Child’s Play


304 pp.

In the conventional wisdom about the Classical Era in Western art music, these three abide: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. And the greatest of these is Beethoven.

As practices of music history and music consumption have changed, however, this narrative has been challenged. Music lovers of all levels have questioned its assumptions and values, making for a richer and more complex story. One of the many strengths of Calvin Stapert’s eminently readable new book, Playing Before the Lord: the Life and Work of Joseph Haydn, lies in how Stapert brings to life the many musical achievements of Joseph Haydn-–and how these complicate our understanding of the man and his musical age.

Playing Before the Lord can be enjoyed by the passionate Haydn fan as well as the musical novice. In it, Stapert draws attention to aspects of Haydn’s personality both well-known and less familiar. As an example of the latter, the author discusses Haydn’s Catholicism and how it might have influenced some of his most famous compositions–including the Seven Last Words, the Missa in Angustiis, and the Creation. These works are fruits of Haydn’s maturity, building off a career in which musical ability, a ferocious work ethic, and just plain luck combined to make Haydn the composer whom many saw as the greatest of his time. He was renowned not only for his musical innovation but also for his good nature, which earned him the nickname “Papa” from many of his friends and students. Unfortunately for Haydn’s reputation, the value of good cheer plummets once the 19th-century Romantics appear. In the ensuing narrative, Haydn goes from idolized to patronized, and his music from sublime to, at times, childish.

Stapert seeks to set the record straight by taking the reader on a guided tour of Haydn’s life and compositions. Though the book has a fundamental biographical structure, it can also be read as a history of Haydn’s patrons and their wars and luxuries or as a history of changing musical instruments and genres. Stapert weaves these strands into the overarching narrative quite effectively, alternating judicious summary with effective details and thereby accomplishing the difficult task of rendering music analysis accessible to audiences of differing musical backgrounds. He structures his narrative of each time period of Haydn’s life around musical works particular to that era. Analyses of later works build on those of earlier ones; thus, Stapert’s discussions of the London Symphonies can be read fruitfully alongside analyses of the symphonies for the Esterházy princes.

As with the symphony, so with the other genres of Haydn’s remarkable range and amazing productivity: opera, the string quartet, and the piano sonata, to name but three.

Some works Stapert analyzes in greater detail; some he mentions only briefly. If I could ask for any supplement to this book, given the attention paid to instrumentation in certain analytical passages, I would ask for a recommended recordings list. For example, Haydn’s Symphony No. 31, “Horn Signal,” will sound different with natural horn (used in the 18th century and early 19th) as opposed to valve horn (invented in the mid-19th century and used in modern symphony orchestras). Because Playing Before the Lord is an excellent guide for the nonspecialist, further guidance here would be helpful. This is a small wish, though, and only derives from the assumption that where there is a lucid analysis, there has been an excellent listening experience–one that, if drawn from a recording, the reader might like to share.

By linking growth and change in each genre to the chronology of Haydn’s life, Stapert might give the impression of unstoppable forward momentum–and thus, ironically, feed into the traditional Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven narrative. However he avoids this trap not only by showing innovations present in Haydn’s early works but also by situating the three composers in their intersections. Haydn as Mozart’s friend and mentor; Haydn as Beethoven’s teacher and rival; Mozart’s Requiem played at Haydn’s funeral–the list can go on. The three thus do not stand along an historical arrow pointing in one direction as much as they exist side by side musically.

Stapert passionately argues for a re-evaluation of Haydn; the detail and lucidity of Playing Before the Lord makes his a convincing case. As the author points out, however, it is ironic that Haydn’s merit should somehow still be in question. For the re-evaluation of Haydn’s music has already led music lovers of all levels to find something remarkable in what was dismissed as child’s play by later composers, to find something new in the so-called “old.” As we listen, we realize that “old” may be so called because what was new in Haydn’s craftsmanship spread with such rapidity and gained such influence in the late 18th century that it, in turn, has given us our baseline for music of the Classical Era.





Photo Credit: Matiluba