- Playing before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn by Calvin R. Stapert
Playing Before the Lord: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn is a highly informative, impressively documented, up-to-date, and engaging biography of the most famous composer in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. Its author, Calvin R. Stapert, is professor emeritus of music at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
The book’s title reflects the devout Catholic faith of Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) as well as the words “Laus Deo” that the composer usually wrote at the ends of his scores. In addition to discussing Haydn’s most important works (including his best sacred music), the biography’s twenty chapters offer an open and honest, chronological account of his life, not hesitating to touch upon some of the darker elements (e.g., his few shady dealings with publishers and his melancholy). The biography ends with a chapter of reflections upon Haydn’s reception and what his music can do for listeners in our troubled age today (offering a “deeper reality” and a “revelation of grace,” pp. 257, 258). For Stapert, Haydn’s music is “art that makes [our world] a happier place” (p. 255). [End Page 663]
Carefully grounded upon the best secondary literature about Haydn, the book is thoroughly documented with frequent references that cite most of the distinguished Haydn scholars from the past century (e.g., H. C. Robbins Landon, Karl Geiringer, and David Wyn Jones). There are ample quotations from these authors as well as from primary sources on the composer’s life. The book also includes a selective bibliography and a glossary of commonly used musical terminology, as well as separate indexes for names/places/terms and for Haydn’s works. Curiously, the names of important Haydn scholars C. F. Pohl and Jens Peter Larsen are absent.
Among the book’s positive features are the extended analytical discussions of particular compositions. Through carefully selected musical illustrations (with notated examples and formal diagrams), readers learn about the details that have made Haydn’s music so successful. Substantive analyses are found for selected symphonies, keyboard sonatas, string quartets, art songs, oratorios, and operas. Despite the challenges of such prose analyses for readers, the author’s effective, concise analyses reflect his keen awareness of how descriptive analysis “may help guide a listener’s ear to be more perceptive” (p. 58).
One small drawback in the narrative is that the author does not always state the year in which some event happens, so that the reader must often backtrack several paragraphs to verify the year to which the author refers. Adding a chronology for Haydn’s life to the appendix would have provided helpful temporal orientation. In addition, there are numerous illustrations (music examples and formal diagrams) that would be more instructive if they had a caption that identified the work, rather than giving just an Example/Diagram number that makes the reader search through the text to ascertain the piece’s identity.
Each chapter opens with two or three eye-catching epigraphs, which can be quite inspiring or occasionally distracting—the latter when the quotation seems disconnected from the topic or period of the chapter that follows. Usually, epigraphs are supposed to reflect a theme for the chapter; however, their purpose in Stapert’s volume seems to be, in some cases, intellectual ornament.
Surprisingly, Stapert agrees with Charles Rosen’s concerns about the musical character of Haydn’s late Masses being sometimes at “odds with the text.” He remarks (p. 236) at the two-tempo slow/fast Kyrie settings that Rosen terms “inaptly jolly” without realizing that Haydn was following a long-established twotempo Kyrie convention, rather than relying on his slow/fast symphony movement practices.
In sum, Stapert’s biography is an enthusiastic, candid, and thorough account of the life of one of the first internationally known living composers of Western music. Making fine use of the best...