1752 — 1832
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Muzio Clementi was a composer and a performer of multiple keyboard instruments. He was one of the first to embrace and realise the potential of the piano, and his unparalleled virtuosity and innovative way of composing led him to be deemed “the father of the piano.”
Born in Italy as the oldest of seven children, Clementi was quickly recognised as a prodigy by his parents, who arranged for him to take lessons with many of the finest organists in Rome, including Antonio Boroni and Giuseppi Santarelli. By the time he was only thirteen he was given his first employment, as church organist for the San Lorenzo Church. He also composed his first oratorio around this time. However, less than a year after receiving this position, Clementi was discovered by a travelling well-to-do Englishman, Peter Beckford. Beckford was so impressed by Clementi’s talent that he essentially, in his own words “bought Clementi of[f] his father for seven years,” bringing him back to his estate in Wiltshire, where Clementi lived and studied harpsichord in productive obscurity until the seven years were over. He also wrote a variety of pieces for keyboard during this time, although unfortunately only his six keyboard sonatas survived.
Clementi’s last public performance was in May, 1790. This was largely due to the fact that, starting in 1791,Joseph Haydn began spending much of his time in England. The visits of this superstar had a suffocating effect on other England-based composers, as the public voraciously consumed Haydn’s music, leaving little musical oxygen to go around. Soon after, Clementi also ceased conducting his works in public, although he was still successful and highly in demand as a teacher, so much so that he reportedly turned down an offer from the royal family.
Mostly due to his astute business insights, Clementi was able to survive and thrive even though his music was dwindling in popularity, being quickly replaced with the new fashion. He founded a successful publishing company, Longman & Broderip which despite going through several bankruptcies and name-changes was ultimately very profitable. Clementi also leant his name, expertise and part of his fortune to Longman, Clementi & Co. pianos, becoming one of the most successful manufacturers of the instrument. The firm helped develop many of the innovations in piano production, including a new stringing method using one piece of wire per pair of unison-tuned strings, the “harmonic swell,” which is essentially a series of sympathetically vibrating strings, and one of the first player-pianos, invented in 1820 and utilizing a horizontal cylinder of varying speed.
In 1773, finally a free man, Clementi moved to London, which happened to be the epicenter of popularity for the piano, a relatively new instrument that was still evolving in mechanics and public perception. Clementi's first work in London was as the harpsichordist at the King’s Theatre and later at the Italian Opera in London. He also released his six keyboard sonatas as Opus 2 in 1779. These pieces were extremely well received, as was Clementi’s performance of them, with the ABC Dario Musico calling him “a most brilliant performer.”
By this point something of a phenomenon in London, Clementi decided to try his luck in the rest of the European capitals, embarking on a tour of Paris, Strasbourg, Munich, and Vienna. He received an extremely warm welcome in France, which surprised Clementi as it contrasted with the “gentle and cool approbation given by the English.” The following year, Clementi arrived in Vienna, where he was given a royal welcome by the Emperor, Joseph II.
On the Emperor’s orders, Clementi and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had an impromptu, and supposedly friendly, piano duel, in which they both had to play their own compositions, improvise, and sight-read sonatas by Giovanni Paisiello. Clementi was in awe at Mozart’s playing, declaring “until then I had never heard anyone play with such spirit and grace.” Even though Mozart ended up winning the competition, his comments were far less kind, stating that Clementi “has not a kreuzer’s worth of taste or feeling – in short he is a mere mechanicus,” and later going as far as to call him “a charlatan, like all Italians.” Mozart’s comments hurt Clementi both personally and professionally, and later in his career he found it hard to salvage his reputation from the damning remarks.
Clementi finally returned to London in 1782, where he would continue to teach and perform regularly. He wrote many of his famous piano sonatas during this time, and his piano studies Gradus ad Parnassum (“Steps toward Parnassus”), which would stymie students for generations. Unfortunately, although he wrote several symphonies they have all been lost.
The style of Clementi’s works helped set the tone for how composers, including Beethovenand Mozart, would approach the piano. Although it is a percussion instrument, Clementi was a pioneer of a style of playing that was at the time counterintuitive, much more expressive and legato, perhaps inspired by his background as an organist. It was also of course impressively virtuosic, with many of his works full of double-note passages and octave leaps, which led to his reputation as the greatest piano soloist of his age.
Clementi’s success in business was enough that he was able to retire with his family to the countryside in 1830. After a brief illness he died on 10 March, 1832, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. Although his music fell out of fashion near the end of his life, he had an undeniably huge influence on subsequent generations of composers and was one of the principle voices shaping how the piano would develop through the ages.
Header image courtesy of Boccaccini & Spada Other images courtesy of Naxos and Mario Verehrer