About this Recording
8.573273 - CLEMENTI, M.: Piano Concerto in C Major (1796) / Symphonies, Op. 18 (Canino, Rome Symphony Orchestra, La Vecchia)
English  Italian 

Muzio Clementi (1752–1832)
Piano Concerto in C major • Two Symphonies, Op. 18


The four works on this album are among the few surviving examples of Muzio Clementi’s early orchestral music. Born in Rome, Clementi was known to London audiences as a pianist and composer of keyboard works, at least until 1786, the year in which we know at least four new symphonies by him were performed. Of these, only two survive: those that appeared in 1787 as his Opus 18—the only two of his symphonies to be published during his lifetime. The orchestral music produced by Clementi and his London colleagues was strongly influenced by the prevailing musical circumstances and tastes: although the city offered more wide-ranging opportunities for music making than existed elsewhere in Europe at the time, and there were plenty of concerts, both public and private, it was difficult for anyone who wasn’t Haydn to sell new orchestral works. Local audiences, of conservative tendencies, seemed only to want to listen to Handel and Haydn. In 1805 the London correspondent of the prestigious Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung wrote that “no one here can print music of ample proportions, scores and the like, for they would be left on the shelves”.

As noted by Galliano Ciliberti, the Paris music market was somewhat more accommodating. A document of 1789 lists the Symphonies à grand orchestre of the court repertoire, including Clementi’s Op. 18 symphonies. In the decade from 1780 (the year in which Clementi first travelled to Paris) to 1789 there were many public performances and publications of his music, while Op. 18 was issued by Jean-Jérôme Imbault at the turn of the nineteenth century. It therefore seems reasonable to suppose that his symphonies were intended for the international market: the London edition of Op. 18 has a French title, and the instrumentation—two flutes, two oboes, bassoon, two horns and strings—is typical of the forces that used to give the Concert Spirituel series in Paris.

Clementi’s concertos met the same fate as most of his symphonies, disappearing from the repertoire. We know that he performed a number of piano concertos in the second half of the 1780s, up to 31 March 1790, his last documented solo public appearance. At the age of 38 he was still a virtuoso pianist, but by then the London stages were packed with well-born child prodigies, and Clementi must have felt rather out of place as virtually the only adult pianist around. Indeed in the 1780s he was even referred to in the concert listings of London’s newspapers as “Clementini”, to give the impression that he was rather more youthful than was actually the case (the same thing happened in Paris as well, incidentally).

There is another reason why he may have given up his stage work: the rôle of professional musician, in other words appearing in public, was less socially acceptable than that of respectable businessman and instrument manufacturer. Whatever the truth may be, the Piano Concerto in C major from his Op. 33 is the only such work to have survived, in a 1796 Viennese manuscript copy in the hand of Johann Schenk. According to Clementi’s principal biographer Leon Plantinga, the Concerto was the original version of the Sonata in C major, Op. 33 No. 1., as shown by the extended first-movement cadenza and the imbalances resulting from the omission of a number of tutti sections; others, however, believe that the Sonata came first and was then reworked into the Concerto. Piero Rattalino, for his part, claims that the Concerto was written by Schenk himself, and not by Clementi at all.

As a result of the difficulties that even a well-known composer encountered in trying to carve out a place for himself in the world of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century orchestral music, all we have today in terms of Clementi’s production in the field are the two early published symphonies, four more that have survived in fragmentary form, along with various independent movements (whole and partial), and—paradoxically enough for the man considered the “father of the pianoforte”—a single concerto, whose attribution has, moreover, been called into question.

