Saturday, July 26, 2014

Forgotten Clementi

Muzio Clementi - Piano Sonata in G minor, Op. 34 No. 2
Vladimir Horowitz

For most of us, our only experience with Muzio Clementi lies solely in the sonatinas that we learned as piano students.  Most of have probably also heard about the great piano competition between Clementi and Mozart, which was declared a draw.  Mozart was full of vitriol about the decision while Clementi continued to admire Mozart and in fact was a publisher of Mozart's piano music in England.

Clementi was a very accomplished pianist and composer as well as a piano manufacturer, piano retailer, and music publisher.  His was one of the early horizontal industries -- he built the pianos, he sold the pianos, and he published the software (sheet music) so that people had plenty of music to play on his pianos.

Unfortunately, he gets little space in the music history books, I suspect because he primarily wrote for the piano with very little music on any other genre.

Here is a link to his biography on Wikipedia: Clementi Biography

It appears that he was a strong influence on Beethoven.  I have read where Beethoven advised Carl Czerny concerning Beethoven's nephew Karl's piano instruction, that Czerny should focus on Clementi piano sonatas over those of Haydn and Mozart.

The above piano sonata -- Op. 34, No. 2 (1793) -- may well have been an influence on Beethoven's "Sonata Pathétique" (Op. 13) from 1798.  The Clementi sonata begins with a slow introduction with extensive dotted 8th - 16th combinations.  It gives me the impression of a funeral march.  Unlike the Beethoven, this intro is in a kind of grotesque fugue, each entry of the subject/answer uses a larger descending skip -- (1) descending 5th, (2) descending augmented 5th, (3) descending 6th.  This introduction is later reprised as in C major in a style that reminds me of a tavern song in an opera.

As we know, Beethoven also begins with a slow introduction which he reprises later.  In fact from my extensive research of piano sonatas before this time (a quick glance through Mozart's and Haydn's catalogs of their piano sonatas) this appears to be the first piano sonata with a slow introduction -- at least by a major composer -- and the first sonata to reprise the introduction in the course of the movement.

There is some very remarkable music in this sonata and if you like Beethoven's sonatas, I believe that you will immensely enjoy this one.

Muzio Clementi - Piano Sonata in Bb Major, Op. 24 No. 2 Mvt. 1
"Allegro con brio"
Vladimir Horowitz

Though it is said that Clementi admired Mozart, he could have his moments of vitriol against Mozart. This sonata was written in 1781, about a year before his famous competition with Mozart.  After Mozart wrote "Magic Flute" in 1791, Clementi included a forenote on his reprints of this sonata stating that this had been written 10 years before Mozart's opera.  Listen to the above recording and you will understand why.  One can also ask "Did Clementi perform this sonata at the competition?"

I am in the process of searching for a good biography of Clementi.  He has often been denigrated for his alleged penury and his alleged mistreatment of John Field, both items that I only find mentioned in Ludwig Spohr's "The Musical Journeys" (I think -- I can't find an online copy, though I could have sworn that I had previously downloaded it).  I suspect that there is more to the story. 


  1. Hi Scott,

    Nice blog! This may not be your most recent post, but I decided to comment on it since, like you, I am a Clementi enthusiast. Indeed, his sonatas seem woefully underrated compared with his much easier and, perhaps more musically accessible, sonatinas.

    I too have heard that Clementi's influence on Beethoven was immense and that the latter master adored the Italian's sonatas and always had a copy of them on his piano. In fact, I might argue that Clementi's writing for the piano was even better than Beethoven's in such features as chordal spacing and melody. Clementi's influence in such respects seems to rival Liszt's. It would be nice to hear more of Clementi's sonatas being programmed rather than usual suspects Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn. Perhaps part of the problem is their general technical difficulty, which besides late Beethoven, seems significantly higher -- and even Beethoven hardly ever writes extended passages in thirds, which for Clementi seems a practically normal occurrence.

    A while back, I read through about 60 of Clementi's soantas (though I guess he wrote over 100!, some of which are very hard to find) and picked five I wanted to learn. The F-sharp minor, probably one of the more celebrated because of Horowitz's influence, I recorded at one point on PS. There's an early G minor (I think it's from op. 7) that I love particularly and in which the pyrotechnics and full orchestral richness of the piano sound are particualrly evident, including a bravura octave display in the last movement. Love also many of his Gradus ad Parnasssum studies, which often seem to transcend the piano "exercises" of Czerny, boasting big fugues and concert etudes. BTW, to me the quasi-fugal intro of that first Horowitz clip almost sounds like modern music, very weird and dissonant-sounding, but I guess classical-era fugues often can be -- witness the fugue from Mozart's fantasy and fugue or Beethoven's Hammerklavier fugue.

    Anyway, very interesting article. Thus far, I much enjoy your musical ramblings :-)

    1. Thank you for reading my blog. It is Joe for PS, right?

      I must say that blogging is a bit of a challenge -- trying to get enough stuff on that fits what I want to do, and actually "blogging" with my thoughts, etc., etc.

      I am glad that there is someone else who appreciates Clementi. I think that he suffers from three things, as far as appealing to the masses. First is Mozart's invective when the competition that he had with Clementi was a tie. He probably would have been worse if he had actually lost. Second comes from the Ludwig Spohr account in his journal about musical life in Europe (I can't recall the title at the time, but it is available on IMSLP and Guttenburg.

      Spohr recounts meeting Clementi and John Field in Italy and talks about how John Field was wearing ill-fitting clothes and that Clementi was so cheap that they did their own laundry in the room. I need to check into dates again, but Clementi did lose his piano factory, and this tour could well have been to raise capital to rebuild and money may have been tight. Towards the end of that tour, Clementi and Field ended up in Russia, and Clementi, with connections that he had established, helped Field acquire a good music position in Russia. Yet the history books when I attended school in the early 1970's still reported Clementi's treatment of John Field and usually simply accepted it without even citing sources. I think that there is more to this story. In England he had a rather huge following of well wishers at his funeral.

      The third problem is that he mostly wrote and performed piano music in a time when his famous contemporaries wrote for most, if not all genres. Even in the 19th century, only a handful of just pianists have made it into the history books (Chopin comes to mind). Non-pianists do not always identify with composers who do not write for their instrument. More importantly is that the general public don't identify with people who did not write public music like symphonies and concertos. He has many great sonatas, but most knowledge of him is through his sonatinas and people, even pianists, seem to think that those were the only thing of importance that he wrote. The sonatinas are important since they are in the true classical style and are well put together, but people have missed the "Beethoven" that he wrote even before "Beethoven" was truly invented. (more on that in a moment, but I need to finish this thought).

      All of that said, I do think that the history, and biographical information on Clementi needs to get reviewed so that we can truly discover his place in music history.