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8.557453 - CLEMENTI, M.: Piano Sonatas, Op. 50: No. 1, Op. 34: No. 2 and Op. 41 (Bannister)
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Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)
Sonata in G minor, Op. 34, No. 2 • Sonata in A major, Op. 50, No. 1
Sonata in E flat major, Op. 41

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 musician 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 the Gothic novel Vathek and builder of the remarkable folly, Fonthill Abbey. 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 from the keyboard 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 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. 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, otherwise dismissing him as a mere mechanicus. It should be added that Mozart was often disparaging about the abilities of his contemporaries, as he was of Clementi on a later occasion.

In 1785 Clementi returned to England, winning a reputation for himself there as a performer and teacher, although as a composer he was eclipsed in the 1790s by the presence in London of Haydn. It was in these years that he involved himself in piano manufacture and music publishing in London, first with Longman and Broderip and from 1798, after the firm’s bankruptcy, with Longman, and others. In the earlier years of the nineteenth century he travelled abroad in the interests of the business, accompanied at first by his pupil John Field, who served as a demonstrator of Clementi’s wares and later left a somewhat prejudiced account of his experiences after he parted company with Clementi in Russia.

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. His legacy to pianists was a significant one, both through his compositions and his teaching, an introduction to a new virtuosity and exploration of the possibilities of a newly developed instrument in a society that had changed greatly since his own childhood in Italy.

The Sonata in G minor, Op. 34, No. 2, the second of a set of two, was first published in Vienna in 1795. According to Clementi’s friend and pupil, the Berlin composer and pianist Ludwig Berger, it was based on a symphony, now lost. The first movement starts with a short solemn introduction before the principal theme is heard, marked Allegro con fuoco, leading to a B flat major second subject. A dramatic central development is followed by a varied recapitulation. The E flat major slow movement, marked Un poco adagio, opens with a singing theme which returns after an intervening passage of varied dynamics. The closing Molto allegro, a form of rondo, finds room for a contrapuntal treatment of the main theme in an E minor passage of canonic writing.

Clementi’s three Op. 50 sonatas were published in London in 1821 by the composer, with other editions in the same year in Leipzig and in Paris. These final sonatas are dedicated to Cherubini and are examples of the very considerable development of Clementi’s style. The last of the set, Didone abbandonata – Scena tragica, won more contemporary favour than the first two, but all three mark the culmination of Clementi’s achievement as a composer of piano sonatas. The Sonata in A major, Op. 50, No. 1, opens Allegro maestoso e con sentimento, its imposing first subject followed by a dramatic transition, leading to the E major secondary theme. The central development, with its chains of thirds, a feature of Clementi’s technique as a player, explores the dynamic possibilities of the pianoforte, before the return of the principal theme in recapitulation. The A minor slow movement, with the direction Adagio sostenuto e patetico, soon introduces a contrapuntal element before the Andante con moto, a thirty-bar canon at the fifth, a reflection of Clementi’s debt to Bach. The Adagio returns to complete the movement. The sonata ends with a sonata-form movement. The central development finds room for an opening passage in canon and there is further scope for counterpoint in the recapitulation in a work of marked originality.

There are two surviving versions of the Sonata in E flat major, Op. 41, the first in two movements and the second, in three movements, published by Clementi and his partners, with a third unauthorised edition from Mollo in Vienna in 1804. Clementi was to publish no further sonatas until 1820. The second version of the Sonata in E flat major is relatively undemanding, with an opening theme that recalls the style of piano writing familiar from Haydn’s sonatas, leading to a secondary theme. The relationship between the two themes is apparent in the contrapuntal opening of the development and the thematic material is recalled in the final varied recapitulation. The B flat major Adagio explores the possible resonance of the piano, introducing more elaborate decoration of the material. Rapid thirds open the final Allegro and there is some hand-crossing before the exposition comes to an end. The thirds of the main theme start the development and make their inevitable return to start the final recapitulation.

Keith Anderson

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