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The Orchestral Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre by Emily I. Dolan (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 3, March 2014
pp. 460-462 | 10.1353/not.2014.0017

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

“What still remains to be contributed to Haydn studies?” is the question one always poses when seeing that a new book has appeared about the composer. Along with the steady trickle of biographies, subjects of recent books tend to focus on lesser-studied aspects of his life and works, such as the place of Jews in his operas (Caryl Clark, Haydn’s Jews: Representation and Reception on the Operatic Stage [New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009]) and the composer’s time in Britain (Richard Chesser and David Wyn Jones, The Land of Opportunity: Joseph Haydn and Britain [London: The British Library, 2013]); one book touches on everything from string quartet fingerings to Haydn’s reading of Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Mary Hunter’s and Richard Will’s edited volume of essays Engaging Haydn: Culture, Context, and Criticism [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012]).

Emily Dolan’s The Orchestral Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre is one of the latest additions to the groaning shelves of Haydn scholarship. Overall, it is a welcome one. There is much to admire in the book, though it is not without shortcomings, as I note below. Well written throughout and richly illustrated, Dolan’s volume is a pleasure to read. Its thesis is as yet relatively unplowed ground in Haydn scholarship (which is certainly saying something)—unplowed ground because it counters prevailing notions of Haydn and his music.

In a forceful and compelling introduction, Dolan charges that scholarship on Haydn has for too long been removed from the materiality of music as sounds produced by humans playing instruments—that is, writers have tended to regard his music as intellectually satisfying aesthetic forms that can be fully appreciated even divorced from the processes that produce sound. Dolan’s book is of a piece with studies published in the past few decades that have challenged dominant discourses of Haydn’s music as intellectual art, as Hanslick’s abstract “tonally moving forms.” Dolan contends that by conceiving of his music as abstract form to be seen in score and thought about rather than as immediate materiality of sound to be heard and felt in the moment, most scholars and critics up to now have distorted the view of his music and its legacy. The conventional view implies that Haydn cannot be perceived as being overly concerned with surface effect—as, say, Rossini might be accused of—but rather with underlying structure and form. There seems to be an unstated assumption for some musicologists and music theorists, even in the present day, that analysis should be done without “resorting to” discussions of timbre or other sensuous qualities of music, as if those musical aspects were less worthy of consideration than formal analysis and Schenkerian graphs. Her point is well taken: anyone attending university music history courses in the U.S. can attest to this fact, and this view of the composer is rarely challenged.

As the book progresses, Dolan illustrates more broadly that Haydn’s career coincided with a new interest in sonority in the eighteenth century reflected in writings by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and subsequent acoustic studies in the nineteenth century by Hermann von Helmholtz. In this context she posits the notion that we must reexamine Haydn’s oeuvre with an eye to the emergence of interest in instrumental timbre. Offering examples such as the ocular harpsichord, the piano de chats, and the glass harmonica, Dolan shows how the eighteenth-century public was enamored of novelty instruments of unusual timbre and how attentive they were to tone color.

Of course, Berlioz turns up in relation to his treatise on orchestration, but the author rightly calls into question his usually unchallenged role as originator of modern orchestration. Dolan presents ample evidence of eighteenth-century fascination with, and argument over, instrumentation. Somewhat less convincingly, in chapter 4, “The Republic of Sound,” Dolan attempts through contemporary philosophical thought to connect the idea of an orchestra as group of disparate entities—by dint of their various timbres—working together for common purpose, to the ability of free citizens within a republic to act individually and simultaneously for the common good.

A persistent irritant marring the reader’s experience, though, are...



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