Mozart hated Clementi (1) because Muzio was Italian, (2) because Mozart thought Muzio was too rigid with his sonatas, too mechanical. Never was he admired, even though they have similar styles of sonata’s and sonatinas Mozart couldn’t get over his prejudices about Italians to admire any thing they did.
Even today, the piano works of Muzio Clementi are known to every serious student of the piano. For the developing pianist, Clementi’s Sonatinas of Opus 36 are essential precursors to the more technically demanding Classical Sonatas of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, as well as Clementi’s own masterfully penned Sonatas. Clementi’s influence as a composer is most strongly evident in the keyboard works of Haydn and especially in the early piano Sonatas of Beethoven, who was a fervent admirer of these works. Muzio Clementi is commonly called the father of modern piano playing, but it may be that this accolade should be properly shared between Clementi and C.P.E. Bach, a composer whose works Clementi studied with great care and whose works influenced Clementi’s own style greatly. Muzio Clementi was born in Rome, Italy, in 1752 as the eldest of the seven children of Nicolò Clementi, a successful silversmith, and Magdalena Kaiser. Nicolò became aware of his son`s musical talent when the child was very young. When he was seven, Clementi began his formal musical instruction. He was such a good a pupil that by age 13 he gained a position as a church organist.
In 1766, a wealthy Englishman by the name of Sir Peter Beckford (1740–1811) was impressed by Clementi’s musical gifts, and he negotiated with the boy’s father to take him from his family to England where Beckford agreed to sponsor Clementi’s musical education. In return for his education and board, Clementi was expected to provide musical entertainment at the nobleman’s country estate, and Beckford drew up a contract with the father, in which he agreed to make quarterly payments until the boy reached the age of 21. Beckford brought the young composer to his country estate of Steepleton Iwerne, just north of Blandford Forum in Dorset. And it was here that Clementi spent the next seven years in solitary study and practice at the harpsichord. His known compositions from the Rome and Dorset years, written before the age of 22, are few: an oratorio and possibly a mass, neither of which survives, and six keyboard sonatas. However, Clementi received an excellent education in both music and academics while in Beckford’s care.
In 1770, Clementi gave his first public performance as a pianist. His audience was greatly taken with his playing, and this was the beginning of a very successful career as a concert pianist. Apparently in 1774, Clementi was freed from his obligations to Peter Beckford, and he moved to London. His first known public appearances were as a solo harpsichordist at benefit concerts for a singer and a harpist in the spring of 1775. During the next four years, his participation in London concert life as a soloist was rare since he served as “conductor” (from the keyboard) at the King’s Theatre, Haymarket for at least part of this period. His name was seen in concert programs with increasing frequency in 1779 and 1780, no doubt owing to the popularity of his Opus 2 Sonatas, first published by Welcker in spring 1779. Clementi was fortunate that his fame as a pianist rose quickly, and he was considered by many to be among the greatest virtuosos in Europe.
His celebrity status grew to such an extent that by 1780 he felt ready to try his luck on the Continent. Stopping first in Paris, he went on to Vienna and his famous confrontation with Wolfgang Mozart. Clementi was asked by the Emperor Josef II to enter a musical playing contest with Mozart on December 24, 1781, for the amusement of the Emperor’s guests, the Grand Duke (later Tsar Paul I) and Duchess of Russia. Both Mozart and Clementi left accounts of the event (although Clementi’s survives only through his pupil Ludwig Berger), and they are in substantial agreement: the two musicians were called upon to improvise and to perform selections from their own compositions. At the Grand Duchess’s request, they played at sight some Sonatas of Paisiello, “wretchedly written out,” Mozart said, “in his own hand.” It is not known what works Mozart played of his own, but Clementi later identified two of his own compositions played then, the Toccata, Op.11 and the Sonata in B-Flat Major, Op.24, No.2.
