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Rediscovering Haydn

Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. 2: Haydn at Eszterháza, 1766-1790

by H. C. Robbins Landon
Indiana University Press, 800 pp., $57.50

Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. 3: Haydn in England, 1791-1795

by H. C. Robbins Landon
Indiana University Press, 640 pp., $45.00

Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. 4: Haydn: The Years of “The Creation,” 1796-1800

by H. C. Robbins Landon
Indiana University Press, 640 pp., $45.00

Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. 5: Haydn: The Late Years, 1801-1809

by H. C. Robbins Landon
Indiana University Press, 486 pp., $45.00

The history of music proceeds by revaluation: the standard procedure is to discover greatness in the obscure, merit in the despised. Dethronings are more rare: generally the discredited monarchs topple without having to be pushed; past glories melt like the snows of yesteryear.

There is not, of course, much point in dragging an old manuscript out of obscurity only to affirm that it is of exceedingly little interest. The musicologist generally prefers to believe that when his researches do not heighten our appreciation and enjoyment of the familiar, they at least give us new objects of admiration. Occasionally a historian tries to prove that some works with claims to our respect—like one of Haydn’s cello concertos or Mozart’s Symphonie Concertante for winds—are impostors, written by anonymous or little-known hacks. These attempts are, however, rare: given his choice, the historian would rather discover a symphony by Joseph Haydn than prove that one of those now in the canon was composed by his brother.

The most famous of these revaluations, the revival of J.S. Bach by the early nineteenth century, is a myth: Bach had never been forgotten, his music was greatly admired from his death in 1750 until the end of the century, and the keyboard works were studied and played. Little had been published, but manuscript copies were common enough. The romantic revival of Bach was basically a campaign of publishing, coupled with a series of performances of the choral works, which had remained largely ignored.

The great achievement of the musicology of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was the reappropriation of the medieval and Renaissance heritage. Then came the turn of the important early baroque figures, like Monteverdi; his fame was firmly reestablished by the 1930s. After the Second World War, all these movements continued, and new areas were opened up. Haydn’s great piano trios are at last being heard from time to time in concerts. Mozart’s Così fan tutte returned permanently to the repertory after more than a century of misunderstanding. Similar efforts have been made recently on behalf of Mozart’s mature opere serie, I domeneo and La Clemenza di Tito, but with significantly less success, neither having gained a foothold in the permanent repertory of more than one or two houses.

Perhaps the greatest commercial success in all these movements of rehabilitation is the revival of the minor composers of early eighteenth-century instrumental music—the so-called baroque and rococo styles. The music is mostly easy to listen to (a kind of eighteenth-century Muzak), recordings can be played without distracting the listener from other tasks, and the ensembles employed are small and economical.

The chief beneficiary of this movement has been Vivaldi; many of his five hundred concertos are now frequently performed. Luigi Dallapiccola’s acid remark about Vivaldi, often repeated, is misleading. He claimed that Vivaldi wrote not five hundred concertos but the same concerto five hundred times. This really ought to be stood on its head. Vivaldi was full of many different ideas, most of them striking, full of genius. His problem was one of structure.

It would be more accurate to say that Vivaldi had five hundred ideas for a concerto, and that none of them ever was fully worked out. It is only after his wonderful opening bars, his extraordinary beginnings (which taught J.S. Bach so much), that his concertos bog down and begin to resemble each other in the deployment of harmonic clichés—clichés which would not matter (as they do not matter in Handel) if the large harmonic form was coherent and interesting, the clichés given a sense of direction and movement instead of a feeling of jogging on a treadmill.

Vivaldi’s operas are coming in for attention now: the same faults and virtues are manifest there. The arias begin strikingly, but continue with little of Handel’s energy, Bach’s intensity, or Alessandro Scarlatti’s subtlety. These deficiencies are less crippling here: an aria is generally much shorter than a concerto movement. In comparing Vivaldi to Bach and Handel, some of his admirers (Marc Pincherle, for example) either refused to face his weaknesses, or else—what is worse—they never understood the strengths of the already established masters. Anyone, however, who has been through the numbing experience of a program devoted entirely to the works of one of Vivaldi’s minor and justly obscure contemporaries like Albinoni will gratefully acknowledge Vivaldi’s finer talent.

