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David Calling

The David Pryce-Jones blog.

Remembering Robbie



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H.C. Robbins Landon — always known as Robbie — was one of the world’s leading musicologists. Haydn was a passion with him. Born in Boston, he was American through and through but lived in one European country after another, and came to look and behave like a ruling Grand Duke. 

Once I called on him in Vienna, where his rooms were filled with musical instruments, and he told me the story of one particular piano there. Beethoven, it appeared, had written to his patron, Prince Lichnowsky, to say that Haydn was the greatest composer of the times, but nevertheless had an unfair advantage. Haydn possessed a Broadwood, an English model then a novelty because it was the first to be fitted with pedals, thus enlarging tonality and making redundant the former keyboard instruments like the harpsichord. A Broadwood would give Beethoven the chance to be as good as Haydn. How much does it cost? Prince Lichnowsky wanted to know.  Eighty pounds — a tremendous sum then, the equivalent of many thousands now. The prince told Beethoven to send him the bill. For years, Beethoven composed on this instrument.

Studying the documentation, Robbie worked out that this historic piano might have finished up in a castle near Salzburg belonging to a Count Herberstein. The count said he knew nothing about this, but the castle was huge with many abandoned wings and towers, and Robbie was welcome to have a look. Sure enough, in some remote and dusty attic, there it was. The count then said to Robbie, We didn’t know it was here, you traced it, it’s yours.

Is not this sequence of events a sufficient defence of aristocracy? Incidentally, Robbie often travelled behind the Iron Curtain in search of musical scores, and he was almost as passionate in his criticism of Communism as in his devotion to Haydn. He’s just died, aged 83, and they don’t make characters like this any more. R.I.P.



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