NO composer had a more fortunate life-span than Muzio Clementi. He was born in Rome in 1752, two years after Bach's death, while Handel was still an active figure on the musical scene of London, where Clementi would spend much of his life; he died in 1832, a year before the birth of Brahms, just as Berlioz, Chopin, Schumann, and Mendelssohn were getting their careers under way. In 1781 Clementi engaged in a piano competition with Mozart in Vienna, for the benefit of Emperor Joseph II; during the 1790s he shared the stage of London's Hanover Square Concert Rooms with the visiting Haydn; in 1807, once again in Vienna, he carried on elaborate negotiations with Beethoven that resulted in his becoming the composer's principal English publisher; and on June 21, 1824, he attended the London debut of Franz Liszt. During most of his life he was more famous than Mozart, his reputation exceeded only by those of Haydn and Beethoven both of whom he not only was influenced by but also influenced. In addition, Clementi was one of the premier keyboard virtuosos and teachers of his day, and he ran a highly successful publishing firm that also manufactured pianos. At his death he was buried with high ceremony in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.
Yet today Clementi's name is scarcely known. His monumental Gradus ad Parnassum (1817-1826), once studied by all budding pianists, lives on only in Debussy's affectionate caricature, "Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum," from the Children's Corner Suite. During the 1950s Vladimir Horowitz's recordings briefly revived interest in some of Clementi's sonatas, but they, too, are no longer studied as they once were, and are seldom programmed.
His other music is in a still sorrier state. Clementi wrote several vocal and chamber works and, most important, an unknown number of symphonies, which had a brief success but disappeared from the orchestral repertory in the late 1820s --swept aside by the demand for Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.
If Clementi's life-span was fortunate in that it put him in personal and artistic contact with perhaps the world's three greatest composers, it was unfortunate in that it put him in direct competition with them. His music for both keyboard and orchestra is far better than his present low reputation suggests. The three Viennese classical composers produced their astonishing body of masterpieces between the mid-1770s and 1827, the year of Beethoven's death--almost exactly the period during which Clementi was active as a composer.
That Clementi's symphonies should so long have remained unknown and unplayed, and that even their precise number and the dates of their composition should be obscure to us, is not only unjust but also ironic. For it was on these works that Clementi, especially during his later years, placed his greatest hopes for posthumous fame.
CLEMENTI had composed an oratorio and perhaps also a mass by the time he was twelve; by fourteen he had been appointed the organist of his local church. Shortly thereafter a visiting Englishman, Peter Beckford, struck a deal with Clementi's father whereby he "bought" (as he later put it) the young composer for seven years, to serve as his music master. Beckford, a cousin of the novelist William Beckford, the author of Vathek, had no special interest in music. But in 1765, the year before his trip to Rome, he inherited a large Dorset estate, and decided that his new position demanded a music master. So Clementi returned with him to England in 1766 or 1767. A few sonatas survive from this period, but Clementi seems to have spent most of his time in solitary study and experimentation, at his harpsichord. Just what he did to earn his keep, and when he left Dorset for London, are not known.
He seems to have arrived in London in about 1774, and by the end of the 1770s he was composing, performing, and publishing sonatas of ever-increasing brilliance and flamboyance. By 1780 he felt ready to try his luck on the Continent. Stopping first in Paris, he went on to Vienna and his confrontation with Mozart. Though Clementi had high praise for Mozart's "spirit and grace," Mozart, in a letter to his father, ungenerously (and perhaps enviously) dismissed Clementi as possessing "not the slightest expression or taste, still less, feeling," and branded him "a ciarlatano, like all Italians."
In 1784 Clementi returned to the Continent and eloped with an eighteen-year-old girl he had met on his previous trip, the daughter of a prosperous Lyons merchant. The enraged father pursued the couple, and with the aid of the authorities soon reclaimed his daughter. Heartbroken, Clementi retired to Bern, where he consoled himself by working at mathematics. By late 1784 or early 1785 he felt sufficiently restored to return to London, but lingering melancholy apparently kept him from performing.
Clementi's rejection by the merchant brought it home to him that the trade of touring virtuoso was not quite respectable, and he resolved to set his sights higher. The Op. 13 sonatas, which he composed at this time, are decidedly less flamboyant, more nobly melodic and internally coherent, than his earlier ones. This was also when he began to write symphonies, which were rapidly becoming the most prestigious genre of musical composition. In 1786 four new Clementi symphonies (or parts of symphonies) were performed in London. Of these we have two, the short symphonies that were published in 1787 as Op. 18--the only orchestral works that Clementi ever allowed to be published.
In addition to raising his musical ambitions, Clementi now sought to better himself by going into business. He was becoming the most sought-after, and most expensive, piano teacher in London, and with the fortune thus amassed he invested heavily in music publishing and piano manufacture, two activities that increasingly absorbed his time and attention.