Haydn in Plain Sight
2009 isn’t over yet, so we can go on observing the Haydn year for a bit longer. Out later this month (according to the press release) or released a few weeks ago (according to Amazon) is a paperback reissue of the Haydn volume in the Oxford Composer Companions series. (I’m not sure this “series” ever actually materialized as a series, though they also did one on Bach.)
I didn’t see this when it first came out in 2001, and I really like the format. Edited by David Wyn Jones, with some 40 contributors, it’s presented dictionary-style, so you can look up individual works, people, and places; but it has enough long articles to make diverting reading. (The cross-referencing creates an experience much like reading on-line: I kept leaving articles in mid-paragraph to go look up the entry for a key figure or work, as if clicking on a link.) A drawback of the standard narrative-form biography is that it can be difficult to use as a reference tool -- I constantly find myself flipping through well-thumbed books looking for a particular nugget of information I can’t find in the index -- and which, for the sake of its through line, may have to sacrifice tidbits that are a lot of fun for a casual reader.
(read more after the jump)
This volume, by contrast, is rife with such tidbits. Spending a few hours with it, I kept having fun “aha” moments about things I hadn't known or had forgotten, from details about the physical geography of Vienna in Haydn's day to the fact that that Marianna von Martines had studied with the young Haydn for a few years. There are omissions, of course, and occasional lapses where it seems an editor might, at some point, have stepped in (like the allegation that 2 meters, the minimum height requirement for the Esterhazy grenadiers, is about 6 feet, rather than 6'7") -- slips that, alas, are all too frequent in Oxford publications, wonderful though they are. This doesn't make it any less useful a work.
The real problem with relying exclusively on the linear-narrative biography is that such a book by definition focuses on one person, pushing all others into the background. This dictionary format, by contrast, allows a range of personalities and facts to have their say -- something that's too often absent, particularly for lay readers, in posterity's understanding of its hallowed classical canon.
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