Another Good|Man Gone

     As the Reign of Terror petered out 215 years ago, thanks to Robespierre’s head falling into a basket, Josef Haydn knocked out his 100th symphony and had it played for an adoring crowd in London.
     “It was the example par excellence of a composition being totally integrated in the society that first heard it; perhaps it was the last time in musical history when the public completely understood and appreciated great music at its first performance. From Beethoven to Stockhausen … the fatal gap has always since existed.”
     So wrote one of my heroes, H.R. Robbins Landon, the musicologist par excellence who died one week ago at 83.
     Robbins Landon was that rarest of beings: a world-renowned scholar, the foremost authority in his field, who wrote well and with a sense of humor.
     His major work is his 5-volume biography of Josef Haydn: a treasure house rescued from oblivion. The documents he recovered from dusty archives give us an idea of what life was like in the days of the French Revolution.
It was a crucial time for Western civilization: something was changing forever. And since Robbins Landon was “only” writing about music, he did not try to prove any theories or belabor the obvious.
     As I am about to do.
     Haydn’s lifelong sponsors were the Esterházy princes, one of the richest families in Europe. Haydn himself was so poor his parents gave him away to the church when he was 8. Haydn had to fight off castration in the church choir school. When his voice changed he was dumped, penniless, onto the streets. “I then had to eke out a wretched existence for eight whole years, by teaching young pupils,” Haydn wrote years later.
     On the other end of the social scale, Robbins Landon informs us, Prince Nicolaus II Esterházy spent his pennies buying girls from their parents to satisfy his lust. His fellow prince, Aloys Prince zu Kaunitz-Rieberg, bought a daughter of Haydn’s copyist, Johann Elssler. Haydn may have been present when the girl was sold.
     One Esterházy acquaintance, a count, wrote that Nicolaus II had a “temple dedie a la debauche:” a fresco-covered bedroom, entered through a revolving fireplace, with a secret escape door, and “two Egyptian pillars which turn out to be, respectively, a gigantic penis and a female sex organ.”
     Didn’t know musicology could be such fun, did you?
     Prince Esterházy spent more than 10 times as much on his own clothes each year as he spent on Haydn’s salary – and Haydn was the most famous composer in Europe.
     Robbins Landon cites a letter from an Englishwoman, Lady Shelley, who wrote after visiting Prince Esterházy, “The Prince is a perfect Sultan, and possesses ten or twelve houses, inhabited by different ladies, who share his favors and diminish his faculties.” His clothes “consisted of scarlet cloth, embroidered from head to foot in pearls. The tops of his yellow boots, and his spurs, were set with diamonds. His cloak, lined with the finest fur, was fastened with a magnificent cluster of diamonds, so also were the belt, sword-knot, the handle and scabbard of his sword. A heron’s feather and aigrette of diamonds rose from his fur cap, whose loops, like his sabre-tache, were of pearls and diamonds. He and others told me that his dress that day was worth more than one million pounds sterling …”
     Robbins Landon also presents a pathetic, begging letter to Prince Nicolaus I from the music copyist Anton Adolph, who had written 3,328 pages in the preceding 3 months, pleading, “on my knees, in humility and submissiveness,” for a small salary increase; and a letter from an oboist, also written “on bended knee,” whose mother was living on 4 pennies a day.
     The prince refused them, of course.
     The prince was a bit kinder to Kapellmeister Haydn. In a princely decree of April 4, 1789 he gave the composer a salary increase of “1 pig.”
     Haydn had to wait each day upon his prince. He was one of the last of the courtiers. His student Beethoven was supported by some of the same noble families, but Beethoven did not hesitate to call them “swine” and “jackasses.” Beethoven knew how the princes lived, and how he himself had to live.
     Everyone loved Haydn, but Beethoven was a more difficult man. The Emperor Franz didn’t trust him. “There’s something revolutionary about that music,” the emperor said, according to Robbins Landon.
     Not much different from today, was it? Except for the revolution.

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