Muzio Clementi (1752–1832): Life and Work
1. The father of the piano
It is usually acknowledged that Clementi's 3 sonatas op. 2, published in London in 1779, represent a turning point in the history of keyboard playing. These works are often said to mark the beginnings of a truly virtuosic piano style, through their use of the full possibilities of the pianoforte, a new instrument at the time.
Clementi's visionary work and success as a promoter of the piano throughout his 50 years of career as performer, composer, publisher, teacher, arranger, and instrument maker, brought him the honour of being called the 'father of the pianoforte'. He was buried in Westminster Abbey (see below).
Clementi's grave at Westminster Abbey (click on photo for greater detail)
[by kind permission of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster]
- Over 50 piano sonatas
- 6 symphonies, 2 overtures
- 1 piano concerto
- Several chamber works (mostly duos and trios with piano)
- Various pieces for solo piano: 5 Capriccios, 6 Progressive Sonatinas, and several dance movements (Rondos, Montferrinas, etc.). Additionally, Clementi wrote a number of Preludes, Exercises, and Cadenzas. His Musical Characteristics op. 19 (1787) contains a collection of Preludes and Cadenzas written in the style of various famous musical personalities of his time (each of them given 2 Preludes and 1 Cadenza): Haydn, Kozeluch, Mozart, Sterkel, Vanhall, and Clementi himself!
- Vocal music: 14 Melodies of Different Nations (on poetry by David Thomson), 2 Canzonette (soprano and piano), Rondò per il Ceccarelli
- Gradus ad Parnassum - a monumental set of 100 Exercises for solo piano, published in 3 volumes between 1817 and 1826 (score of Exercise 83).
- Clementi's complete works are currently being edited by Ut Orpheus Edizioni in Bologna, Italy, as part of the Opera Omnia project. In March 2008, this project was given the status of Edizione Nazionale by the Italian Ministry of Culture.
- A facsimile edition of Clementi's complete solo piano works is found in books 1-5 of Nicholas Temperley's 20 volumes The London Pianoforte School: 1766-1860, published by Garland Publishing in the 1980s. Unfortunately, this series is now out of print, and can only be accessed in major music libraries (such as the British Library, Senate House, and Library of Congress).
- Other editions of Clementi works (Henle, Schirmer, Dover, etc.) represent selections.
Place of Clementi's piano works nowadays:
Some of Clementi's late piano works constitute masterpieces that are surprisingly neglected by today's concert pianists. The 2 Capriccios op. 47 (1821), the three sonatas op. 50 (A major, D minor, and G minor Didone abbandonata, pub. 1821), and numerous pieces from the Gradus ad Parnassum (1817-1826) form an impressive collection of works, on a par with the late piano works of Beethoven and Schubert as well as with Dussek's greatest sonatas. The rare works by Clementi that occasionally feature in modern-day piano recitals tend to represent the composer's earlier output, which also contains a number of pianistic gems. Amongst these, the F sharp minor sonata op. 25 No. 5 (1790), the 2 sonatas of op. 34 (C major and G minor, pub. 1795), and the three sonatas op. 40 (1802). However, even some of these earlier works have remained underrated, such as the F minor sonata op. 13 No. 6 (1785), which foreshadows by a decade Beethoven's dramatic pianistic writing.
3. A musical 'all-rounder'
Clementi helped popularise the pianoforte (now commonly called the 'piano'), a new instrument at his time, to which he devoted his entire career. He first acquired fame in London and throughout Europe as a composer-performer, playing in the courts of Paris, Strasbourg, Munich, and Vienna (where he was known as Mozart's rival) in the early 1780s. Having made London his home, he created his own publishing firm Clementi and Co., which also specialised in the manufacturing of pianos from 1800 onwards.
In 1802, Clementi embarked on an 8-year long trip around Europe as a 'musician in business', selling pianos and collecting manuscript music (notably by Beethoven) to be printed by his London firm. He also performed in private circles and taught piano to promising young musicians such as John Field, Ludwig Berger (who later became Mendelssohn's teacher), August Klengel, and Frederic Kalkbrenner (who taught Chopin for a short while in the early 1830s).
Clementi's compositional activity continued during his time on the Continent (1802-1810) and across the following decade. His 4 new symphonies, performed from 1813 onwards at the first concert seasons of the Philharmonic Society in London (of which Clementi was one of the founding members), did not gain the popularity enjoyed by his piano works. Clementi never published them. However, he did publish a substantial amount of piano music between 1817 and 1826, notably his Gradus ad Parnassum and his three sonatas op. 50.
4. Didactic works
Clementi devoted a large part of his musical career to pedagogical activity. Some of his contributions in this area are still acknowledged nowadays:
- The Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Piano Forte, published by his firm Clementi & Co. in 1801, was widely disseminated across Europe, reprinted 10 times and translated into several languages. Whereas previous keyboard treatises such as those of C.P.E. Bach (1753) and D.G. Türk (1789) mainly discussed clavichord or harpsichord technique, Clementi's Introduction was specifically written for the piano. It also contained a collection of short pieces for beginners written by eminent composers such as Mozart, Haydn, J.S. Bach, and Beethoven. This novelty, as well as the conciseness of the tutor itself, proved a remarkable selling tool. Many later piano tutors aimed at beginners (e.g. John Baptist Cramer's and Thomas Attwood's) were modelled on Clementi's.
