The death of an amiable giant

I read about someone’s death this morning and felt that oddly non-personalised sense of loss which occurs when someone who you don’t know but who has always been there fades from the scene.

It is a bit like when you notice that that bag lady isn’t there any more. The one who used to always be on the street corner, smelling a bit, swearing a bit but somehow reminding us that life isn’t as regular as you might like to pretend. In her case you know that she hasn’t really moved to another corner, she, like Mr. H.C.Robbins Landon is dead.

Now H.C.Robbins Landon wasn’t a bag lady or even a bag gentleman, he was a distinguished musicologist who, almost, single-handedly reminded everyone with ears to listen that Joseph Haydn was one of music’s greatest just when everyone was dismissing him as a slightly superficially jolly composer of too many symphonies, string quartets and a whole load of other stuff too.

I know that H.C.R. wasn’t a tramp, OK, but he could have been, he was certainly a gentleman of the road who refused to accept borders and barriers. In those bad old Iron Curtain days, he persisted in travelling around Hungary to various obscure but important places in the Haydn biography and, amazingly, found many scores that might well have disappeared for ever.

He was a big man…tall, um, fat and with a very loud voice. He was an American who might have just been too loud and enthusiastic for American academic life so he settled in Europe ultimately in the only kind of building that would fit his personality, after the Tuscan villa and the smart Viennese appartment, it was the rambling French Chateau de Foncoussieres where his giant frame fitted like a glove and where he charmed and alarmed everyone who came within his circle.


Most of all though, he knew his Haydn, wrote about him and even listened to it all too – all 104 (or 107) symphonies, all 84 String Quartets, all 46 Piano Trios and every one of those 62 piano sonatas let alone all the other things, concertos, masses, operas and dances.

He inspired me to do the same. An epic task which I undertook with some trepidation but now I have not only grown to love these works but I have even listened to the complete symphony and string quartet cycles through chronologically not just once but twice.

For all our love of Mozart and Beethoven, without Haydn, there would have been no great classical awakening at the turns of the 18th and 19th centuries…..but also, without Haydn there would have been none of those wonderful works which raise the art of music to a level of invention, wit, passion and joy which we need as a daily input just as much as we need good strong coffee, an intelligent broadsheet newspaper, the affections of a loving spaniel and the inspiration of a well planned garden.

H.C.Robbins Landon is dead – Long life Joseph Haydn.

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