Obituary: HC Robbins Landon, musicologist

Gramophone25th Nov 2009
Robbins LandonRobbins Landon

HC Robbins Landon, doyen of musicologists in the second half of the 20th century, was primarily known for his pioneering work on the music of Haydn. Nevertheless, it was his popular writing on Mozart following the success of the film version of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, with which he reached his widest audience.

Howard Chandler Robbins Landon – known to all simply as Robbie – was born in Boston and studied at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania (his English tutor was WH Auden), and at Boston University, where contact with the Haydn scholar Karl Geiringer provided the spur for his life’s work. He moved to Europe and worked as a critic for US newspapers and later The Times, which was instrumental in gaining him access to major sources in communist central Europe. He founded the Haydn Society with the intention of publishing all the composer’s works, a mission that remained incomplete. His groundbreaking Haydn studies resulted in the mammoth The Symphonies of Joseph Haydn (1955), but even this was put in the shade by his magnum opus, the five-volume Haydn: Chronicle and Works (1976-80), which collated evidence from personal and official documents relating to Haydn’s career and the running of the Esterházy musical establishment to piece together a vivid picture of the composer’s day-to-day life, as well as commenting perceptively on every aspect of the music, much of which had lain unheard for almost two centuries.

A similar gift for divining the reality behind mundane documentary evidence was applied to his series of books on Mozart, which includes 1791: Mozart’s Last Year (1988). By chipping away at the thick, grey crust of myth and half-truth that had distorted Mozart’s reputation throughout the 19th century and beyond, Landon newly elucidated the composer’s life and took musicology on a rare excursion into the best-seller lists.

His only misfire was an eagerness to authenticate the discovery of the autographs of six Haydn keyboard sonatas which emerged in late 1993 but which soon turned out to be a hoax. Landon also wrote with characteristically tireless enthusiasm on Beethoven, Handel, JC Bach and Vivaldi, and published his memoirs, Horns in High C (1999), a racy tale of musical archaeology during the dark decades of the 20th century. It is particularly tragic that he died before the close of the Haydn Year of 2009, for which his landmark work in so many respects laid the foundations.

Read Robbins Landon's June 1966 Continental Report for Gramophone

David Threasher


Richard Wigmore remembers HC Robbins Landon

As an indefatigable one-man Haydn industry, 'Robbie' quickly became one of my heroes when I was avidly discovering Haydn, Mozart, Bruckner et al in my teens. His pioneering - albeit typically sprawling - book on Haydn's symphonies, and his many radio and TV talks, delivered with that unique mix of breathless excitement and profound knowledge, did more than anything to kindle my early passion for the composer. At the end of 1993 I finally met 'Robbie' at a BBC Music Magazine event to celebrate the rediscovery of six 'lost' Haydn sonatas. The works were soon exposed as the plausible frauds of a German music teacher, leaving egg on several scholarly faces. It was characteristic of the larger-than-life Robbie's boundless self-confidence and bravado that he was able to laugh off the whole potentially embarrassing affair as a huge joke.

A few years later I and BBC producer Nick Morgan were invited to stay with Robbie and his partner Marie-Noelle Raynal-Bechetoille in their charming18th-century chateau near Rabestans, in the Tarn (his life had been spent in a succession of beautiful houses), to interview him for a Radio 3 series on the post-war Haydn renaissance. I must have asked the first question at about 2.30 on the first afternoon. In response, Robbie finished his first sentence around 5.30. Even in his seventies, his energy, enthusaism and acumen remained phenomenal as he relived the heady days of Haydn discovery in the 1940s and 50s, when everything seemed - and usually was - possible. And all through it shone a rare generosity of spirit towards friends and fellow-musicians. In the evening Robbie lived up to his reputation as an epicurean and bon vivant. An exquisite meal cooked by Marie-Noelle was accompanied by a series of rare Bordeaux and Burgundy vintages from his cellar, each one eloquently introduced by Robbie. If my liver was in shock for some days afterwards, that March weekend remains one of the most inspiring, musically and gastronomically, of my whole life.

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