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Michael Ferris

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Muzio Clementi
By Michael Ferris   
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Last edited: Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Posted: Wednesday, May 13, 2009

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Muzio Clementi was born in Rome. His father, who was quite fond of music and an amateur musician himself, had been a successful silversmith. He recognized his son’s talent right away...

Muzio Clementi was born in Rome. His father, who was quite fond of music and an amateur musician himself, had been a successful silversmith. He recognized his son’s talent right away and started him up playing the organ at the age of 7. Only 2 years after, in direct competition with adults, he was appointed organist at his local church.

Seven years later, Sir Peter Beckford, a wealthy Englishman, heard Clementi play and was so impressed by his music that he wanted to become his patron. He offered to take him to England and sponsor his studies as well as offer him room and board. His father agreed and allowed him go. The only think that Clementi had to do in return for this grand gesture of kindness, was to entertain with his playing at the nobleman’s country residence of Steepleton Iwerne, just north of Blandford Forum in Dorset . It was here that the Muzio Clementi became a fine player, receiving not only a great deal of musical knowledge but also receiving quite a good academic education. The peaceful environment also provided for a great deal of alone-time for him to practice the harpsichord. He made his first public piano recital at the age of 18, the beginning of his concert career.

In 1774, having been freed of his obligations to Sir Peter Beckford, he moved to London. Only a year later, he made his first appearance. In 1779, he published his Six Piano Sonatas Opus 2, which he made a name for himself with. These pieces namely distinguished the piano sonata from the harpsichord sonata in the music world.

A year later, he felt it was time to take his music beyond the borders of England. France had been his first stop. Quite excited about the impression his music had made in Paris, he went on to Vienna. It was here that he was even asked by the Austrian emperor, Josef II, to take part in a ‘piano duel’ with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Each player had been asked to improvise upon their own compositions. In the end, no one was declared a winner, but it is interesting that this spectacular event left an everlasting imprint on both players. There is evidence that Mozart may also have been a bit jealous of Clementi’s talent, going to so far as to say the following in a letter written to his father.: “Clementi is a charlatan, like all Italians.” Clementi, on the other hand, had expressed nothing more than praise for his fellow colleague Mozart.

In 1784, Clement ran off with an eighteen-year-old girl he had met during his travels. They had the intention of marrying. Unfortunately, the father of the girl was horrified and sought out the couple, thereby reclaiming his daughter and leaving Clementi with a broken heart. All of this had not kept him from composing though. By that time, he had already written over a hundred sonatas. He even brought the sonata to a new level by adding a third movement to the two movements typical of the Italian style.

Back in London only a year later, Clementi settled down and started writing symphonies which at this time became quite popular. Soon after, he became the most expensive and sought after piano teacher in London. This gave him the capital he needed to fulfil a wish to become a businessman. He invested in music publishing and the piano manufacture, which consumed a great deal of his time from then on. Things were looking good.

It was in 1991 and 1994 that the greatly revered Josef Haydn visited England, a musician whom Clementi could not compete with. Many believe that this contributed to the downfall of Clementi’s success. Each time Haydn came to England, Clementi’s music lost public demand. This did not stop him from composing though.

His publishing house and piano manufacturing business were increasing in popularity and soon became quite successful. He began travelling throughout Europe to promote his pianos as well as his own music and did not settle down in England until 1810. He returned to London and got married to Emma Gisborne, with whom he had four children. In 1813, he joined the board of the Philharmonic Society. In spite of all this, he travelled occasionally and kept composing. In 1817, he began Gradus ad Parnassum, a volume of studies and five finger exercises which pianists still use today. Occasionally, his visits abroad looking for an audience for his symphonies were not incredibly successful on account of everyone being wrapped up with a musician by the name of Ludwig van Beethoven. Clementi was not able to compete with him either, but it has to be said that he did end up publishing some of Beethoven’s works.  

 Clementi proved during his lifetime to be quite a shrewd businessman, a great teacher, a piano builder, a music publisher, but most importantly a great composer and player. In fact, he is sometimes referred to as the father of modern piano playing . All in all, he has not only gone down in history as a great composer but a very diversified human being with a lot of talent.

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