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Biography shines light on sometimes overlooked Catholic composer
June 3rd, 2014
By Rachelle Linner

“Playing Before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn” by Calvin R. Stapert. Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2014). 304 pp., $24.

Calvin R. Stapert, a professor emeritus of music at Calvin College, has written a persuasive and loving biography and appreciation of Joseph Haydn (1732-1809).

Although Haydn was respected during his lifetime, after his death his legacy was eclipsed by Mozart and Beethoven. Haydn’s music came to be characterized as “basically trivial, a mere diversion from the serious affairs of this world – pleasant, charming, humorous and ultimately inconsequential.”

Stapert disagrees. “I love Haydn and think he belongs very near the top of any list of great composers.”

“Playing Before the Lord” will be most fruitfully read by the serious student of music. Interweaving biography and detailed analysis of certain works, Stapert likens his listener’s guide to a trail guide for a hiker, providing a “general overview of the terrain and point out some things to look for along the way.” His purpose is to “alert a listener’s ears to what there is to hear in Haydn’s music.”

Even with a helpful glossary these sections can seem daunting to a person unfamiliar with music analysis. Still, there is enough in the book that is accessible to the general reader and having this background will enhance a listener’s appreciation of Haydn’s work.

Stapert argues for Haydn’s greatness and his humility. “Haydn’s office as a composer was indeed high, but he carried it out humbly before his Creator in the service of his fellow creatures.” Haydn said of himself, “Consider me a man whom God has granted talent.” His prodigious accomplishments make “talent” an understatement. He was a remarkably prolific composer of symphonies, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, operas, folksong settings, Masses and oratorios. His religious works include the “Stabat Mater,” the “Creation” oratorio and “The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross.”

Stapert’s appreciation for Haydn’s music is based on not only the music’s technical brilliance but to his respect for the composer’s strong Catholic faith. He says this about the oratorio, “The Seasons”: “Haydn’s mastery of the art of composition enabled him, at the end of his career, to create one of the great works of pastoral art of all time, a hymn of gratitude for the beautiful, hospitable world God made and placed us in.” One suspects that Stapert resonates with Haydn’s faith, but he is also an optimistic man who regrets grim or preachy art. “To put it in language as seemingly naive as what Haydn himself used, our world needs more art that makes it a happier place.”

Haydn died in Vienna, Austria, May 31, 1809, less than three weeks after Vienna surrendered to French troops. On May 24, “a French officer visited him and sang the aria from ‘The Creation’ that follows the creation of Adam.”

It is impossible to read this book without, likewise, thanking God for the talent he gave to both Haydn and to Stapert. Then one should go and listen to music.

Linner, a freelance writer and reviewer, has a master’s in theology from Weston Jesuit School of Theology.


From June 6, 2014 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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