I recently finished reading a great biography and introduction called “Playing Before the LORD: The Life and Work of Joseph Haydn” by Calvin R. Stapert, which is a highly rewarding introduction to the music more people should know and grow to love: The music of Joseph Haydn. While it is true that Haydn does get deference as the “father of the symphony” or “Papa Haydn,” it is usually with a sort of patronizing tone and with the idea that he is only setting up the real stuff to follow. He is considered the elderly but loved uncle at the party that everyone respects and invites but no one really wants to listen to.
The last chapter of Stapert’s book is worth the purchase by itself, and honestly can be read before the rest of the book. Those who are caretakers, defenders, or maybe even “survivors” of the greatness that was/is the classical Christian West should take note of Haydn. Rather than the quaint and pleasant prankster who is merely a diversion, Haydn’s music embodies what Chesterton might have called the “delight of the ordinary,” or what Tolkien tried to represent with the Shire and its common folk singing in the palaces of kings. So why is Haydn well-known, but not really loved? Stapert traces this to a sort of “evolutionism” in the way many artists and academic elites view culture, along with the romanticized myth of the artist as some sort of revolutionary hero.
Behind this is the ever-present pernicious myth that I term “modern chauvinism,” that modernist myth that has its roots in the secular humanism so common in the modern era. A composer like Haydn is not amenable to the modernist (and romantic) view of the artist as some sort of cultural revolutionary who through great toil and suffering remakes the world, or bends us to his will. In music, the great hero for this view is Beethoven (although he is much more of a classicist than people realize). Those who have written the history books (both in the arts and in general) almost all blatantly take this line of reasoning, so that one must take this “modern chauvinist” attitude:
- …if art is “conventional,” “classical,” paleo anything, religious, traditional, or western, view it as “boring,” “regressive,” “irrelevant,” “unoriginal” or “oppressive.” By contrast, any art that is “shocking,” “provocative,” “activist,” “subversive,” “innovative,” or politically relevant is automatically genuine, inspired, relevant, and true artistry.
- Re-interpret western cultural history in lieu of number 8. (taken from “20 Ways to be a Modern Chauvinist”)
Stapert quotes music critic Terry Teachout who notes that a huge amount of contemporary artists (and, I would argue, much of the academy and the progressive “elites”), think that, “art must be grim and/or preachy (preferably both).” Music (or art) that does not do this, is simply a fanciful diversion, a sort of escape from the myth that our lives are clouded by busy necessity (pg. 255-257). In contrast, Haydn, as a devout Christian, found joy in the ordinary, and by taking delight in the objects, events, persons in daily life. This is not to say that Haydn’s music cannot be tragic, or that it cannot possess moments of passion or the like, but that his artistic outlook represents a philosophy and worldview that is an anathema to our present culture, which is why he is more needed than ever. Instead of obsessing over the ugly and confusing world of modernity (and post-modernity), Haydn instead “gives rest and refreshment not as an escape from reality or as a drug that deadens our senses. Quite the contrary. His music awakens our senses to a deeper reality than the confusion, ugliness, and troubles that we see and experience on the surface of our daily lives.” (pg. 257).
Stapert ends by noting that one of Haydn’s work is called the “Mass for troubled times (missa in angustiis),” which we commonly nickname the “Lord Nelson” Mass. He then states that “His music as a whole is musica in angustiis. Listening to it gives us cause to rejoice because it is a revelation of grace, a case in point of the way things really are. It should prompt us to sing what Haydn regularly penned at the end of his scores: LAUS DEO! – PRAISE TO GOD!” (pg. 258).
Let us then begin to reclaim our culture, and reclaim the idea of the Christian artist as one who can express joy and delight in the grace shown to us by our maker. Listen to, perform, and celebrate God’s servant genius, Haydn!