Even though music scholars agree that Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was an important innovator, he has not always received the full measure of esteem that he deserves.

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will give audiences a chance to reconsider the composer and his musical impact when it spotlights three works programmed for the rest of the 2017-18 season: his Symphony No. 89 on March 15-17 (with Riccardo Muti, conductor), Symphony No. 103 (Drumroll) on June 7-9 (Giovanni Antonini, conductor) and Cherubini’s Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn on June 21-24 (Muti, conductor).

Caryl Clark

Ahead of these concerts, Sounds and Stories interviewed Caryl Clark, professor of music history and culture at the University of Toronto, about the legacy of Haydn and the works the CSO will perform this season. The commissioning editor of the Cambridge Companion to Haydn (Cambridge University Press, 2005), she recently submitted the manuscript for the Cambridge Haydn Encyclopedia, which she is co-editing and due to be published at the end of 2018.

Can Haydn be described as an underappreciated composer?

Obviously, he’s at the top of my list. He is my go-to guy for all kinds of things. But I would say out there in the general sphere of things, and even among my music students here at the University of Toronto, Mozart will be up there, and they’re all over Beethoven, absolutely, they love Beethoven. Haydn is kind of that weak third member of the so-called Viennese classical style. I tell them that without Haydn, we might not have had Mozart and Beethoven and those iterations that they are.

In fact, that whole patina of the so-called Viennese classical style, that is a late 19th-century German musicology invention. And in that configuration, you’re going to have a very Italianate Mozart with a singing style and melody and a very Germanic, serious, powerful and revolutionary Beethoven, and Haydn is going to get left out of it because he is going to come across as the lightweight of them intellectually and whatever. And that’s an old myth that we need to get rid of.

In fact, if you take the whole Viennese classical style, there’s nothing classic about it. Remove Beethoven from the equation entirely and look at it from a pre-1800s perspective, and it’s Italianate that we have both in the Mozart sphere — nobody will argue with that — and, then, I suggest that it’s actually there in Haydn as well. We just have not come to appreciate his operas or his comic genius, which he writes into his symphonies, but the derivation of all of that is comic opera coming out of Italy. We just really need to shift the lens of looking at this guy completely and then we come to appreciate him in another way.

Has Haydn been unfairly overshadowed by Mozart?

Well, unfairly? I certainly don’t want to take anything away from Mozart. I can go to see The Marriage of Figaro and absolutely fall for every gag and see something new every time, and the same with Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. And they are fun to teach. There is so much there for everybody.

And we’ve just never gotten that excited about Haydn. We’ve put this dichotomy up — Haydn was the one who worked in the patronage system and didn’t have his free intellectual thoughts and wrote the music he was asked to do. We want to understand the freelance composer, Mozart, and we kind of belittle patronage system and the ancien régime that Haydn worked under. But I would suggest that throughout the entire 18th century and into the 19th century, aristocrats still called all the shots. Mozart was not writing music of his free whim. He, too, was responsible to patrons. He just didn’t have one regular employer. So it was a much more complex system than we typically think about.

Does the popularity of Haydn’s music ebb and flow? And if so, where are we in the cycle?

So, we went through this huge historical-performance movement. We’re going to record every symphony of Haydn on historical instruments if we can. You know, we’ve lost Christopher Hogwood [founder of the Academy of Ancient Music] and Nikolaus Harnoncourt [founder of Concentus Musicus Wien], people who were really formative players in bringing these works to life in a new way, thinking about tempi and performance spaces and playing styles and even just methods of conducting. And I would suggest that the next generation is really ready to be even more experimental about how they are thinking about these kinds of sounds. I would say we are poised for a real upswing again.

What are the most striking qualities of Haydn’s music? You mentioned the comic aspect already.

