Music à la Mode

Haydn and the Classical Variation

by Elaine R. Sisman
Harvard University Press, 311 pp., $45.00


Almost everyone agrees that performing and listening to music are primary activities; writing about music is secondary, parasitical. Ideally, musicologists ought to write for listeners and performers. In real life, they write for other musicologists. Because they have to.

The profession of musicology is changing. European music from 1700 to the present is still at the center of music studies, even in Asian countries, but it has become less isolated. The canon of works to be studied is no longer sacrosanct: serious attempts to widen it are being made, above all to find a place for female and non-white composers, and for pop music. University music departments are understandably anxious to hire ethnomusicologists to salve their bad consciences about their years of neglect of other cultures rather than to strengthen the traditional teaching of Western art music.

There is a general, and not unfounded, sense nowadays that the historian of so-called classical music is being forced to rescue himself and his subject as well. If there were not a real intellectual crisis, then one would have to be invented, and the demands for an overhaul of musicology that have been advanced recently are only natural in this climate.

Despair, however, is the mother of invention. The “new musicologists” (they themselves use the term ironically and with a certain graceful embarassment) deplore the pretended autonomy of traditional musicological studies and present an explicit program of bringing the subject into contact with social science, political history, gay studies, and feminism, to achieve a genuine intellectual prestige, and to transform musicology into a field as up-to-date as recent literary criticism. In fact, the borrowings today from figures outside music like Derrida, Bakhtin, and Lacan are very heavy. This openness to new ideas from other fields has infused a sense of excitement into musicology, a recklessness missing before and badly needed.

I do not want to imply that more traditional musicology is not thriving and producing original and stimulating studies. Lewis Lockwood’s recent Beethoven Studies goes farther than any other work I know to show how Beethoven mapped out and controlled a large-scale form: the pages on the Eroica Symphony, above all, are definitive and persuasive. Elaine Sisman’s Haydn and the Classical Variation is the first satisfactory study of one of the most neglected aspects of Haydn’s art. After reading it, I am astonished that no one had considered at length so important a subject, but in any case it has now been done brilliiantly. A new book by James Webster, Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony and the Idea of the Classical Style, discusses the works of Haydn’s middle period in great depth. I should perhaps say here that Professor Webster treats me at length but with great courtesy as the enemy, since I was concerned to set off Haydn’s late period from all of the earlier work and to show what he had in common with the much younger Mozart, while Webster demonstrates convincingly how much of the late style was already implicit in…

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