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ClassicsOnline Home » CLEMENTI, M.: Gradus ad Parnassum, Vol. 2 (Marangoni) - Nos. 25-41
Composer, performer, teacher, music publisher and piano manufacturer, the Italian-English piano virtuoso Muzio Clementi stood at the vanguard of musical development in Europe. His piano sonatas influenced Beethoven with their treatment of complex harmony, structure, and texture. Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum, a collection of 100 stylistically diverse pieces, stands as a monument to Clementi’s technical and expressive mastery of the instrument. Award-winning pianist Alessandro Marangoni has been acclaimed as playing “naturally and beautifully” (ClassicsToday.com / Gradus ad Parnassum Vol. 1 / Naxos 8.572325).
By Dace Gisclard
Muzio Clementi (1752–1832)
Gradus ad Parnassum, Op. 44, Volume 2: Exercises Nos. 25–41
Composer, performer, teacher, music publisher, piano manufacturer—his professional career spanning over fifty years, the Italian-English piano virtuoso Muzio Clementi stood at the vanguard of musical development in Europe, both artistically and commercially. Born in Rome in 1752, Clementi studied organ, harpsichord, and counterpoint from an early age, securing a post as church organist by the age of fourteen. His precocious Italian childhood was not to last, however; in 1766, Clementi was adopted—“purchased” from his family—by Peter Beckford, a member of the British Parliament travelling through Italy, who noticed Clementi’s talent and decided to take the boy back to England with him. For seven years Clementi lived at Beckford’s country estate in Dorset, devoting himself to solitary study of the harpsichord and composition.
In 1774, Clementi moved to London, making his début as a harpsichordist and conducting orchestra concerts from the keyboard. Fuelled by the publication of his popular Op. 2 Sonatas in 1779, his career as a composer and public performer shot out of anonymity and into wild acclaim. Clementi followed his London successes with a concert tour of Europe, playing both harpsichord and the relatively new pianoforte. His technical brilliance was admired by general audiences and European royalty alike, especially by Emperor Joseph II of Austria, who arranged the legendary competition between Clementi and Mozart in 1781, a fiery musical duel between the two most famous pianists in Europe, testing improvisational skill, virtuosic prowess, and compositional mastery.
After a thwarted elopement in 1784, Clementi remained in England until 1802, composing piano sonatas and symphonies, appearing regularly as conductor, and teaching many high-paying students, some of whom, including J.B. Cramer and John Field, became celebrated concert pianists. In 1790 Clementi stopped performing in public and invested his energy in his piano manufacturing and music publishing firms. Beginning in 1802, he embarked on five European tours, not as a public performer but as a businessman, selling his pianos and brokering deals with composers and publishers. His great coup and crowning achievement in the publishing industry was securing exclusive English printing rights with none other than the “haughty beauty,” Beethoven. In 1830 Clementi retired from his thriving company and moved to the English countryside, where he lived with his wife and children until his death at the age of eighty. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.
Although revered as “the father of the pianoforte,” Clementi first made his name as a virtuoso on the harpsichord. Not until the mid-1780s did he devote himself exclusively to the piano, both in performance and composition. A common misconception is that his works were written exclusively for the piano; while this is true after the 1780s, his early publications, including several sets of sonatas, were composed for and originally performed on the harpsichord. Nevertheless, his advances in keyboard technique, including dazzling passagework, rapid octaves, and fleeting double-note runs, established the modern art of piano playing.
A revelation in Clementi’s understanding of the musical range of the piano occurred during his encounter with Mozart in the Austrian royal court. Astonished by the beauty and grace of his younger rival’s playing, Clementi graciously praised Mozart’s skill and taste, sentiments not reciprocated. Threatened by Clementi’s showmanship and sheer technical powers, Mozart brooded and complained, calling Clementi a “charlatan” behind his back and denouncing his compositions. But Clementi discovered, through Mozart, a Viennese elegance that valued musical substance and melodic grace, a new style of playing beyond mere mechanics, one that found its way into his later works.
Clementi’s prolific compositional career centered on the piano sonata, his works influencing Beethoven with their treatment of complex harmony, structure, and texture. In addition to more than one hundred sonatas (64 for solo piano), he wrote twenty symphonies, numerous commercial works designed as a pedagogical tool for amateurs, and the Introduction to the Art of Playing on the Pianoforte. Ranging from simple and didactic to boldly innovative and difficult, his piano music, though rarely heard on the concert stage, has been studied continuously by pianists of all levels.
The three-volume Gradus ad Parnassum, Op. 44, completed in 1826, represents the culmination of Clementi’s career, showcasing a veritable treasury of compositional and pianistic technique compiled from all periods of his work. From pure finger drills to preludes, fugues, canons, and sonata movements, the one hundred exercises, as called by Clementi, constitute a stylistically diverse array of studies covering all aspects of piano playing. Like Johann Joseph Fux’s seminal treatise on counterpoint from 1725, also titled Gradus ad Parnassum, Clementi’s monumental work was designed to ascend to the highest level of musical and technical perfection—steps to Parnassus, as it were, the mountain sacred to Apollo, where the Muses were said to reside. Frequently grouped together by key, either in Scarlatti-like pairs or as unified suites of multiple movements, the pieces in Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum illustrate his proclivities toward polyphonic writing, running two-voice textures, and virtuosic passagework.
This disc begins at Exercise 25, the first movement of a Suite de trois pièces, opening with a slow, stern Introduzione that precedes a stately four-voice fugue in B minor. Exercise 26 continues the polyphonic play with a serious two-voice canon in triplets, followed by a B major study in repeated notes, its sustained melody singing beneath tremolo-like single notes and chords. Volume 2 of Gradus ad Parnassum opens with fleeting fingerwork, rapid scale-passages alternating between the hands. This light, jocular piece is followed by a slower, contrapuntal movement, the delicate descending line woven between steadily moving figures.
The key of B, the centre of Exercises 25–29, is shattered by the ferocious E minor of Exercise 30, rippling arpeggiations over heavy bass octaves that spill into Exercise 31 in C major. The continuous, fluttering single and double trills of Exercise 32 are followed by a sober four-voice canon. From this relative cerebral calm launches an A minor study in repeated notes; glittery ascending lines darken during the development. Exercise 35 in A major showcases the virtuosity required to repeat scale and trill figures in the middle voices while sustaining outer lines with the weaker fingers. A clattering of broken intervals gathers momentum as its perpetual motion hurdles towards the finish; an editor’s comment recommends this “hand-shaking” exercise to cultivate physical endurance.
Arranged as a Suite de cinq pièces, Exercises 37–41 centre on F major and form an extended amalgamation of both Baroque suite and Classical sonata forms. Far more than a series of studies in finger dexterity, this set explores style and expression. Opening the set is a graceful, poised Preludio with right hand flourishes ornamenting a stately chord progression, followed by a Haydn-like movement in sonata-allegro form, alternating between gentle questioning and dramatic intensity. The long, weighty Scena patetica in B flat forms the heart of the set; heavy Baroque double-dotted figures and recitative open this grave movement, extending into a chorale-like respite, dreamy modulations, chromatic wanderings, and a late, tumultuous climax that closes in a pianissimo B flat pedal-point. A restrained four-voice fugue in F major follows, giving the set its polyphonic centre, but even the steady, contrapuntal lines cannot hold back the classical joy of the Finale, with playful themes alternately scampering, pleading, and darkening toward a triumphant ending.
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