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8.553500 - CLEMENTI: Piano Sonatas, Op. 40

Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)

Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)

Piano Sonatas, Op. 40 Nos. 1-3


Muzio Clementi was born in Rome in 1752, the son of a silversmith. By the age of thirteen he had become proficient enough as a musiciao to be employed as an organist at the Church of S. Lorenzo in Damaso and to attract the attention of an English visitor, Peter Beckford, cousin of William Beckford, author of Vathek aod builder of the remarkable Gothic folly of Fonthill. Peter Beckford, as he himself claimed, bought Clementi from his father for a period of seven years, during which the boy lived at Beckford's estate in Dorset, perfecting his ability as a keyboard player and, presumably, his general education. In 1774 Clementi moved to London, where he began to take part in professional concert life as a composer and performer, playing his own sonatas, some of which were published at this time, and directing performances at the Italian opera.


Clementi's success as a performer persuaded him to travel. In 1780 he played for Queen Marie Antoinette in France and early in 1782 he performed for her brother, the Emperor Joseph II, in Vienna. Mozart met Clementi in January, when they were both summoned to play for the Emperor. Clementi improvised and then played a sonata, according to his later account, the Sonata in B flat major, Op. 24 No.2, and the Toccata, Op. 11. Mozart then played and both of them shared the performance of sonatas by Paisiello and improvised on a theme from one of the sonatas on two pianos. Mozart had a poor opinion of Clementi's musical taste and feeling, but grudgingly admitted his technical ability in right-hand playing of passages in thirds. in other respects he was a mere mechanicus. A year later he wrote again about his rival, describing him as ciarlatano, a charlatan, like all Italians, writing the direction Presto on his music but playing merely Allegro, and adding that his sonatas were worthless: the passages in sixths and octaves he considered striking, but dangerous for his sister to practise and potentially damaging to her lightness of touch,


Mozart's opinion of Clementi has proved damaging to the latter's reputation but it is possible that Mozart and Vienna suggested new styles of playing to Clementi, who returned to England in 1785, winning a distinguished place for himself through the brilliance of his playing and for his piano teaching, He wrote symphonies and concertos, but found his position threatened during Haydn's two visits to London in the 1790s. In the same decade he involved himself in piano manufacture and music publishing with Longman and Broderip and from 1798, after the firm's bankruptcy, in partnership with Longman, Hyde, Banger and Collard. He travelled abroad extensively in the earlier years of the nineteenth century in the interests of the company. John Field, his pupil, was employed to demonstrate the new keyboard instruments and accompanied him to Russia, while in Vienna he secured the English publication rights for compositions by Beethoven, who held him in esteem as a composer and performer.


From 1810 Clementi was again in England, where he was much respected and won particular success for his teaching compositions, an 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 same 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. His legacy to pianists was a significant one, both through his compositions and through his teaching, an introduction to a new virtuosity and exploration of the possibilities of a newly developed instrument.


Clementi's three sonatas that make up Opus 40 were published in 1802 in Vienna, Paris and London, in the first two cities by Mollo and Pleyel respectively and in the last by his own company. The set of sonatas was dedicated to Miss Fanny Blake. The Sonata in G major is headed by an explanation of directions for the use of the pedal and opens with forthright chords, answered by syncopation The first theme is linked by modulation to the second and a closing section, before the repetition of the exposition. There is an imaginatively worked out development and hints of the return of the first subject, before it actually re-appears in full recapitulation, with the secondary theme again preceded by a trill. The E major slow movement offers dramatic contrast to the singing principal theme in an excursion into the relative minor key, after which the main theme is heard again, now further ornamented. There is a central version of the material in E minor, before the final return of the principal theme, now very considerably decorated. In this sonata of four movements, the third offers a perpetual canon at the octave in its first section, with the G minor trio section presenting a canon in which the lower part moves in contrary motion to the upper. The rapid Finale is a rondo of much variety, with an extended episode in G minor and some changes in the form that the principal theme takes. It provides a brilliant conclusion to a work that marks the height of Clementi's development as a composer.


The Sonata in B minor, the second of the set, starts with a slow introduction leading to a sonata-allegro movement. The central development finds room for unexpected shifts of key and chromatic writing, before the return of the thematic material in recapitulation. The second movement moves from a sombre and strongly felt Largo to the rapid compound rhythm of an Allegro, its course briefly interrupted by the return of the Largo. The sonata ends in an even quicker version of the Allegro material, although one is bound to recall Mozart's remarks on Clementi's performance.


The last sonata of the group, the Sonata in D minor/D major, starts with a solemn D minor introduction, moving into D major with the Allegro that soon follows. The movement falls into the customary three parts, with a central development of some originality in its shifts of key, ending in a continued trill, before the return of the principal theme in final recapitulation. The D minor slow movement, in 6/8, ends on the dominant chord, leading, therefore, without a break to the closing D major Allegro. Once again Clementi finds occasion to explore the minor key, now in a canon, before the return of the major key.


The use of counterpoint and the imaginative digressions and developments in sonatas such as these go some way towards an understanding of Beethoven's esteem for Clementi's sonatas and the clear influence they had on his own writing for the keyboard. His place in the development of the piano sonata cannot be overestimated.


Keith Anderson



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