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8.557695 - CLEMENTI, M.: Early Piano Sonatas, Vol. 2 (Alexander-Max)
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Muzio Clementi (1752–1832)
Piano Sonatas
Op. 11 • Op. 1, No. 2 • Op. 7, No. 3 • Op. 9, No. 3 • Op. 10, No. 1

 

Muzio Clementi was born in Rome in 1752. He studied music from early childhood, and by the age of thirteen, assumed the position of organist at San Lorenzo in Damaso. His precocious talent drew the attention of Peter Beckford, cousin of the English writer and dilettante William Beckford, who, according to his own explanation, "bought Clementi of his father for seven years". He returned to England with his purchase in late 1766. At Beckford's house in Dorset, Clementi set himself to study and practise the harpsichord. In 1774, his solitary apprenticeship at an end after the stipulated seven years, he moved to London where he appeared more and more in concerts as harpsichordist, his popularity ever increasing as a result of the publication of his Op. 2 in 1779. Thus encouraged, in summer 1780 he set out on his first tour abroad.

In Paris he was received with enthusiasm, as was reported in London, in a notice perhaps provided by Clementi himself, and having played with great success for Marie Antoinette, he was reportedly astonished by the contrast of his reception with the 'gentle and cool approbation given by the English' by comparison. He continued his tour, and also played for Marie Antoinette's brother, Joseph II, in Vienna on Christmas Eve 1781. It was here that the famous piano contest with Mozart took place, described, with some disparagement, by Mozart in a letter home to his father. Although Clementi played well, he did not win the competition. Mozart was a difficult challenger, but it must be remembered that, until now, Clementi was self-taught, and then only on the harpsichord. This had been his first encounter with the new instrument, the fortepiano.

Despite his late start as a pianist, Clementi became a pioneer in cultivating many of the piano's technical and expressive possibilities. Possibly influenced by Mozart's playing, perhaps aided by his own early training as an organist, he developed an expressive legato style of composition and performance for which he and his followers became widely known. He became a versatile and highly influential figure in the history of keyboard music. In addition to being a composer, a virtuoso pianist and a sought after teacher, he was a conductor, a music publisher, a successful piano manufacturer and an extremely astute businessman.

Clementi's accomplishments centred mainly around the keyboard, and in fact, by the end of the 1780s he was considered the pianist with the greatest international reputation. His flamboyant virtuosity extended beyond the concepts of keyboard technique at that time, and he liked to display his talents by brilliant execution, with double-note passages and with improvisation. It was not until later that he adopted a more cantabile and refined style of performance. Reviews, in Cramer's Magazin der Musik, of two concerts in London during March 1784, reflect the change in Clementi's playing. 'Mr. Clementi played a sonata on the pianoforte and everyone had to admit that his execution displayed matchless facility and expression.' Two weeks later one reads that his playing displayed 'fine taste, delicacy, and great dexterity.' 'Clementi … is regarded as the greatest pianist who has ever lived … He excels equally in the adagio and the allegro … He improvised in a manner to make one believe that the music had been written out.'

Clementi had great influence on other composers, not least of all Beethoven, who was, indeed, one of his greatest admirers. The influence of Clementi's sonatas is evident in youthful Beethoven. It was Clementi who passed on, to a whole new generation of pianists, his ideals of performance, which not only emphasized legato technique, but fluency in a brand new range of technical challenges.

Clementi's sonatas were often printed several times during his lifetime, sometimes under different opus numbers, and sometimes a particular opus number represented several different works, a cause of some confusion, but indicative of the popularity of the composer throughout Europe after 1780. Almost always, the publications of Clementi's continental tours were republished in England a little later, and almost always Clementi took the opportunity to incorporate minor additions and alterations. Described as 'revisions', they must be taken into consideration when assessing the composer's work.

Op. 1, No. 3 later became Oeuvre 1, Sonata 2. The Oeuvre 1, Sonata 2 preserves little of the original material of the earlier version of 1771. In the revised Sonata in B flat (1780 or 81), the first movement begins like Op. 1, No. 3 then diverges completely after nine bars. Opp. 5 to 11 dating from 1780–1784 were all composed during Clementi's first continental tour, which took him to Paris, Vienna, Strasbourg and Munich, Lyon and probably Zurich. Op. 7, Op. 9 and Op. 10 can be dated by announcements in the Wiener Zeitung, and Haydn wrote to Artaria in 1783 thanking the publishers for 'the pianoforte sonatas of Clementi', and said that 'they are very fine'. Among the Sonatas Opp. 7–10, there are movements that show great advances in structural merit and successful integration of different techniques of previous years. The opening movement of Op. 10, No. 1 is surely an example of this. One of the most impressive sonatas from this period is the G minor Sonata Op. 7, No. 3. The first movement presents extremely diverse musical materials that nevertheless accomplish a complex motivic unity on several levels. The dramatic and harmonically strong slow movement reflects the experiments of earlier sonatas and, in the finale, Clementi's famous octaves appear creating a movement of Haydnesque dexterity and humour.

Sonatas often appeared in England after they had been published on the Continent. Op. 11 is one such example. It, along with its celebrated toccata, was announced in England after Clementi returned to England at the end of 1782. The toccata was one of the works played before the Emperor Joseph II in his famous contest with Mozart in December 1781. Subsequently the toccata, 'full of errors', was reworked, republished and followed Op. 24 instead of Op. 11. Another example of Clementi's 'revision'.

With the influence from Haydn and the skill of his own, Clementi made his impression on those who followed. His influence on the young Beethoven is apparent in Beethoven's early sonatas, and although Clementi's developmental style was perhaps never as sophisticated as that of Beethoven, his sonatas offered all the ingredients necessary for Beethoven and his contemporaries to carry on and move forward. Clementi's work was unrivalled as the benchmark for nineteenth-century pianistic style.

The secret with all of these sonatas, and the music of this period, is to make the dynamic contrasts sound as great as possible, to make a fortissimo seem the loudest possible and the pianissimos seem a colourful whisper. The intent is always to generate the true excitement of the music. All of these sonatas are about taking the piano to its extremes, about extending limits, about making an emotional impact. On the early fortepiano, all this is possible. Citing Op. 7 again, the first and second movements are quite extraordinary for their cantabile legato lines. The third movement, with its exciting array of octaves, is full of fortissimos, sforzandos and exhilaration. The music sounds truly 'grand' on the fortepiano whose palette of colours and range of dynamics can be pushed to the full to make the most of the musical content and the dramatic rhetoric of the early sonatas of Clementi.

Susan Alexander-Max

 


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