On January 12, 1782, Mozart wrote to his father: “Clementi plays well, as far as execution with the right hand goes. His greatest strength lies in his passages in 3rds. Apart from that, he has not a kreuzer’s worth of taste or feeling — in short he is a mere mechanicus.” In a letter some months later, Mozart’s opinion was even more critical as he wrote: “Clementi is a charlatan, like all Italians.” Sentiments such as these, publicized in Clementi’s last years, have become a permanent part of the lore surrounding him. Clementi’s impressions of Mozart’s performance were filled with nothing but praise for his colleague. According to Berger he recalled: “Until then I had never heard anyone play with such spirit and grace. I was particularly overwhelmed by an adagio and by several of his extempore variations for which the Emperor had chosen the theme, and which we were to devise alternately.” Such was the ability of both these musicians that the Emperor was forced to declare a tie in the musical contest.
Mozart’s very ungenerous and perhaps envious estimation of Clementi’s playing remains as a testament to Clementi’s substantial abilities as a virtuoso and composer, and it is undeniable that the main theme of Clementi’s Sonata in B-Flat Major captured Mozart’s imagination, since ten years later he used it himself in the Overture to Die Zauberflöte. This fact so embittered Clementi that every time this piece was published, the composer made certain that the edition included a note stating that his Sonata had been written ten years before Mozart composed the first notes of his opera.
In 1784 Clementi returned to the Continent and eloped with an eighteen-year-old girl he had met on his previous trip, the daughter of a prosperous Lyon merchant. The enraged father pursued the couple, and with the aid of the authorities, the father soon reclaimed his daughter. Heartbroken, Clementi retired to Bern, where he consoled himself by working at mathematics. A letter to his father from Bern shows that Clementi was still there in August 1784. He may then have paid a visit to his family in Rome, but by May 1785 he was back in London, where he was to remain for many years thereafter. During this time of travel and turmoil (1780–1785) Clementi produced some 26 new Sonatas (Opp. 5–13) and various other compositions for keyboard. Some of his most memorable music dates from this period.
Clementi’s rejection by the French merchant made it clear to him that the trade of a touring virtuoso was not quite respectable, and he resolved to set his sights higher. The Sonatas of Opus 13, which he composed at this time, are decidedly less flamboyant, more nobly melodic and internally coherent, than his earlier ones. This was also when he began to write symphonies, which were rapidly becoming the most prestigious genre of musical composition. In 1786 four new Clementi Symphonies (or parts thereof) were performed in London. Of these we have two, the short Symphonies of Opus 18 that were published in 1787. These remain the only orchestral works that Clementi ever allowed to be published.
In addition to raising his musical ambitions, Clementi now sought to better himself by going into business. He was becoming the most sought-after, and most expensive, piano teacher in London, and with his fortune mounting, he invested heavily in music publishing and piano manufacture, two activities that increasingly absorbed his time and attention. Clementi’s turn toward orchestral music was also influenced by Haydn’s two visits to London. During the 1780s Clementi’s Symphonies were frequently performed, but Haydn’s arrival in 1791 suddenly landed Clementi in a popularity contest he could not possibly win. When Haydn returned to Vienna, in 1793, Clementi’s music was again in demand. But his fortunes sank once again when Haydn reappeared in 1794, and his popularity rose the next year with the great man’s final departure.
Clementi’s character was one without envy of those whose fame exceeded his own, and he maintained cordial relations with Haydn who visited Clementi’s country house at Evesham, in Worcestershire. Clementi gave Haydn a piece of coconut shell trimmed with silver as a souvenir of his trip to England. However, in some ways, Haydn was a steady irritant to Clementi. But he must surely also have acted as an inspiration and challenge, because Clementi kept writing Symphonies, undoubtedly inspired by Haydn’s influence. During the early years of the new century (and especially after he had become acquainted with Beethoven and his music), Clementi composed his finest surviving symphonic works. From 1816 through 1824, a long string of mostly favorable reviews chronicles the performances of his Symphonies in London, Paris, Munich, and Leipzig. Yet these later Symphonies remained unpublished and highly guarded by the composer. The fact that these works should have remained unknown and unplayed for such a long time, and that even their precise number and their exact dates of composition should be obscure, is ironic, because Clementi placed his greatest hopes for posthumous fame on these same Symphonies.
