Posted by: rbbadger | November 30, 2009

A life of Haydn

The musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon has died recently at his home in France.  Born in New England, he came under the influence of Professor Karl Greisinger at Boston University, former archivist of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna and a long-time professor of musicology in the USA.  Early on, he decided to devote his life to Haydn research.  Knowing that he would need to move to Europe in order to do this, he took a job as a music critic for The Times of London. 

From that base, he was able to gain access to the Haydn archives in the National Library in Budapest, Hungary, no small feat considering that Hungary was then very much under the oppression of Communism.  As Haydn’s employers, the princes of Esterházy were prominent Hungarian nobles, many Haydn manuscripts and other assorted memorabilia were seized by the Hungarian government when their palace of Esterháza was taken from them by the state. 

Landon went on to spread the message of Haydn’s music.  He wrote books about his works, a multi-volume biography of his life, and produced scholarly editions of his music.  In the 1960s and 1970s, he consulted with the great Hungarian-American conductor Antál Dorati in the first recordings of the entire symphonies.  Given that Haydn composed 108 symphonies, this was no small feat.  He also made some of the earliest recordings of Haydn’s works through the Haydn Society which he founded.  At the time he began his work, very few Haydn works had ever been recorded and most of the symphonies had never been published.  The fact that Haydn is now very much in the repertory is due in no small to the heroic labours of H.C. Robbins Landon and others.

Scholars are not infallible, as the music world was find out in 1993.  Six hitherto unknown piano sonatas were positively identified by Landon as being the work of Haydn.  They later turned out to be very clever forgeries by a living German composer. 

While he did not play a role in the Mozart revival, he did nevertheless contribute some important Mozart scholarship.  He authored some important books on Mozart’s life, especially his 1791: Mozart’s Last Year.  In this book, Landon once and for all puts to rest the rumours that Salieri killed Mozart.  While such rumours may make for great theatre, as Peter Schaffer was to show us, they have no basis in fact.  Additionally, he did much in that same book to salvage the reputation of Constanze Mozart.  Constanze, Mozart’s wife, had long been portrayed as a silly, flighty, irresponsible woman.  Landon uncovered her many virtues.  She was not as bad with money as she had previously been portrayed. 

For all his contributions to Mozart scholarship, Landon really preferred Haydn.  Landon’s was a very colourful career which you may read about here.


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