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

Franz Josef Haydn
Franz Josef Haydn; drawing by David Levine

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…

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