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

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

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

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


Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) has been called the father of the symphony and the string quartet. A friend of Mozart and a teacher of Beethoven, "Papa" Haydn composed an amazing variety of music -- symphonies, string quartets, concerti, masses, operas, oratorios, keyboard works -- and his prolific output celebrates both the heights and depths of life.

In this fascinating book Calvin Stapert combines his skills as a biographer and a musicologist to recount Haydn's steady rise from humble origins to true musical greatness. Unlike other biographers, Stapert argues that Haydn's work was a product of his devout Catholic faith, even though he worked mainly as a court musician and the bulk of his output was in popular genres. In addition to telling Haydn's life story, Stapert includes accessible listening guides to The Creation and portions of other well-known works to help Haydn listeners more fully appreciate the brilliance behind his music.


If you know any music by Haydn, you probably know his symphony nicknamed “Surprise.” At least you know the theme of the second movement. the tune is simple in the extreme. One could be excused for thinking it naïve or childlike (or, more negatively, childish). Be that as it may, that tune defines Haydn in the minds of many. Furthermore, his own nickname, “Papa,” suggests a likeable old man, and the simple tune perhaps suggests a touch of senility — a “second childhood.”

You may also know that the symphony got its nickname because in the midst of that tune — which is as soft and gentle as it is simple — at the most unexpected moment, the full orchestra plays a single loud chord. Haydn supposedly said he did it to “wake up the ladies.” This has provided the second ingredient that has defined Haydn in the popular imagination — he is humorous or witty (or, more negatively, silly).

So Haydn, if he is known at all, has become viewed as a composer of nice, congenial music that is often humorous and filled with simple, likeable tunes. There is truth in that view, but it is far too narrow for a composer whose music includes Stabat mater dolorosa and the Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross as well as comic operas, masses as well as Scottish folksongs, a “Trauer” Symphony as well as a “Surprise” Symphony, and whose greatest work, The Creation, celebrates everything from the stars to the lowly worm through music that can be as terrifying as chaos, as glorious as the heavens, as wild as the sea, and as peaceful as a limpid brook. What C. S. Lewis said about the poet Spenser is equally true of Haydn. His work “reaches up to the songs of angels” and down to “the horror of fertile chaos. and between these two extremes comes all the multiplicity of human life.” Although Haydn’s

1. C. S. Lewis, The Allegory of Love (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), p. 359.

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