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Music -- May 1996

Finished Symphonies

Clementi's neglected orchestral music is
far better than his present
reputation suggests


by William H. Youngren

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.

Clementi's turn toward orchestral music was also influenced by Haydn's two visits to London in the early 1790s. During the 1780s Clementi's symphonies were frequently performed, but Haydn's arrival in 1791 suddenly landed Clementi in a popularity contest he could not possibly win. When Haydn returned to Vienna, in 1793, Clementi's music was again in demand; his fortunes sank once again when Haydn reappeared in 1794, and rose the next year with the great man's final departure.

Although the two men maintained cordial relations Haydn visited Clementi's country house at Evesham, in Worcestershire, and Clementi gave him a piece of coconut shell trimmed with silver--Haydn was a steady irritant to Clementi. But he must surely also have acted as inspiration and challenge, because Clementi kept writing symphonies. During the early years of the new century (and especially after he had become acquainted with Beethoven and his music) Clementi did his finest surviving symphonic work. From 1816 through 1824 a long string of mostly favorable reviews chronicles the performances of his symphonies in London, Paris, Munich, and Leipzig.

WHY were these later works not published in Clementi's lifetime? Apparently because he kept revising and tinkering with them. In his early days a fine youthful recklessness had led him to publish immediately almost everything he composed. But another effect of the reassessment brought on by his aborted elopement was to make Clementi far more cautious about the quality of the works he sent out into the world. Thus he veered from one extreme to the other, and became a compulsive reviser--at least of works to which he attached special importance, like the symphonies. He carried the scores with him on his far-flung promotional trips, and they were with him when he died.

The fate of these manuscripts is an obscure and tangled story. An old rumor had it that Clementi himself destroyed them. But in 1921 the musicologist Georges de Saint-Foix announced that by combining chunks of manuscript from two large Clementi collections, one in the British Museum and the other in the Library of Congress, he had made out four symphonies, an overture, and a minuet. A servant of the composer's grandson, one of the previous owners of the manuscripts, had evidently thrown out many by mistake; but much remained. In 1935 the composer Alfredo Casella reconstructed two of the symphonies and conducted them in Italy with great success. Performances were also given in this country, by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and in 1938 Casella's editions of the two works were published.

In 1969 the musicologist and pianist Pietro Spada began working with the manuscripts in London and Washington. He discovered connections among various fragments that Casella had missed. By 1978 Spada had published the four large symphonies that apparently date from 1810-1824, two so-called overtures that were intended as symphonic first movements, and a Minuetto Pastorale, on the manuscript of which Clementi had written, "to be shortened for another symphony in D." Modern editions of the two Op.18 symphonies and of a piano concerto that Clementi later turned into a sonata had appeared some years earlier, and so the publication of Clementi's surviving orchestral works was now complete.

The four large symphonies were recorded almost immediately by Claudio Scimone and the Philharmonia Orchestra, and are now available as a two-CD set (Erato 4509-92191-2). Within the past few years these symphonies, the two smaller Op.18 symphonies, the concerto, the two overtures, and the Minuetto Pastorale have all appeared on the English ASV label, performed by Francesco D'Avalos and the Philharmonia, with Spada as soloist in the concerto. They can be had either on three single compact discs (ASV CD DCA 802, 803, and 804) or as a packaged set (ASV CD DCS 322).

The two early symphonies are uneven but extremely interesting experimental works, and are quite different from each other. The one in B flat sounds almost archaic when we recall that by 1787 Haydn had composed his six Paris symphonies (Nos. 82-87). Its first movement and finale have the curiously impersonal air of many pre-classical symphonies of a decade or more earlier. At only two points in the first movement does anything interesting happen: Clementi moves into and out of the development section with oddly meditative passages in which the melodic movement suddenly slows to a standstill and the harmony drifts.

The opening movement of the symphony in D, in contrast, is, as Leon Plantinga remarks in his excellent 1977 biography, Clementi: His Life and Music, "painstakingly unorthodox." The allegro, following a solemn slow introduction, at first seems as energetically impersonal as that of the B-flat work. But the transition to the second theme is refreshingly contrapuntal, and the second theme itself, a slow-moving,thoughtful melody given out softly by the upper strings, has an almost ethereal quality. The recapitulation, astonishingly, begins not in the expected D major but in C major. The contrapuntal transitional passage and the second theme swap places as Clementi gradually works his way back to the home key and a witty ending that surely owes its existence to Haydn. The finale is also delightfully Haydnesque.

