Photograph: Anne Young

An Interview with H. C. Robbins Landon

H. C. Robbins Landon died peacefully at his home on 20 November 2009. He was 83. This interview was therefore the last major interview he gave. I am happy that it stands as testimony to a remarkable man - B. R. - 24 November 2009 


The story of H. C. Robbins Landon may succinctly be summed up in a single sentence: Young American goes to Europe as a journalist and ends up as one of the most significant musicologists of the 20th century, in the process transforming Haydn scholarship. As with all such précis, this simple statement hides a wealth of detail and it was with the objective of putting flesh on the factual bones that Brian Robins travelled to meet the man at his home near Toulouse in the south of France. For more than twenty years, home for Professor Landon has been a beautiful 18th-century château that he shares with his long-standing companion Marie-Noëlle Raynal-Bechetoille and, among many other treasures, an early 19th-century Erard piano. Now approaching the age of 82, Robbins Landon has suffered much ill health in recent years, but he kindly agreed to give a now-rare interview for Goldberg’s 50th edition, an interview supplemented with the occasional detail from his fascinating and entertaining autobiography, Horns in High C: A Memoir of Musical Discoveries and Adventures.

What first brought you to Europe?

The reason I came to Europe is that I knew that all the sources that would be of interest to me are here, obviously not in America. This stems from 1945, during the last days of the war. I got myself sent over as a correspondent for Musical America in 1947 and then later joined The Times, becoming an arts correspondent for them.

You speak of sources, so you had obviously by this time decided to devote yourself to musical research and that the prime object of that research would by Haydn, with whom your name was to become synonymous. When did you first decide that Haydn was going to become your man?

In 1939, when I was 15 [recte 13] years old. During the 1939-1940 season a series of broadcast concerts conducted by Fritz Stiedry in New York introduced a number of resuscitated Haydn symphonies, most of which had never been heard there before. At the time I was at Asheville School in North Carolina and my music teacher there was a guy called Mathias Cooper. I told him of my great enthusiasm for these Haydn symphonies and that I would love to work in music. He told me that if that was the case I should certainly concentrate on Haydn. So I asked him “Why Haydn?” and he told me that Haydn needed a Gesamtausgabe. I said, “What’s a Gesamtausgabe?”. He explained that it was a complete edition of a composer’s works and everyone has one: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, even Buxtehude. But not Haydn. I asked him why and he told me that forty years ago the German publisher Breitkopf and Härtel started to collect all Haydn’s works, but got bogged down. It was too expensive and nobody cared. So that was what I had to do and he’d show me why. Whereupon he got out a brand new recording of Beecham conducting Symphony No. 93. We listened to it and I said, “Professor, you mean there are more symphonies like this? They must be out of their minds!”. He said, “Exactly!”.

That’s a delightful story. So from that point you decided that Haydn was to be focus of your life?

Yes, I decided there and then to devote my life to Haydn and was surprised and delighted by my parents’ positive reaction to the news when I went home for the vacation. But of course what I then had to do was go to a proper conservatoire or a university with a big music department. I ended up at Boston University studying under Karl Geiringer, who I learned to love as a great professor. We had a class in which he had combined musicology with practical music making and one day he asked if anyone played the trumpet, so I told him that I did. And we sat right there singing and playing Dufay’s “Gloria ad modum tubae”.  That’s what Geiringer was like.

And of course we must remind ourselves that Geiringer was a distinguished Haydn scholar in his own right [his Haydn: A Creative Life in Music (1932) first appeared in English in 1947; ‘Mr Robbins Landon’ is one of those acknowledged in its preface].

Oh, indeed. He wrote a standard book on Haydn that appeared in America right after the war.

I think, too, that it is important to stress the significance of Geiringer’s book, that it appeared at a time when Haydn was generally unknown, apart from a small handful of works.

Yes, and there were many symphonies that even if you wanted to do them, you couldn’t because there was no score and no parts. Symphony No. 51, for example, could not be performed. So my task was to start preparing editions and now of course they are all issued and they sell very well. I just got a royalty cheque and payments on Symphony No. 88 are way up. That’s partly because of the Bernstein recording, which they play all the time on French radio. Have you ever heard that? It’s amazing, quicker than Toscanini and is completely involved in the music. Bernstein was a great Haydn conductor.

To pick up on the story, as we’ve already learned, after you left university you came to Europe and became an arts correspondent.