A likely reason that these later works were not published in Clementi’s lifetime is that he kept revising and tinkering with them. In his early days, a youthful recklessness had led him to publish immediately almost everything he composed. But another effect of the reassessment brought on by his aborted elopement was to make Clementi far more cautious about the quality of the works he placed in print. Clementi veered from one extreme to the other, and he became a compulsive reviser of the compositions to which he attached special importance. He carried the scores with him on his far-flung promotional trips, and they were with him when he died.
Clementi was also in great demand as a piano teacher. His pupils included members of many well-placed families in London who were willing to meet his reported fee of one guinea per lesson. He also gained fame as a teacher of “professional” students. Among them were J.B. Cramer, the organist Arthur Thomas Corfe, the violinist and pianist Benjamin Blake, Theresa Jansen, Benoit-Auguste Bertini, and John Field. The small fortune he amassed during the 1790s he invested increasingly in music publishing and instrument making. Having suffered losses in the bankruptcy of Longman & Broderip in 1798, he took advantage of the situation to establish a new firm, Longman, Clementi & Co. With changes of name to accommodate the occasional coming and going of various partners, this company continued to operate until Clementi’s retirement in 1830.
Although his vigorous commercial pursuits left less time for composition, he produced a considerable volume of music during this long stay in London. Among the new publications, there were about 56 Sonatas and Sonatinas for keyboard, many scored for four hands or two pianos, a number of variations, capriccios and other short keyboard works, two symphonies and the influential Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Piano Forte (1801). However, many compositions from this period, including most of the Symphonies performed in London concerts, have been lost. The fate of these manuscripts is an obscure and tangled story. An old rumor had it that Clementi himself destroyed them. But in 1921 the musicologist, Georges de Saint-Foix, announced that by combining chunks of manuscript from two large Clementi collections, one in the British Museum and the other in the Library of Congress, he had reconstructed four Symphonies, an Overture, and a Minuet. A servant of the composer’s grandson, who came to own the manuscripts, had evidently thrown out many by mistake. But much of the music remained intact, albeit divided between the two collections.
In 1935, the composer Alfredo Casella successfully reconstructed two of the Symphonies and conducted them in Italy with great success. Performances were also given in the United States by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and in 1938 Casella’s editions of the two works were published. In 1969, the musicologist and pianist, Pietro Spada, began working with the manuscripts in London and Washington. He discovered connections among various fragments that Casella had missed. By 1978, Spada had published four large Symphonies that apparently date from 1810-1824, two so-called “Overtures” that were intended as symphonic first movements, and a Minuetto Pastorale, on the manuscript of which Clementi had written, “to be shortened for another symphony in D.” Modern editions of the two Op. 18 Symphonies and of a Piano Concerto that Clementi later turned into a Sonata had appeared some years earlier, and so the publication of Clementi’s surviving orchestral works was now complete.
Most important among these works are the four large Symphonies edited by Spada. They are immediately attractive works, generous and warm-hearted, yet without an ounce of sentimentality. Each lasts about half an hour — twice the length of the Op. 18 Symphonies — and each is scored for a sumptuous orchestra that includes three trombones. As one would expect, there is a good deal of Haydn’s style in these works. In fact, many of the fast movements sound at first like Haydn movements in which the intensity of the wit has been diffused, the exhilarating tightness of the form relaxed, and the form itself opened to allow time for enjoyment and contemplation.
Often Clementi dramatically produced a startling chord that in Haydn would signal the opening of a whole new harmonic area, but Clementi simply uses the chord as a local effect rather than a functional part of the harmonic progression. Clementi’s main way of broadening and relaxing the classical forms was to provide sudden moments of calm or even stasis. These mysterious “still points,” which first appeared in the Op. 18 Symphonies, are everywhere in the four late works. They are quite different from Haydn’s style in which he created momentary surprises and delights without losing his grip on the underlying form. At such moments, Clementi seems to have been quite willing to lose his grip for a while. It is this willingness, together with his harmonic procedures and the character of his melodies, that make it natural to compare these Symphonies to the works of Schubert, Carl Maria von Weber, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Louis Spohr.