- The Preludes and Exercises for piano, appended to the 5th edition of Clementi's Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Piano Forte, which appeared in 1811, were written for piano students (beginners to advanced).
- The Six Progressive Sonatinas op. 36, published by Clementi & Co. in 1797, were written for beginners. These Sonatinas are still popular amongst today's piano teachers, over 200 years after their publication!
- The Selection of Practical Harmony (full title: Selection of Practical Harmony, for the Organ or Pianoforte; Containing Voluntaries, Fugues, Canons & other Ingenious Pieces By the most Eminent Composers. To which is prefixed an Epitome of Counterpoint by the Editor) addressed intermediate and advanced students. This impressive 536-page-long collection of 17th- and 18th-century keyboard works (from Frescobaldi to Haydn) is currently being re-edited by the team of the Opera Omnia project in Bologna (more on the Selection of Practical Harmony).
- The Gradus ad Parnassum, published in 3 volumes by Clementi & Co. (1817, 1819, and 1826), represents one of the first significant collection of Etudes for the piano (after J. B. Cramer's 84 Studies) and is far removed from its reputation as a set of 'finger exercises'. It is probably the figure of Claude Debussy that keeps this reputation alive with his popular ‘Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum’ from the Children's Corner suite – a musical satire of mechanical piano practice aimed at Clementi. In the 19th century, Carl Tausig edited Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassum, only preserving the sheer mechanical studies of the collection. This edition was the most widespread at Debussy's time. However, ‘mechanical’ pieces form a minority among the 3 Clementi books. The 100 numbers of the Gradus ad Parnassum (or ‘Exercises‘, as Clementi calls them) show a great variety of keyboard genres and styles: Sonata movements, Suites, Preludes, Fugues, Canons, Adagios, Scherzos, Capriccios, etc. See score of Exercise 83. More on the Gradus coming soon on this site...
5. From the King's Theatre to the Royal Academy of Music
After 7 years of living at his patron Sir Peter Beckford's Stepleton House in Dorset (1766-1773), Clementi moved to London, aged 21. There, he obtained a job as Opera conductor at the King's Theatre in Haymarket. At the time, 'conducting' meant holding the continuo part on the harpsichord during a performance. While the 'director' (whom we now call the 'leader') commanded the orchestra from the first violin desk, the 'conductor' coordinated the whole performance (singers + orchestra) from the keyboard. The practice of the baton for the conductor, which is currently in use, was only introduced in London around the 2nd decade of the 19th century.
These 'early London years' (1773-1780) were formative ones for Clementi. He did not perform extensively as a soloist until 1779, the year of his overnight success with the op. 2 sonatas, which established his reputation as a keyboard virtuoso. While his position at the King's Theatre enabled him to earn a living and have access to the mainstream London musical activities of his time, it also allowed him to consolidate his art away from excessive public exposure. A 'Memoir of Clementi', published in the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review of 1820 (and probably written by Clementi's business partner Collard), stresses the importance these years at the King's Theatre held in shaping Clementi's musical personality:
'Soon after he had quitted Dorsetshire to reside in London, he was engaged to preside at the harpsichord, in the orchestra of the Opera-house; and had an opportunity, which he never neglected, of improving his taste by the performances of the first singers of the age. The advantage which he derived from this species of study was quickly shown by the rapid progress he made, beyond his contemporaries, in the dignity of his style of execution, and in his powers of expression. This he also carried into his compositions...'
- Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review, vol. II (London: 1820)
- Clementi: His Life and Music (Leon Plantinga: Oxford University Press, 1977)
Royal Academy of Music
An extended article in the Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review of 1822, entitled 'Plan for the Formation of an English Conservatorio', describes the rationales behind the foundation of the Royal Academy of Music, Britain's senior Conservatoire. A list of prospective professors at the Academy, dated 23rd July 1822, includes Muzio Clementi as organ and piano professor (and probably also as head of the keyboard department, Clementi being the 'senior' pianist and most established musician in the list). However, Clementi's name does not appear in the 'official' list of professors, published a few months later. He may have declined the offer: his business was flourishing, trips to the Continent were on the agenda, and Clementi, now 70 years old, might have begun to envisage retirement (which eventually materialised in 1830).
The image below shows, on the left, the list of 'prospective' professors at the Royal Academy of Music before its creation, and on the right, the 'official' first list of professors, published a few months later.
Thus Clementi and his 'school of piano playing' were well respected in the early days of the Royal Academy of Music, particularly with Clementi's admirer W. Crotch as principal of the establishment, and Clementi's pupil J.B. Cramer as piano professor. It is worth noting that Mozart and Beethoven were equally 'represented' in this list of first Academy professors: Thomas Attwood was one of Mozart's most talented students, Ferdinand Ries a pupil of Beethoven's, and Cipriani Potter a friend of Beethoven's.