About this Recording
8.572328 - CLEMENTI, M.: Gradus ad Parnassum, Vol. 4 (Marangoni) - Nos. 66-100

Muzio Clementi (1752–1832)
Gradus ad Parnassum, Op 44, Volume 3: Exercises Nos 66–100


Composer, performer, teacher, music publisher, piano manufacturer, his professional career spanning over fifty years, the Italian-English piano virtuoso Muzio Clementi stood at the vanguard of musical development in Europe, both artistically and commercially. Born in Rome in 1752, he studied the organ, harpsichord, and counterpoint from an early age, securing a post as church organist by the age of fourteen. His precocious Italian childhood was not to last, however; in 1766, Clementi was adopted, “purchased” from his family, by Peter Beckford, a member of the British Parliament travelling through Italy who noticed Clementi’s talent and decided to take the boy back to England with him. For seven years, Clementi lived at Beckford’s country estate in Dorset, devoting himself to solitary study of the harpsichord and composition.

In 1774 Clementi moved to London, making his début as a harpsichordist and conducting orchestra concerts from the keyboard. Fueled by the publication of his popular Op 2 Sonatas in 1779, his career as a composer and public performer, from anonymity, burst into wild acclaim. He followed his London successes with a concert tour of Europe, playing both harpsichord and the relatively new pianoforte. His technical brilliance was admired by general audiences and European royalty alike, especially by Emperor Joseph II of Austria, who arranged the legendary competition between Clementi and Mozart in 1781, a fiery musical duel between the two most famous pianists in Europe, testing improvisational skill, virtuosic prowess, and compositional mastery.

After a thwarted elopement in 1784, Clementi remained in England until 1802, composing piano sonatas and symphonies, appearing regularly as conductor, and teaching many high-paying students, some of whom, including JB Cramer and John Field, became celebrated concert pianists. In 1790 he stopped performing in public and invested his energy in his piano manufacturing and music publishing firms. Beginning in 1802 he embarked on five European tours, not as a public performer but as a businessman, selling his pianos and brokering deals with composers and publishers. His great coup and crowning achievement in the publishing industry was securing exclusive English printing rights with none other than the “haughty beauty”, Beethoven. In 1830 he retired from his thriving company and moved to the English countryside, where he lived with his wife and children until his death at the age of eighty. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

Although revered as “the father of the pianoforte”, Clementi first made his name as a virtuoso on the harpsichord. Not until the mid-1780s did he devote himself exclusively to the piano, both in performance and composition. A common misconception is that his works were written exclusively for the piano; while this is true after the 1780s, his early publications, including several sets of sonatas, were composed for, and originally first performed on harpsichord. Nevertheless, his advances in keyboard technique, including dazzling passagework, rapid octaves, and fleeting double-note runs, established the modern art of piano playing.

A revelation in Clementi’s understanding of the musical range of the piano occurred during his encounter with Mozart in the Austrian royal court. Astonished by the beauty and grace of his younger rival’s playing, Clementi graciously praised Mozart’s skill and taste, sentiments not reciprocated. Threatened by Clementi’s showmanship and sheer technical powers, Mozart brooded and complained, calling Clementi a “charlatan” behind his back and denouncing his compositions. But Clementi discovered, through Mozart, a Viennese elegance that valued musical substance and melodic grace, a new style of playing beyond mere mechanics, one that found its way into his later works.

Clementi’s prolific compositional career centered on the piano sonata, his works influencing Beethoven with their treatment of complex harmony, structure, and texture. In addition to more than one hundred sonatas (64 for solo piano), he wrote twenty symphonies, numerous commercial works designed as a pedagogical tool for amateurs, and the Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Pianoforte. Ranging from simple and didactic to boldly innovative and difficult, his piano music, though rarely heard on the concert stage, has been studied continuously by pianists of all levels.

The three-volume Gradus ad Parnassum, Op 44, completed in 1826, represents the culmination of Clementi’s career, exhibiting a veritable treasury of compositional and pianistic technique compiled from all periods of his work. From pure finger drills to preludes, fugues, canons, and sonata movements, the one hundred exercises, as called by Clementi, constitute a stylistically diverse array of studies covering all aspects of piano playing. Like Johann Joseph Fux’s seminal treatise on counterpoint from 1725, also with the title Gradus ad Parnassum, Clementi’s monumental work was designed to ascend to the highest level of musical and technical perfection—steps to Parnassus, as it were, the mountain sacred to Apollo, where the Muses were said to reside. Frequently grouped together by key, either in Scarlatti-like pairs or as unified suites of multiple movements, the pieces in Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum illustrate his proclivities toward polyphonic writing, running two-voice textures, and virtuosic passagework.

This disc begins at Exercise 66, the sunny opening to a Suite de cinq pièces in A, with trills ornamenting the descending four-note motif. A flowing canon precedes a treacherous double-note exercise, contrasted sharply by the following weighty four-voice fugue. A sweetly undulating scherzo closes the Suite. The next six pieces, arranged as another Suite in E, open graciously with semiquavers gleaming under a simple melody. Stormy arpeggios mark the short Exercise 72, its contrary motion carried into the next canon. More cerebral contrapuntal games follow, first in a solemn two-subject fugue and again in a similar-motion canon, but the Finale’s clattering broken intervals triumphantly cast off shadows of seriousness.

Exercises 77–81, a Suite de cinq pièces in G, showcase an array of virtuosic techniques: grace notes, double thirds, hand-crossings, rapid scales. Remarkably drastic changes in character in Exercise 80, a lengthy Capriccio, demonstrate a flexibility of wit and a flare for the peculiar. Extending this virtuosic foray are Exercises 82–87, a Suite de six pièces in D, its opening scherzo galloping with double thirds and repeated notes. Silky polyrythms shimmer over mysterious harmonies and melt into the soft declamations of Exercise 84, which gradually build into an extended canon in double-thirds. After a vigorous exercise for holding chords while playing fast notes with the outer fingers and then a cheerful study of scale patterns, the Suite ends in athletic polyphony carved from rapid scales and arpeggios.

Opening a Suite de cinq pièces in B, Exercise 88 twirls with trills that spin into a tangle of imitative textures and chromatic punctuation. A melodic fugato provides wistful meanderings, followed by a quivering Allegretto interlude and an energetic moto perpetuo, stamping close the set. The final eight exercises stand alone as individual pieces, beginning with cascades of arpeggios interrupted by chords in Exercise 93. A chromatically wandering exploration of polyrythms, subtitled Stravaganza, is followed by a string of spirited quintuplets in Bizzarria. Stern C minor arpeggios and heavy chords precede a lively scherzo, while Baroque imitative gestures impart striking urgency to Exercise 98, followed by a blistering finger exercise in double thirds. And finally, drawing this monumental compendium of piano playing to a close, comes Exercise 100, the perfect blend of musical charm and technical prowess, an elegiac farewell that ends in exultant send-off: a final chord and the words “Laus Deo.”

Anyssa Neumann

Close the window