Yes, firstly after obtaining a position with Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, a radio network that planned to broadcast a series recounting what had happened to music in Europe during World War 2. Later I worked for The Times for about ten years and that got me free tickets for concerts and also behind the Iron Curtain. In those days ‘The Times’ was a magic word in Eastern Europe. If you worked for The Times you had all kinds of advantages and the red carpet was laid out. But there were always potential pitfalls. About two years after the 1956 Revolution, an extremely negative anonymous article about Hungary appeared in The Times and I was politely asked if I knew anything about it. I didn’t, but discovered that it had been smuggled out in the diplomatic bag by the British ambassador, which was a serious breach of protocol that could have caused a lot of trouble. When I was asked again I pretended still to know nothing about the matter, which was soon dropped. 

The Hungarian connection must have been invaluable to you when it came to Haydn research.

It was essential. I managed to get access to the Esterházy Archives in the National Library in Budapest, which nobody had done for years, when the last Esterházy was still alive. By the time I got there they had been taken over by the state, but they were very nice to me and once they realised what I was doing they were completely charming. Eventually I was able to obtain a visa just by saying who I was.

And nobody had previously been able to access the Archives?

Nobody had tried, with the exception of a German musicologist, who had been refused. People imagined you couldn’t get in to them and ordinarily that was true, but I got in through The Times.

So again that was the magic word.

The magic word. Joining The Times was the cleverest thing I ever did. It paid miserably, but the important thing was that it opened doors.

We’ve touched on the Esterházy Archives, which were to prove to be the cornerstone of Haydn: Chronicle and Works, your magnum opus [the five-volumes appeared between 1976 and 1980]. Without prevaricating in any way, we can say that it was one of the great musicological achievements of the 20th century, a work that became (and remains)
the Haydn “bible”. What I don’t know is what decided you to embark on this mammoth undertaking. Did you think it was going to run to five volumes when you started work?

Well, I knew it would be something like that, although it is true that originally I thought it might be a three-volume work, but the musical examples and quotations meant that it ended up as five.

It is just mind boggling to even try to imagine how you organised this vast mass of material. Did you have a team of research assistants?

I had my then wife, Christa Landon, who was a harpsichordist and a distinguished musicologist in her own right. She was Austrian and fluent in English as well as German, so she was an enormous help. She was killed in a plane crash in Spain [in 1977].

One of the things that always interested me about Chronicle and Works is that the volumes did not appear in chronological order. Was there any particular reason for that?

It was because of all the material that emerged from the Esterházy Archives. While the material for the later years was not crucially lacking, I couldn’t possibly do “Haydn at Esterháza” [vol. 2] or “The Early Years” [vol. 1] without the Archives.

So that accounts for “The Early Years” being the last to appear in print?


One final aspect of Chronicle and Works that intrigues me. The final volume appeared nearly 30 years ago. How much new material has Haydn scholarship revealed in that intervening period, I wonder? I suppose what I’m really saying is would there be a case for someone to undertake an updated, revised version?

Well, most of the stuff that was uncovered got into Chronicle and Works and since 1980 we haven’t really made any major discoveries.

Another of your major contributions to the wider dissemination of Haydn and his music was the foundation of the Haydn Society in 1949. Was that your brainchild?

It was founded by a group of people in Boston and then also became operational in Vienna; I was the motivator, but was immediately joined by others including Geiringer.

The Haydn Society went on to do much valuable musicological work, including the publication of the collected works, but for the outside world one of its most important functions was an important series of recordings, many of them premieres.

Yes, our first recording, issued in April 1949, was of the Harmoniemesse, which was supplemented by a facsimile of the first edition of the score. Although Haydn was obviously the major preoccupation, the recordings we made were not exclusively devoted to him; we made the first ever recording of Mozart’s Idomeneo, the first recording of the Mozart Mass in C minor [K.427]. It’s hard to believe today, but it’s true. But of course Haydn was the major focus and when I returned to Vienna we started with four neglected symphonies with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under the young American conductor Jonathan Sternberg; we also made the first recording of Haydn’s then unknown late opera L’anima del filosofo (Orfeo ed Euridice), the score of which I found among the Esterházy Archives.

How did the Haydn Society operate in those early days? Did it have some kind of charitable status?

I started it off with several thousand dollars left to me by an uncle, but after that it funded itself. The records sold
sufficiently well to make a profit and some were particularly successful – the “Nelson” Mass, for example, sold in excess of 5000 copies.

That’s remarkable. There are people making records today who would love to see such sales figures!

We were lucky. And of course you have to remember that all this was new in the 1950s. How was it possible that no one had made a recording of Idomeneo ! God knows! I remember that we had great trouble in finding the Ballet Music, which we turned up in the Salzburg Mozarteum, the only copy in the world then known. The opera was just never played.

Well, there were all sorts of strange ideas about Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito. The notion that Mozart (and indeed his era) was not attuned to serious opera or “tragedy”
was widely expressed even after the time we’re talking about in the writings of people such as Charles Rosen…

He hates me!

