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"A sonata by Haydn makes so much more sense after you’ve gone through a couple of books of Fenaroli"

Updated: May 21

I had the good fortune to speak with the great Professor Adem Merter Birson on the phone, to discuss his fantastic research on partimento and schema in Joseph Haydn's music and his link with Nicola Porpora.


Nikhil Hogan: Why did you select Joseph Haydn for your research?

Adem Merter Birson: Well, Joseph Haydn has been my research interest ever since I’ve been an undergraduate. I started at Queen’s college in the CUNY system in NYC and I think the whole reason I wanted to go into music was because of a class that I took on Haydn’s string quartets. In fact, the teacher that I had was a great professor, his name was Henry Burnett. He did a lecture on Op 20 No 5 which is in F minor, a String Quartet by Joseph Haydn. From that moment on I was hooked on Haydn. So I did after that my Ph.D. at Cornell University under James Webster who is probably still the top Haydn scholar in the world and I did my dissertation on Haydn’s string quartets and yeah, now I’m the secretary of the Haydn Society of North America so Haydn is like my specialty.

Nikhil Hogan: What are the key takeaways from your presentation that you wanted for your viewer?

Adem Merter Birson: Well, I think the first thing is this quote that Haydn gives. Well, there are really 3 places. The first is, there’s an autobiographical sketch from the year 1776 which he writes in a letter to a Mademoiselle Lenore and there he’s explaining his background in music and one of the things that he says is that he composed or he said that before he became a famous composer he was toiling as a teacher, and kind of suffering as like a freelance musician in Vienna and then he met Porpora and then his life changed. So he said that he made, he learned the ”true fundamentals of composition”. So that quote to me really explains a lot because Haydn is like the, he sort of begins to consider himself a professional composer from that point on. So I think that that’s very significant and I think that’s probably the first takeaway from the presentation.

Nikhil Hogan: Can you give a brief overview of Haydn’s training with Porpora?

Adem Merter Birson: Right, so then from there, there’s sort of.. it’s all circumstantial evidence really but it’s so overwhelming that it kind of couldn’t be any other way. I mean, Haydn apprentices with Porpora in the 1750s so from like 1753-1756 is sort of the range, we don’t know exactly the dates but that’s the range and we know that he accompanied Porpora in singing lessons so Porpora was known as both a composer but also a teacher of partimento and solfeggi but also as a trainer of castrati. And Farinelli, probably the best known castrati from the period is his student. So he’s got quite a reputation and Haydn is fortunate to be able to apprentice with him but that also means that there is a whole tradition of Italian opera and composition coming with Porpora. I mean by that point in Porpora’s life in his career, he’s an established pedagogue as well as an opera composer. So it’s quite a prestigious thing to have been associated with him.

Nikhil Hogan: How did you make the connection between Porpora’s and Haydn’s music that was so overwhelming?

Adem Merter Birson: Right, so there’s a few things in addition to the apprenticeship in 1754, Porpora’s commissioned to write a set a sonatas. So he writes 12 sonatas, composes them, in 1754 which is exactly the midpoint of Haydn’s apprenticeship with him. So I looked at those pieces to see if there was any evidence of compositional traits that were in Haydn’s music at the same time because Haydn was composing mostly, he was a teacher, while he’s working with Porpora, he’s sort of a freelance piano teacher basically but he would compose his own sonatas for his students. So I tried to see if any traits from Porpora’s 1754 sonatas, Op 12 of Porpora’s, could be found in Haydn’s keyboard sonatas. The ones that we think are most likely used by Haydn, composed by Haydn for his students in the 1750s. That is another challenge by the way because the early Haydn sonatas don’t have any dates so we just sort of use stylistic traits and some other circumstantial evidence to come up with a rough timeline but you know, those pieces are sort of generally understood to have been pieces that Haydn would have composed in the 1750’s as a teacher.

So I wanted to compare those two bodies of work, the 12 sonatas composed by Porpora and then some of these early keyboard sonatas and also Haydn definitely we know that Op 1 and 2, the string quartets, the first string quartets were from the 1750s. So I used pieces that could have been exactly contemporaneous with Haydn and the time that he was apprenticing with Porpora and in there I found there could be quite a stylistic difference, I mean the Porpora sonatas were more old fashioned, I would say. I mean some of the, the textures, the different runs, the way that the form unfolds really resembles more of the earlier generation of like Vivaldi and Corelli. And then the Haydn pieces are really different, I mean it’s like pure galant style. The texture is completely reduced. The forms are simpler. Everything is clear. There’s not so much emphasis on Fugal texture, imitation, it’s really much, much more sort of modern in style. Almost forward looking to the point of seeing where the classical style is going to then develop. In those Haydn early works, that’s really where you see that.

So I had that challenge immediately, the other challenge that I had was that I didn’t have any Porpora partimenti, I just had this one collection that actually Bob [Gjerdingen] gave to me. But then Peter van Tour told me that that was not authentically Porpora but most likely by Leonardo Leo.

Nikhil Hogan: Can we see aspects of partimento pedagogy in Haydn’s compositions?

Adem Merter Birson: Well, yes I think ultimately that’s the conclusion that I drew which is that the voice leading patterns are just so, they scream partimento to me. So aside from the stylistic differences between Porpora’s Op. 12 and then these various Haydn keyboard sonatas and the string quartets. Just the Bass motions, the Rule of the Octave, the various Schemata, they’re all there, in the Haydn pieces. And you know I did say there’s something of a stylistic difference between the two but at the same time, a lot of the choices that Haydn made for sort right hand textures using 16th note triplets quite a lot, in general sort of mimicing the 18th-century opera style, using dotted rhythms, when to use the ornaments, the various runs that are used. They’re all there sort of in partimento so yeah, if you just used.. See, part of it was also the fact that I’ve been studying partimento for the last couple of years so I’m by no means an expert in it but at the same time, some of the performative things- and you’ve been doing this too, I’ve been following your Youtube channel. Some of the different textures that you encounter in some of the Fenaroli basses and then right hand things that you would do. They are all there in these early Haydn pieces, they’re just everywhere.

Nikhil Hogan: Finally, any advice for students who are new to partimento?

Adem Merter Birson: For students who are new to partimento, I would probably focus on Fenaroli and try to follow some of the latest scholarship by your teacher, Ewald [Demeyere], Robert Gjerdingen, Giorgio Sanguinetti, Peter van Tour, these kinds of people because then you’ll get better context on how to properly realize these and then I think it would be much more enjoyable [laughs] to do it. You know when I started, I started with Furno and I found those to be very simple and clear but at the same time just not.. they don’t really give the whole picture. So I feel like the Fenaroli is really the first step into the world of Partimento, if you want to immerse yourself in that sort of, the language. And then from there I think, getting acquainted with keyboard pieces, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart. All these composers and the keyboard pieces that they write, I think that you really start to see.. Domenico Scarlatti also.. why they made certain choices and you then sort of become further immersed in their world and I think reading through a sonata by Haydn makes so much more sense after you’ve gone through a couple of books of Fenaroli.

Nikhil Hogan: Thank you so much for spending the time.

Adem Merter Birson: You're most welcome.

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