The first movement of the C-major concerto is large-mannered, robust, and a little boring. This concerto was performed by Clementi in 1790 and was probably composed around that time, but it, too, sounds primitive. Our ears have grown accustomed to the dazzling series of twelve concertos (K. 449-K. 503) that Mozart wrote from 1784 to 1786, and we expect something like the subtle, ever-changing relation between soloist and orchestra that we find in those works. That relation is established by the very free, multi-thematic first-movement form Mozart evolved specifically for that purpose. Clementi instead employs the older first-movement concerto form, in which there are two expositions, one for the orchestra and one for the soloist, that are identical except for the key in which the second theme is introduced. When Clementi made this work into a sonata, all he had to do with the first movement was lop off the orchestral exposition and alter slightly the transitions to the development and the cadenza, and the last few bars. Anyone could have done it. But no one except Mozart could turn the first movement of a Mozart concerto into the first movement of a sonata. Clementi's second movement is more interesting: intimate and freely discursive, it reminds one of the nocturnes of Chopin and of Clementi's gifted pupil John Field. The finale is sparkling but somewhat prosaic.

THE heart of the matter is, of course, the four large symphonies edited by Spada. They are immediately attractive works, generous and warm-hearted yet without an ounce of sentimentality. Each lasts about half an hour--twice the length of the Op. 18 symphonies--and is scored for a sumptuous orchestra that includes three trombones.

As one would expect, there is a good deal of Haydn in these works. In fact, many of the fast movements sound at first like Haydn movements in which the intensity of the wit has been diffused, the exhilarating tightness of the form relaxed, and the form itself opened to allow time for enjoyment and contemplation. Often Clementi dramatically produced a startling chord that in Haydn would signal the opening of a whole new harmonic area, but then simply picked up where he left off; the chord becomes merely a local effect rather than a functional part of the harmonic progression.

Clementi's main way of broadening and relaxing the classical forms was to provide sudden moments of calm or even stasis. These mysterious "still points," which first appeared in the Op. 18 symphonies, are everywhere in the four late works. They may derive from but are quite different from Haydn's famous "irregularities"the sudden pauses, shifts of direction, and lengthenings or shortenings of phrases by which Haydn created momentary surprises and delights without losing his grip on the underlying form. At such moments Clementi seems to have been quite willing to lose his grip for a while.

It is this willingness, together with his harmonic procedures and the character of some of his melodies, that makes it natural to group these symphonies with Schubert's first six, the symphonies and sonatas of Carl Maria von Weber, the concertos and sonatas of Mozart's pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and the symphonies of Louis Spohr. In these works and others written during the first quarter of the nineteenth century the classical forms of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven remain more or less unaltered externally but are softened and tamed through a heightened concentration on local color and ornamental detail, a tendency toward lushness of harmony and sonority, and an easygoing pace.

Since these had been elements of Clementi's music for a long time, it is no surprise that he should have made common cause with these proto-Romantic or "classicizing" composers. Yet he differs from them in one important respect: he belongs to an earlier musical generation. Schubert was born in 1797, Weber in 1786, Hummel in 1778, Spohr in 1784; Clementi (it is believed) published his first sonatas in 1771, and he had been composing for perhaps a decade before that. He was old enough to have been directly influenced by Bach and Handel. As early as perhaps 1774 he acquired an autograph manuscript of the second volume of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and during his early years at Dorset he continually studied and practiced the works of J. S. and C.P.E. Bach. The contrapuntal language of the High Baroque was still, for Clementi, a living medium of expression--not, as for Mendelssohn, an ancient tongue to be reverently learned and preserved.

Thus we find in Clementi's four late symphonies vigorous and elaborate canonic and fugal sections cheek by jowl with the leisurely, ornate passages that remind us of Weber and early Schubert. During his lifetime Clementi was much praised by the English critics for his "science," by which they meant his contrapuntal technique. A slightly later critic like Schumann not only a German but also a Romantic composer could express concern about the apparent coldness of Clementi's contrapuntal writing. It was Clementi's unique historical position--together, of course, with the special bent of his enormous gifts--that enabled him to temper and qualify classical forms with both the contrapuntal rigors of the vanished Baroque age and the harmonic languors of the dawning Romantic age. There is no one quite like him, and no other works quite like these four extraordinary symphonies.

They come off better in Scimone's recordings than in those conducted by D'Avalos. D'Avalos takes them in the lean, brisk style now considered the guarantee of "authenticity" in the performance of all late-eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth-century music; Scimone moves easily between vigor and expansiveness, just as the works demand. I would fault Scimone only on his failure to capture the full effect of Clementi's superb orchestration, in particular the almost Brahmsian richness provided by the three trombones and by the thick lower voicings of which Clementi (as in his solo keyboard works) was so fond. The thought of what performances by, say, Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic might reveal redoubles one's hopes that these symphonies of Clementi's will soon receive the airing, in the concert hall as well as on records and discs, that they deserve.


Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; May 1996; Finished Symphonies; Volume 227, No. 5; pages 104.

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