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Engaging Haydn: Culture, Context, and Criticism ed. by Mary Hunter and Richard Will (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 3, March 2014
pp. 457-460 | 10.1353/not.2014.0010

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by
Engaging Haydn: Culture, Context, and Criticism. Edited by Mary Hunter and Richard Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012. [xi, 349 p. ISBN 9781107015142. $99.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, indexes.

In the Joseph Haydn bicentenary year 2009, I was involved in the organization of a large-scale international conference in Budapest. As we were struggling to put together the final program, one of the co-organizers expressed his surprise at the great number of participants from the U.S., notwithstanding the geographical distance. “But that’s not representative,” responded another colleague, “for a quarter of those are [James] Webster’s Ph.D. students.” Being sort of an insider, however, I was able to provide a bit more information on the background of numerous scholars from the older generation, and we concluded that well over half of this impressive American contingent came from the “Cornell stall.” This is to say that their interest in Haydn was in all likelihood raised by their former professor in the first place.

If so, it is only fitting that James Webster’s 70th birthday should be celebrated by an elegant volume comprising twelve Haydn essays delivered primarily by three different generations of his students. Being aware of Webster’s strong connections with German musicology, one indeed has to wonder why the volume was not explicitly labeled a Festschrift; my best guess is that the editors sought to avoid the associations of formality and unevenness typically linked with the term. Indeed, the present volume is in no need of the apology potentially provided by the anniversary: this is as excellent a collection of Haydn essays as any other, and so the modest single-line dedication on page v proves a worthier tribute than 72-point letters in bold would on the title page.

The essays are organized in three thematic groups, the first of which—“Cultures of Vocal Music”—highlights how the as-good-as exclusive interest in Haydn’s instrumental compositions has recently yielded [End Page 457] to a more balanced assessment of the oeuvre. Elaine Sisman’s study of Haydn’s 1779 L’isola disabitata proves an ideal opening piece: by connecting a wealth of information about Haydn, Metastasio, Count Durazzo, Gluck and Nicolaus Esterházy, it clears up several background questions at first sight inaccessible to the modern observer. The conclusion suggests that the work could best be described as an operetta eroica—whether the term will take root in the literature or not, it aptly underlines that, in the light of Sisman’s wide-ranging analyses, this is quite an extraordinary experiment even among Haydn’s better-known operas.

Besides acting as coeditor, Richard Will delivered a piece of his own, one which seeks to reevaluate Haydn’s Scottish song arrangements in the light of current research into both this rarely-mentioned facet of the oeuvre and recent explorations in the field of “folk music” in general. In reference to earlier criticism about the questionable authenticity of Haydn’s arrangements, Will convincingly argues that “[t]he Scottish song tradition was very much in flux, and it is better to ask, not whether Haydn preserved or violated its essence, but what he contributed to its invention” (p. 45), and eventually finds that “Haydn invents a Scotland that sounds like—Haydn” (p. 72). At the same time, given the attention paid to the issue of authenticity throughout the text, I was surprised to see another much-discussed problem go wholly unmentioned—namely, to what extent the settings Haydn sent to his publishers in London indeed reflected his own creative engagement with the melodies, rather than that of some of his intimate helpers.

The third essay deals with yet another little-explored corner of Haydn’s vocal output, the English canzonettas. Katalin Komlós starts by clarifying that the accompanied solo song should be understood as the third main keyboard genre (besides those of the solo and the accompanied sonatas) of the period, since—from an aesthetic point of view—it is always the voice that seems an “addition” to the “essence” presented by the keyboard part. Besides exploring the connections between the vocal part and its “accompaniment,” Komlós’s...