The most fruitful sources for the historian seeking to make an important change in our way of looking at music today are by no means the genuinely obscure works never touched by appreciation, but those works—and sometimes whole genres and styles—much celebrated in their own time, which have suffered a long eclipse. The revival of forgotten glory, the resuscitation of dead prestige—this is the kind of achievement that is not only relatively easy to pull off but also attracts the most attention. The renewed interest in the nineteenth-century virtuoso salon music came up in the 1970s above all as a manifestation of anti-modernism, a hatred of the avant-garde; the new and similar taste for official art shown by historians of painting has its counterpart as well in the musicological attempts to revive the opera seria of the early eighteenth century, the official court style of that time. The contempt in which these styles were held until recently is not an obstacle to their revival, but a stimulus and even, paradoxically, an aid: it gives them a kind of avant-garde status of their own. An exhibition of a salon painter like Bouguereau or a performance of a Scharwenka piano concerto is a kind of joke provocation, a parody version of the Armory Show or the riot at the première of Le Sacre du printemps.

What we are often asked to do in these revivals of forgotten masterpieces is forget all the history that has happened since the once-admired works were first revealed to the public, immerse ourselves in the age that created them, recapture the astonished admiration of the contemporaries, and erase the decades and even centuries of neglect and contempt. This historicist approach demands a considerable effort of sympathy and imagination. It may be called a necessary preliminary to understanding.

The danger of the approach lies in the belief that it leads directly to understanding—even, in the most naïve view, that understanding consists exactly in the imaginative attempt to retrieve the ideas and attitudes of a past age. The fallacy that supports this comfortable philosophy of history is the simple faith that an artist is best understood by his contemporaries. This may be true for artists of very little interest (although I doubt it), but the most rapid glance at the history of music shows that a composer of any stature, even when he was appreciated by his contemporaries—as he generally was, in spite of the romantic myth of the unknown genius—was generally radically misunderstood, misread, and misinterpreted by them. It lies with posterity, not to decide on greatness (posterity can at times be as fickle as fortune), but to clear up the inevitable foolishness which surrounds the work during the life of its composer (adding, no doubt, some new foolishness of its own).

The post-history of a work of music—the history of its reception, its changing prestige, its influence—is perhaps even more important for critical understanding than a study of its sources or an account of its actual creation. The work is more than a passive victim of its history. It not only actively provokes the interpretations and the misinterpretations that are visited upon it, but it often incorporates them into itself so that the post-history may become an inevitable part of experiencing the work. The late Beethoven quartets, for example, have become very easy to listen to in the twentieth century, but I do not think that it will ever be possible to hear them without some consciousness of their reputed century-old difficulty: these late quartets have assumed the historical character of difficult music.

The historian who tries to reappraise a once-celebrated genre, like the liturgical music of the late eighteenth century for example, has a responsibility to deal with the condemnation that fell upon it by the 1790s, becoming almost universal after 1800. Not even the works of Mozart and Haydn escaped censure. It cannot be reasonably assumed that the censure was merely a piece of ill-luck extrinsic to the works themselves. The genre was fated to be condemned: how good it is today after more than a century of neglect is another matter, although not one to which the decline of its prestige in the nineteenth century can be pushed aside as irrelevant.

Often enough the later neglect or misunderstanding of an important work can be taken care of without much fuss. The low esteem in which Mozart’s Così fan tutte was held in the nineteenth century was quite simply owing to its immoral and cynical libretto. Even here, however, the condemnation is instructive: the cynicism and the artificiality of the libretto were already out of date when Mozart set it in 1789, a throwback to the French comedies of some forty or fifty years earlier. It is this artificiality which makes it the most symmetrical of all Mozart’s stage works, and the only one of the great comic operas to allow no echo of the political events in the world outside. This gives the music its idiosyncratic quality, one somewhat harder to appreciate than that of the other important operas: there is a good deal of pastiche and parody in many of Mozart’s operas, including Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte, but in none is the pastiche so openly ironic as in Così fan tutte. Much of it is simply a direct parody of operatic style: the irony comes from the evident delight taken not only in the mockery but also in what is being mocked.

The spirit of criticism takes an odd revenge on historicism. Those who dismiss the later history of a work or a style too lightly, who try to lose themselves in an earlier age, who shut their eyes to what followed, and who attempt only to grasp the conditions in which a work could come into being and the significance found in it by the composer’s contemporaries—these lovers of the obsolete and the forgotten end by misrepresenting the very thing they were trying to reproduce so faithfully, and by muddling the period to which they so austerely confine themselves. Rejecting the interpretations of the present, they miss the intentions of the past.

Some of these problems may be seen in the present efforts to rehabilitate parts of Joseph Haydn’s work—those parts as yet largely unappreciated—in Robbins Landon’s new, monumental biography. His efforts are above all on behalf of two genres: the operas and the masses. With the operas, I fear he is heading for a defeat. As for the great religious works of the end of Haydn’s life, Robbins Landon is right in his championship, but wrong about the nature of the criticism that has been leveled against them.

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