Yes, the comic aspect. That gets described as his wit and humor. But I think it is too lame to say just that. What you really have to understand is how much of that comedy and wit is embedded in the instrumental music that is accompanying mid-century comic opera. Italian opera buffa is the place in which this starts. Out of that background, if you take away the vocal writing and listen to the way that the orchestra puts together repetitive phrases and what not, that is the generative sound for [Haydn’s] symphonies in a lot of this period. And maybe there will be an instrumental line, a first violin or an oboe or a flute or something, that will make you say, “There is the vocal line. We’ve just heard a snippet of a melody that could have words to it.” But this is clearly self-standing symphonic music. It’s as if we need to start understanding his comedy as not being rooted in just the way you place musical jokes within instrumental music but stem it really back to theatrical music. So it’s a deeper understanding of this comedy.

Some of the most salient features of Haydn’s music are the ways it really breaks the bounds of the kind of straitjacket in which we placed him. It is much broader and more open and has a much fuller and rich dimension to it than we have allowed for.

How important was Haydn to the development of the symphony? 

The symphonic writing was all across his career, and the thing again is that it is not just so-called pure instrumental music. Every one of them seems to have either a joke or an inside understanding. It’s as if they are written for the moment. We typically call Symphony No. 45, from 1772, the Farewell Symphony [in which the musicians gradually exit during the final adagio], because of the the well-known story that the musicians are tired. What was supposed to be a summer home [for Prince Esterházy and his musicians] has been extended to eight, nine months of the year, and they’re a long way from families back in Eisenstadt, and they need to get home. So the idea is that you write a piece that will stage the shutting down of your ensemble, basically, and their exit. Almost every symphony has some kind of story you can put behind it in that very way. Again, they’re very theatrical. They have a place and a moment and a time. They’re gestural. They speak to a community of agents and actors. He’s not writing to just write another stylistic piece in his pantheon of output. He’s writing for specific people, players and actors in specific times and places, and they are having a lot of fun.

Clark’s thoughts about the Haydn-related works the CSO will perform:

March 15-17, Haydn, Symphony No. 89 in F Major (1787)

This rarely heard work was written after Haydn’s more famous Paris symphonies, a set of six works from 1785-86 that significantly boosted the composer’s international reputation. The second and fourth movements of this symphony are based on sections from his Concerto for 2 Lire Organizzate in F Major (1786). The concerto was one of six commissioned by Ferdinand IV, King of Naples, who was trying to recruit Haydn as his court composer. The now-obsolete lira organizzata, a kind of hurdy-gurdy, was the sovereign’s favorite instrument.

“If you’ve got something that is this good,” Clark said, “why not re-use this material? It used to be called self-borrowing, but I think that is too limiting a term. It’s just that you haven’t fully unpacked the potential that is resonant within the musical material. It doesn’t have anything to say about how deprived you are of musical genius for invention and originality. If anything, it suggests that I can find even more things to do with this material, so I’m going to re-use it. So it becomes a tool for future creativity and investment.”

June 7-9, Haydn, Symphony No. 103 in E-flat Major, Drumroll (1795)

The 11th of the composer’s 12 London symphonies, this work famously opens with a long roll on the timpani. “How unusual is that?” Clark said. “It’s all about: How do you attract attention when you don’t have the concert norms we do today and the ability to dim the lights such as you can signal that something is ready to begin?” She noted that in Haydn’s time, there was little of the etiquette with which audiences are familiar now. There was, for example, no conductor, so there was not the formal entrance usually associated with his or her arrival onstage and the accompanying applause.

June 21-24, Cherubini, Chant sur la mort de Joseph Haydn (1805)

This work was not written after Haydn’s death in 1809, as might be supposed from the title, but after an erroneous report of the composer’s end in 1804. Luigi Cherubini, an Italian composer whom Beethoven held in high regard, was in Paris at the time Haydn debuted his symphonies there in 1785-86. Clark suspects that Cherubini heard some of them and recognized the Italian influences on the Austrian composer’s writing. Listening to the Chant recently, she was struck by elements that are reminiscent of Haydn’s great oratorios, The Creation and The Seasons.