The first of the two Opus 18 works, the Symphony in B flat, is stylistically rather old fashioned, beginning with the main theme of the first movement—a perfect reflection of the Mannheim style, with its symmetries and the way in which the principal harmonies are emphasised. Within the work, however, we find a number of surprises, unusual modulations and polyphonic episodes, especially in that opening movement, whose development section contains a whole succession of jolts, chromatic episodes and sudden pauses. Such characteristics, present in unequal quantities in both symphonies, make them stylistically comparable to many of his piano sonatas, in which extended periods of conventional writing are interrupted by moments of quirkiness that disturb their Classical harmony and add greatly to their overall interest. Slow movements were not Clementi’s strong point, but here he creates a beautifully inspired Un poco adagio, based almost entirely on just two phrases. The third-movement minuet and trio (the latter longer than the former) demonstrate an Italian musician leaving his roots behind and working within the wider European musical context—although the minuet was a common element of German symphonies, it was not so often found in the Italian tradition. The short final movement is a jaunty Allegro assai in an abbreviated sonata form, with an almost nonexistent development and a second theme that undergoes various transformations in the recapitulation.

The Symphony in D major is longer and seemingly more ambitious than its fellow, as demonstrated by the Grave introduction with its dotted rhythm and tense harmonies. In the eighteenth-century symphony, a solemn introduction generally denoted the composer’s desire to write a piece of a certain weighty significance. Despite some unevenness of tone (the way the Allegro assai bursts in after that solemn opening, for example, sounds rather incongruous), here too we find surprising modulations and effects to make listeners sit up and take note. Surprise was of course a key characteristic in Haydn’s work, and Clementi’s stylistic borrowings did earn him criticism from some for indulging in unsophisticated imitations of the older composer. Another trait, too, seems to recall Haydn’s compositional method: the use, in the sonata-form opening movement of a second subject derived from the first. The Andante is followed by another Minuetto, with a trio in the minor, and the work comes to a close with an Allegro assai, again in sonata form; while the derivation of the second subject from the first is not as obvious this time, there is nonetheless a notable similarity of thematic characteristics.

For all the variability and occasional naivety of a not yet mature symphonic style, what stays with the listener from these two early works is what shines through much of Clementi’s music: not the Classical form and clarity of line, but those quirky moments, the passages that are harmonically most dissonant and original, injecting a sense of tension into the otherwise Classical style.

The brief and intense Minuetto pastorale, WO 36, preserved in a manuscript housed by the Library of Congress in Washington, bears the note “to be shortened—for another symphony in D”. It was almost certainly performed as the minuet in the 1819 London performance of the unpublished Symphony in D, WO 33 [Naxos 8.573071]. The nickname “pastorale” suggests an idyllic ambience, and yet Clementi, after a gentle beginning, introduces a number of clouds here too, with a surprisingly dramatic trio, featuring rapid and unexpected chromatic passages, and brusque transitions from major to minor.

The Piano Concerto is cast in the standard three movements: the first, Allegro con spirito, is in sonata form and plays extensively on the manipulation of the C major scale. The second movement, Adagio cantabile, con grande espressione, is a romance in F major, in which the piano provides expressive embellishments on the simple melody set out at the beginning by the strings as horns and bassoons provide background accompaniment. The Presto finale is a monothematic rondo, playful and lively, with many slightly varied repetitions of the main motif and two extended and contrasting episodes, one in the dominant, but using the same theme, and one that modulates before the final recapitulation of the theme. The piano writing is dazzling, although never overly demanding; the orchestration is simple but functional, and boasts some delightful original touches.

The name of Muzio Clementi, who was born in Rome in 1752 but moved to England at a young age, is inextricably associated with the piano—the instrument to which he devoted most of his time and energy, whether as composer, teacher, publisher or manufacturer. He is best known today for his didactic works: the studies in the three-volume Gradus ad Parnassum are still used for teaching piano technique. In his own time, however, he was a fully rounded musician, admired by Beethoven as a composer of piano sonatas, and was part of the transition from one musical era to another, as the bourgeoisie, of which he was a member, acquired social respectability through commercial enterprise. Few of Clementi’s orchestral works have survived, but much of his piano music has—of mixed quality, it includes both didactic compositions and collections of works that look back to the music of the past. A devotee of Bach and Scarlatti, Clementi also satisfied the tastes of a generation of pianists and students with his various anthologies. He died in Evesham in 1832, and is buried in Westminster Abbey. On his tomb are inscribed the words, “The Father of the pianoforte”.

Tommaso Manera
English translation by Susannah Howe

Close the window