keyboard trios, to his forays in to opera and song. To cap off an exciting journey, Stapert gives detailed attention to Haydn’s celebrated oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons, the latter which the author counsels us to listen to in the Christological context that Haydn intended.

Stapert wants his readers to appreciate Haydn as one who composed and played “before the Lord,” as the title suggests, as evidenced in the words he wrote often at the end of his scores: “LAUS DEO!—PRAISE TO GOD!” Although Haydn was a devout Catholic, the Protestant need not be deterred from enjoying this composer fully, with his accents on joy and other biblical themes. Certainly joy, biblically understood, is no less “profound” than the tragedies of life! Stapert appropriately quotes Jeremy Begbie in this regard: “Any music which dares to bear the name ‘Christian’ will resound with the heartbeat of joy.”[3] For the Christian who wants to nurture these inner sympathies with the help of some sublime artistic expression, he could do no better than imbibing a heavy dose of Haydn. Stapert’s book is a ready aid to keep at hand for the task, along with Haydn’s music itself. I would heartily recommend, for starters, obtaining Antal Dorati’s complete coverage of the symphonies, the Lindsays’ profound recording of The Seven Last Words of Christ, and the moving DVD of The Creation, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Haydn’s birth, under the baton of Gustav Kuhn in the Great Hall of the Old Vienna University, the very place in which Haydn himself attended a festive performance of this great work.

In summary, I know of no other book that is better suited as an introduction to this highly rewarding composer. Highly recommended!


[1] In Abraham Kuyper, Lectures in Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961), 155.

[2] In Thomas Traherne, Centuries (Wilton, Connecticut: Morehouse, 1985), 15.

[3] Jeremy Begbie, Music in God’s Purposes (Edinburg: Handsel, 1989), 18.

Stephen Michaud is a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. Ordained Servant Online, December 2014.

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