H.C. Robbins Landon

Musicologist and Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon has passed away at the age of 83.

He was a man so prolific as author, editor and broadcaster that I long suspected there must be six of him. I probably have more scores edited by him in my library than anyone else, and his contributions to the Haydn edition certainly changed music history. Here are a few quotes from the Guardian obituary, which you can read in its entirety here. I just finished reading his autobiography “Horns in High C” which is a remarkable document of a remarkable life. Thank goodness there might still b 5 H.C. Robbins Landon’s left.

Few musicologists achieve true celebrity outside their specialist field. But the name of HC Robbins Landon, who has died at the age of 83, was known by many thousands of people beyond the scholarly community. While his reputation was founded on his trailblazing research into Joseph Haydn, which helped to establish the composer’s works – largely unknown as late as the 1950s – in the canon, it was his series of books on Mozart, aimed at a wider public and selling in huge numbers in many languages, that brought him global renown.

It is no exaggeration to call him a titan, for Robbie, as he was universally known, was a giant in both physical and intellectual terms. And yet his infectious enthusiasm for the subject under discussion, coupled with an encyclopedic memory and almost recklessly fluent delivery, allowed him to engage lay audiences in a way that few scholars are able.

Born in Boston and educated at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, Landon studied music theory, composition and English literature, the latter under WH Auden. His interest in Haydn had already been piqued as a schoolboy, but an encounter with the scholar Karl Geiringer, his teacher at Boston University (1945-47), helped him on his chosen path. Realising that his future lay in Europe, where all the relevant sources were located, he managed to secure work as a music critic and European correspondent for various US newspapers and journals, including Musical America.

Employment by the Times, for which he worked for nearly a decade, was a crucial factor in gaining him admittance to archives behind the iron curtain. The papers of Haydn’s employers, the princes of Esterházy, in the National Library in Budapest, had recently been taken over by the state. General access was all but impossible, but the Times connection ensured that he was treated with courtesy and even offered a visa.

In 1949 the Haydn Society was founded at his instigation. Originally located in Boston, but later operating out of Vienna also, the society planned a complete edition of Haydn’s works, of which only a tenth had been published at that time; the project was subsequently abandoned, though much valuable musicological work was undertaken by the society. Equally notable were the recordings it issued, which included a number of Haydn’s works, not least symphonies and masses, that had been previously unavailable on disc. The first recordings of Mozart’s C minor Mass and Idomeneo were also made by the society.

Partly in conjunction with the activities of the Haydn Society, Landon began to produce critical editions and other material relating to the composer at this time. The first major publishing milestone was The Symphonies of Joseph Haydn (1955), which presented those works in the context of Haydn’s output as a whole and of 18th-century music in general. Meanwhile he published editions of a number of Haydn’s other works, notably masses and operas, helping to stimulate performances and effectively bringing about a reappraisal of Haydn’s abilities as a dramatic composer.

The crowning achievement of his Haydn scholarship was the five-volume Haydn: Chronicle and Works (1976-80). The prodigious detail in which Landon lays out in these volumes the documentary material unearthed from the archives is a compliment as much to his faithful publishers, Thames & Hudson, as it is to Landon himself. It is difficult to imagine a similar project being undertaken today. To take examples at random, in volume one the salaries and payments in kind made in 1760 to Haydn’s musicians at Eisenstadt are listed: they include precise allocations of wheat, corn, lard, candles, cabbage and beets, and, for some privileged players, a pig or two.

The third volume, covering the London years, includes, among its scores of documents, diary accounts by Haydn of his visit to Ascot, intimate information about Haydn’s visits to a surgeon (wishing to remove a polyp from the composer’s nose, the surgeon summoned “a few brawny fellows” to hold him down, but Haydn resisted) and much more besides.

His freely expressed gratitude to assistants, as to fellow-scholars, made him a pleasure to work with, however. It was an instructive experience too: one could but marvel at his ability to bring to life the dry documentary material retrieved from dusty library shelves. Both on the printed page and in the radio studio he communicated an enthusiasm that for once endowed musicology with the excitement of a detective story. It was this lightness of touch allied to his scholarly credentials and an almost missionary desire to share knowledge with the world at large that brought him unprecedented financial rewards as well as critical acclaim. In an interview conducted a couple of years before he died, he reported that he had just received a royalty cheque for his five Mozart books amounting to $80,000. Even allowing for the multiple reissues and translations of 1791, the figure represents an astonishing, and surely unequalled, return on a scholarly endeavour of this nature.

Fluent in several languages, Robbie made his home at different times in America, Britain, Vienna and France. It was to his beautiful 18th-century chateau at Rabastens, near Toulouse, that he finally retired, spending his last decade or so with his companion Marie-Noelle Raynal-Bechetoille, who, like Else Radant, survives him (there were no children from either marriage). An epicurean and bon vivant, he was no less generous with his hospitality than with his scholarship.

• Howard Chandler Robbins Landon, musicologist, born 6 March 1926; died 20 November 2009

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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