I’m sure he doesn’t, but he wrote trenchant criticism of both operas in his famous book The Classical Style [1971], criticism that today seems both quaint and misguided.

Well, what do such people want? Clemenza is a beautiful example of an opera seria. There couldn’t be another Figaro.

Absolutely. I want to return to Mozart in more detail a little later, but perhaps we could just round off our discussion on Haydn. Although Haydn is today infinitely better known and appreciated than he was fifty years ago, there remains a feeling among some of us that his true stature as a composer is still not fully recognised. Would you agree?

No, it’s no longer true today. These days I listen a listen a lot to French radio and Haydn is played almost daily. So I think it’s all changed.

You would argue, then, that Haydn has at last gained his rightful place, recognised as a great composer?

It appears that way. At least it’s true in France. On the other hand, there are places like England where The Creation remains neglected, as it was in Boston for many years.

And The Seasons is surely even more neglected.

It’s very strange, isn’t it? But I’m sure given time that too will change. At one time it was difficult for people to do these pieces, but now they can if they wish to.

I think we should stress that although you’ve devoted so much of your career to Haydn, he has by no means been the sole beneficiary of your interests and work. It might amuse you to know that the first thing of yours I think I ever read was an article called “A Pox on Manfredini” in a magazine called High Fidelity, some time in the 1960s. It was a polemical attack on the then vogue for recording reams of concertos by “second–rate” Italian baroque composers. It caused quite a stir at the time. I don’t know if you remember it?

Oh yes, of course I do. I remember it well. It was a commission, not my idea.

But it must have been your idea to write what you did?

Well, they wanted something on Italian baroque composers.

Rather later you treated Italian baroque composers – or at least one of them – rather more kindly, writing a book on Vivaldi [Vivaldi: Voice of the Baroque, 1993].

That was a commissioned book, but of course there are now many books on Vivaldi.

Do you still take an interest in the Italian baroque?

Yes, but I don’t worry about it any more, because there are now thousands of people worrying about it, all the time and very well. So they don’t need me. I wrote a book on Handel [Handel and his World, 1984], again commissioned by the publisher, but now I wouldn’t feel the need to do that because there are so many books on Handel, and good books, too.

Something else that brings back personal memories as far as the Italian baroque is concerned is the series of television films you made for the BBC in the 1960s that included two on Venetian music, devoted to Monteverdi and Vivaldi.

That stems from a time when I was doing quite a lot of film making for the BBC with Humphrey Burton. Those films were a great success, because people were fascinated by baroque music and by Venice, which is of course a very fascinating city. Later, in 1990, I was involved in a more ambitious series of TV films on Venetian music, made for Channel 4 in the UK, and subsequently sold to television networks around the world.

Yes, I recall those as well. One of the things that sticks in the mind, apart from the fact that there were wonderful pictures of Venice, is the sheer enthusiasm for your subject you displayed on camera, something that I know endeared you to people who had never read a single word you had written. That feeling of unbounded enthusiasm also pervades the books, creating a  rare combination of erudition and learning with accessibility. Is that ability to convey such enthusiasm a part of your natural make-up or something you learned to communicate?

I learnt that from Geiringer, who was full of natural enthusiasm as well as being a scrupulous scholar. I’ve already explained how Geiringer would have students singing and playing. Who else did that? Others would just talk to you. And I did the same thing with the Venice films. I talked about the music and then played a lot of it, not just tiny fragments. It was for those films that I learnt to speak ad lib. And people loved it and I loved it too! Then it was considered unfashionable to enthuse over Vivaldi, but so what. And Venice! My colleagues said we know all about Venice, but we don’t know all about Venice, not the average person.

[In his autobiography Robbins Landon relates that he was taught public speaking at preparatory school, something that proved “essential to me in later life”. He must have been 9 or 10 at the time!]

Lets move on to talk about Mozart, because after Haydn he is the composer to whom you’ve devoted the largest part of your career, and in fact your life. Indeed, I believe your love for Mozart stems from even earlier than your interest in Haydn.

I’ve always loved Mozart, who at school I looked on as the most special composer. We sang Ave verum corpus [K.618] in the choir, which I thought the most amazing piece of music I’d ever heard. The worldwide adoration of Mozart is something new; it simply did not exist in 1939.

Absolutely. We were talking earlier about Idomeneo and La clemenza di Tito, which both arrived tardily on the scene, as indeed did even Così fan tutte, which was very late in gaining real acceptance into the canon of great Mozart operas.

Yes, I remember the time Così  was done at Glyndebourne for the first time after many years and people were very sceptical about it. Of course now all that is absolutely finished and people adore Così. But they had to be told.

The problem today is different. You’re probably fortunate enough to miss them, but now if you go to a production of a Mozart opera (or to one of Handel’s) you are likely to be faced with a visual monstrosity.

