MUZIO CLEMENTI (1752 - 1832)
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.
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.
From 1810 Clementi was again in England, where he was much respected, not least for his teaching compositions, his Introduction to the Art of Playing the Piano Forte of 1801, revised in 1826, and the famous Gradus ad Parnassum, completed and published in the latter year. He retired from business in 1830, settling first in Lichfield and then in Evesham, where he died in 1832, to be buried in Westminster Abbey.