In these works from the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, the Classical forms of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven remain more or less unaltered externally but are softened and tamed through a heightened concentration on local color and ornamental detail, a tendency toward lushness of harmony and sonority, and an easygoing pace. These had been elements of Clementi’s music for a long time; yet Clementi differs from the other composers in one important respect: he belongs to an earlier musical generation, and he had been composing for perhaps a decade before the previously mentioned composers.
The contrapuntal language of the High Baroque was still, for Clementi, a living medium of expression — not, as for Mendelssohn, an ancient tongue to be reverently learned and preserved. Thus we find in Clementi’s four late Symphonies vigorous and elaborate canonic and fugal sections along side the leisurely, ornate passages that remind us of Weber and early Schubert. During his lifetime Clementi was much praised by the English critics for his “science,” by which they meant his contrapuntal technique.
A slightly later critic like Robert Schumann, not only a German but also a Romantic composer, could express concern about the apparent coldness of Clementi’s contrapuntal writing. It was Clementi’s unique historical position — together with the special bent of his enormous gifts — that enabled him to temper and qualify Classical forms with both the contrapuntal rigors of the vanished Baroque age and the harmonic harbingers of the Romantic age. There is no one quite like him, and no other works quite like these four extraordinary Symphonies.
In 1810 Clementi ceased his concerts to devote all of his time to composition and piano construction. He spent his final, uneventful years in Evesham, where he died on March 10, 1832. He was buried at Westminster Abbey. By the end of his life, Clementi had been married, widowed, and married again three times.
In 1807, in Vienna, Clementi carried on elaborate negotiations with Ludwig van Beethoven that resulted in his becoming the composer’s principal English publisher; and on June 21, 1824, Clementi attended the London debut of Franz Liszt. Such was the span of his long career. During most of his life, Clementi was as famous as Mozart, his reputation exceeded only by those of Haydn and Beethoven, both of whom he not only was influenced by but upon whom he was also an influence. In addition, Clementi was not only one of the premier keyboard virtuosos and teachers of his day, but he ran a highly successful publishing firm that also manufactured pianos.
By the time of his death, Clementi had amassed a great fortune, due to the fact that he was very frugal. He guarded every penny, and many people saw him as being greedy. For example, in one recollection a visitor to Moscow saw Clementi and his pupil, John Field, doing laundry in their rooms. Clementi explained it away by informing the visitor that the prices for having laundry done in Moscow were horrendous, and that the laundress was just as likely do damage the clothing as clean it. John Field never spoke ill of his teacher, but he did remain in Russia at the close of the concert tour as a means of ending his apprenticeship with the elder composer.
Clementi composed nearly one hundred and ten Sonatas for the piano, which are still played today, and many are favorite selections in advanced piano literature books. Clementi published a number of pedagogical works, of which his Introduction to the Art of Playing the Piano Forte and the three volumes of his Gradus ad Parnassum are the best known. However, Clementi’s Sonatas remain his greatest accomplishments, and they are often more difficult to play than those of W.A. Mozart.
In addition to his solo piano music, Clementi composed in other genres as well, including his last several Symphonies which are gradually gaining acceptance by musicologists as great works. Clementi additionally composed several vocal and chamber works, but these have disappeared from frequent performance since his death. Generally, however, Clementi’s music is becoming increasingly popular in recordings. The joyful, light, and spirited excitement of his piano works is captivating to many modern listeners.
©1997-2007, Carolina Classical Connection
(Contribution by Amir Javadiniya <amir_piano2003yahoo.com>.)
- United Kingdom, Evesham, Elm Road Prospect House — 10 Mar 1832
- United Kingdom, Westminster, Westminster Abbey — 10 Mar 1832