Thursday, November 26, 2009

What H. C. Robbins Landon Meant to Me

I first encountered the name of Howard Chandler Robbins Landon when, as a student, I began to collect the complete symphonies of Joseph Haydn as they were incrementally released by the Musical Heritage Society. The notes on the back of each record jacket were by Robbins Landon, and it would not be an exaggeration to say that Robbins Landon's text notes were responsible for my first efforts to listen seriously to Haydn's musical notes. Indeed, Robbins Landon's writing had much to do with my getting beyond the notes on the score page to the notes that trigger the mind by way of the ear. I would not be writing the way I do today had I not had Robbins Landon's own writing as an influence.

Thus, while I never met the man or had an opportunity to hear him lecture, I read Allan Kozinn's obituary on the occasion of his death last Friday at the age of 83 with some sadness. My initial incremental exposure to Robbins Landon was then followed by the volume-by-volume acquisition of his five-volume Haydn: Chronicle and Works. I have never read this through cover-to-cover; but it has become a major resource for me in this bicentennial year of Haydn's death. I even consulted it for my writing when I was trying to track down the explanation for how the "Frog" string quartet got its name. Ironically, this was one of those rare occasions when Robbins Landon did not help; and eventually I ended up exploring hypotheses on my own last May. Nevertheless, his resource was of invaluable assistance during my traversal of the Brilliant Classics Haydn Edition.

My one frustration with these volumes was in finding things. Since it was structured as a chronicle, it was easy enough to consult if I could connect my search to a year; but I was not always that fortunate. Thus, my greatest regret is that Robbins Landon was not able to secure the rights to include some version of the catalog compiled by Anthony van Hoboken. Fortunately, there was a French version of this material at a University of Quebec site that I consulted with great frequency when writing about my experiences with the Haydn Edition; but that site has now been closed. As a result, I have now had my first seriously positive experience with the Internet Archive, through which I discovered a "Wayback Machine" copy of the Quebec site. I have "Chris," the Administrator of The Beethoven Reference Site, for pointing me to the Wayback Machine. The wisdom of the individual still trumps the wisdom of the crowd, but it is not always easy to find the right individual!

Of course no individual is infallible, and that includes Robbins Landon. Reminding us that an obituary does not need to be an encomium, Kozinn recalled what was probably his greatest scholarly blunder:

Mr. Landon’s enthusiasm for Haydn could lead him astray. In 1993 he and the pianist-musicologists Paul and Eva Badura-Skoda announced what they said was a major find: a set of six lost Haydn piano sonatas. Mr. Landon declared them authentic, although he had seen only photocopies. When further study raised questions about the provenance of the pieces — which were eventually proven to be the work of a modern German composer — Mr. Landon changed his mind, agreeing with other musicologists that the set was, after all, “a rather sinister forgery.”

Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with recognizing the mere humanity of a great scholar who has influenced one's own work. Had it not been for Robbins Landon, I may not have learned about Haydn's own mere humanity; and I doubt that Haydn, himself, every wanted to be apotheosized!

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