Oh! Horrible! I see them on the television all the time. Even in Italy, at La Scala. It is absolutely unbelievable and it does the operas no good at all. Have you noticed how Handel’s operas have had a big resuscitation?

Yes, indeed. Did you know that every Handel opera has now been commercially recorded? It’s an extraordinary turnaround. But let’s return to your Mozart books…

You’ll be astonished to hear that I’ve just had a royalty cheque from Thames & Hudson for the five Mozart volumes. Grip the sides of your chair. $80,000 dollars, the biggest payout they’ve ever done on music books. Can you believe it?

Well, yes, I do, but I’m envious; my books haven’t produced a fraction of that sort of money!

Neither had mine up to now. And I don’t understand why. I understand what happened. The publishers wanted facts, documentary books, something like Deutsch. They wanted to get away from the myths, because they believed the truth was much more striking than the kind of fiction depicted in Amadeus.

That’s an observation that leads very opportunely to the next point I wanted to make, which is that the one of those books I value particularly highly and consider to have made the most significant contribution to Mozartian literature is Mozart’s Last Year: 1791 (1988).

A lot of people have told me that.


I don’t know why.

They don’t tell you?

They say it is very poignant and that it’s all true.

My own reason for saying it is so significant is precisely related to just that, because no period of Mozart’s life has been more shrouded in myth than that final year and Mozart’s Last Year brilliantly sifts truth from myth.

The Requiem you mean?

Yes, obviously the Requiem, but also the facts surrounding Mozart’s death, his financial situation, his place at that time in the musical world, which was not as neglected as we are often led to believe, the circumstances surrounding the composition of La clemenza di Tito and so on. All these are re-examined and weighed up with the aid of the available documentary evidence.

These are things that people wanted to learn.

The other thing I would personally thank you for in that book is the lengthy defence of Mozart’s wife Constanze, who has so often been shabbily treated by posterity.

Isn’t that a story! People have been so awful about her. They went on and on and on… My God! Such a nice woman!

And such a capable woman. One only has to learn how she handled her affairs after Mozart’s death to realise that the silly, inconsequential woman of history is just another Mozart myth, an invention.

Let me tell you a new story you won’t know – Haydn conducting the “Coronation” Mass [K317]. Now why would he be doing that at Eisenstadt? He was doing that because his princess [Princess Marie Hermenegeld, the wife of Haydn’s patron Prince Nicolaus Esterházy] had heard the Mass at the coronation in Prague in 1791 and she obviously thought it so marvellous that she asked Haydn to get hold of a copy. So Haydn went to Constanze and asked her for a copy, which he obviously paid for. It was done at Eisenstadt, where it was a huge success.

And what is also interesting is that the “Coronation” Mass was just one of several works of Mozart’s taken to Prague and performed during the coronation festivities by Salieri in his capacity as Viennese court Kapellmeister. Since Salieri was not obliged to perform Mozart, that casts interesting light on his perceived jealousy of Mozart. Perhaps another Mozart myth?

Salieri was actually a big supporter of both Haydn and Mozart. But isn’t that a nice story of Haydn and the “Coronation Mass”?

It is indeed. And did you say this is something that has recently come to light?

It was included in a large book recently published on the Eisenstadt archives, and was not previously known.

Are you still doing any research work yourself? Obviously, I appreciate that it is now impossible for you to travel, but I wonder if you do anything from here?

No, not really. I do a few corrections, that kind of thing. But in effect I’m retired. I’m 81, so I’m allowed to retire.

You’ve certainly found a beautiful house for retirement in this château. How did you come to find it, because you’ve got a record of living in castles, haven’t you?

That’s right. And it’s now reckoned this house is worth ten times what we paid for it, the same as the Italian castle was when I sold it. But I didn’t find this house, it was found for me. After looking at a number of other properties, I came here and fell in love with it, so I had to have it. It’s a big house, and the reason I chose such a big property is that when I was writing the Mozart books there was a team of secretaries to whom I used to dictate or read aloud to every day. If there was anything they didn’t like, I would know straight away.

For H.C. Robbins Landon those days have now ended, yet there is no sense of regret for the loss of what was, simply a wholly justified pride in past achievements and the pleasure of living in a beautiful house surrounded by souvenirs and mementos of those achievements. To talk with him is to be acutely aware of revisiting a slice of musical history spanning nearly 70 years, an era reaching back to a time when, almost unbelievably, his beloved Haydn was little more than a shadowy figure. For the great Haydn’s final, long overdue emergence from the shadows into the sunlight of recognition every music lover owes to Robbins Landon a profound, lasting debt of gratitude. 

This interview first appeared in Goldberg (No. 50/February 2008) and is reproduced by permission.