Monday, September 28, 2015

Curators in the Musical Museum:
The Case of Haydn

by Bryan Proksch

The idea that the canon of musical works is a sort of museum—an idea advanced by Lydia Goehr, Peter Burkholder, and others—makes a lot of sense. Classical audiences are expected to be at least nominally conversant with certain composers and works from the past, and the same holds true in painting or sculpture in physical museums. But the musical museum isn’t really like other museums given the fleeting nature of live performance. Just who are the curators of our musical museum? Why have “they,” whoever “they” are, chosen the composers and works that they have? These are among the questions that preoccupied me in Reviving Haydn: New Appreciations in the Twentieth Century (University of Rochester Press, 2015). 

The radical swings Joseph Haydn’s reputation has seen over the past two centuries amply demonstrate that the “who” making decisions can be virtually anyone interested in the art form. The “why” underlying their opinions can range from as simple as “because I like it” to as complex as the most loquacious musicologists in the world can conjure up.

It is not too much to say that by the time Haydn died in 1809 he was more famous throughout the European musical world than any other composer who had ever lived. He was a father figure to the Austrians and a strong influence on Beethoven. The Parisians commissioned a set of symphonies and struck a medal in his honor; Napoleon put an honor guard at his house after conquering Vienna. Londoners made Haydn a rich man over the course of his two journeys there in the 1790s. With only a few exceptions, performers, critics, publishers, other composers, and concertgoers lavished praise on his music. Few living composers are correctly identified as stars whose light will continue to shine forever, but Haydn is surely one of them.

In spite of all this, after 1809 a significant cross-section of the musical world seemingly moved on from Haydn in favor of Romanticism. Who decided? It wasn’t the concertgoing public: ample evidence from the nineteenth century suggests that audiences continued to want to hear Haydn’s music. Hans von Bülow, one of the towering pianists and conductors of the era, purposefully included works by Haydn on his concert programs not because he liked the music per se but because, as he put it, “symphonies by Haydn and Mozart bring a sold out hall and cost nothing.” Others more overtly attacked Haydn’s music as old-fashioned, usually as part of an agenda to promote living composers writing in newer styles. Composers like Schumann and Wagner said surprisingly dismissive things about his repertoire. Berlioz went so far as to say that the text painting in The Creation made him “shrivel up” every time he heard the “detested” work (no small irony for a composer who himself depicted a decapitated head rolling into a basket in the Symphonie fantastique).

In many ways, it was the musical amateurs who were keeping Haydn in concert throughout the mid-nineteenth century. George Sand depicted him quite favorably in her novel Consuelo: her Haydn defends Consuelo, with whom he has fallen desperately in love, from an attack by a man with a gun. Choral societies in every corner of the United States programmed The Creation regularly, partly because people enjoyed seeing the spectacle of the work and the singers enjoyed singing it. Eventually, however, the criticism took its toll. By the end of the century, audiences were becoming tired of the few works by Haydn still in the concert repertoire. His music was well on its way to gathering dust on the bookshelf.

We’re now at the part in the tale where some hero figure would normally come to the rescue, like Mendelssohn supposedly did for J. S. Bach. The problem is that no single person brought Haydn back from the brink. Instead, a wide variety of figures in the first decades of the twentieth century, led by their own unique self-interests, decided that Haydn’s work had something relevant to offer to the musical museum. Now it was their turn to convince audiences to listen with new ears.

None of these composers, critics, teachers, or performers decided that we should hear Haydn from a fresh perspective simply because he was “one of the greats.” Jules Écorcheville, for instance, was a French musicologist who used chronology, namely the centenary of Haydn’s death in 1909, as an excuse to promote French research in music history and modern French composition. Debussy,  Ravel, Widor, and a few others wrote compositions dedicated to Haydn that year at Écorcheville’s prompting. Schoenberg not only looked to Haydn for guidance in the ways to forge a new musical style, but cited him in his textbooks in an effort to demonstrate the ways one might create coherence in music in the absence of tonal reference points. Heinrich Schenker, picking up the pieces in a shattered post-World War I Austria, called out the rallying cry “Forward to Haydn” in the hopes that Austrians would rise again to dominate the musical world by following Haydn’s example. Wanda Landowska, d’Indy, Vaughan Williams, Toscanini, Tovey … the list goes on and on. Every one of these great musical minds found a specific reason to embrace and use (in every sense of that word) Haydn to promote their own agendas. Haydn’s music was once again great because these people effectively argued that it was so.

It might be worth pointing out that often these leading thinkers were dealing with pressures from “regular people.” My favorite example is a young boy named Tom Whitestone who had the audacity to write to conductor John Barbirolli in 1956 complaining that he programmed too much Vaughan Williams and needed more Haydn because the melodies were better. Barbirolli forwarded the letter to RVW, himself a Haydn advocate, who wrote the boy back: “I am glad you like Haydn; he is a very great man & wrote beautiful tunes. I must one day try to write a tune which you will like.” If that isn’t influence from the public, I don’t know what is.

The French in Eisenstadt (Kismarton), 1909.
D'Indy 4th fr rt.; Écorchville ctr, obscured.
To me this is all very exciting. Studying critical reception uncovers the factors that shape our musical museum. It turns out that our collective curatorship of that museum is never as simple as “we listen to him because he wrote great music.” And while, in a real museum, a handful of people determines what hangs on the wall and what gets stored, in the musical museum, everyone plays a part. The reasons why we listen to Haydn, or anyone else for that matter, are as diverse as the people listening.


Bryan Proksch is assistant professor of music history at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas. His research centers on the reception and “revival” of Haydn’s music in the early twentieth century, though he also works more generally on Viennese Classicism and the history of the trumpet. His essays have appeared in the Journal of the American Musicological Society (2011), the Journal of Musicological Research (2009), the Journal of the Arnold Schoenberg Center (2012), the Historic Brass Society Journal (2008 and 2011), the International Trumpet Guild Journal (2003, 2007, 2009, and 2011), and elsewhere.

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