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ClassicsOnline Home » CLEMENTI, M.: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2 / Overture in D Major (Rome Symphony Orchestra, La Vecchia)
Muzio Clementi was ‘The Father of the pianoforte’, a performer, teacher, publisher and manufacturer of pioneering importance. But in addition to the works for piano, he also wrote a series of symphonies which, along with Cherubini’s D major Symphony (Naxos 8.557908), are the only works by an Italian composer to stand comparison with the great Viennese symphonies of the time. Colourful, characterful and atmospheric, these important works show the influence of Haydn, but also, in their orchestral richness, of Beethoven and Schubert.
By Christie Grimstad
Muzio Clementi (1752–1832)
Symphonies Nos 1 and 2 • Overture in D major
The name of Muzio Clementi (composer, teacher, publisher and piano manufacturer) has long been linked with didactic pieces and other works thought, incorrectly, to have been designed as mere exercises—which may partly explain why his contribution to the history of music remains undervalued today. Clementi was born in Rome in 1752 and learned the harpsichord as a child. His playing was heard by the English writer and traveller Peter Beckford who then entered into an arrangement with the fourteen-year-old’s father, the terms of which led Clementi to become part of the household at the Englishman’s country estate near Blandford Forum in Dorset for the next seven years, during which period he studied the harpsichord and composition. Thereafter, he left his patron’s home, but rather than returning to Rome chose to settle in London. He gave a number of concerts there and also became conductor (from the keyboard) of the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket, before undertaking a series of lengthy visits to various European cities (Paris, Vienna, Lyon) where he both taught and appeared in concert. On his return to London in 1785, he focused on teaching and composing orchestral works—at a time when Haydn was taking the English capital by storm. Clementi also became increasingly involved in music publishing, and opened a piano factory, something which gave him a rather “modern” air: a musician who had thrown off the shackles of aristocratic patronage and joined the bourgeoisie, having achieved economic independence through trade. Between 1802 and 1810 he again toured continental Europe. As well as appearing as a soloist, he also gave lessons to Meyerbeer, Moscheles and Czerny. Once back in London again he, along with Viotti, was one of the cofounders of the Philharmonic Society in 1813. He withdrew from public life in 1830 and left London, dying in Worcestershire two years later; he was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey, where the epitaph on his gravestone proclaims him “The Father of the pianoforte”. Not only did he add to the technical development of the piano repertoire, he also, together with his partners Collard & Collard, manufactured the best instruments of the age.
In all, Clementi’s catalogue contains over 100 works, among them sonatas, capriccios, toccatas, fugues and other works for piano, such as the 24 Waltzes and 12 Monferrinas, several pedagogical works, including the three-volume Gradus ad Parnassum, an oratorio whose music has been lost, and six symphonies, autographs of the last four of which have survived, although incomplete.
His symphonies are probably the only works of their type by an Italian composer (with the further exception of the D major example Cherubini composed for the Philharmonic Society) to bear comparison with those of the great Viennese masters, such as Haydn and Schubert. Little is known about their genesis, although an article published in the Allegemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1817 reported that Clementi had “been striving for the past twelve or fifteen years to write a series of six great symphonies”. It also appears that after 1820 his symphonies (with the exception of the two early examples, Opus 18) disappeared from the European repertory and, indeed, that all trace of his many orchestral works vanished for years. According to musicologist Téodor de Wyzewa’s note in an edition of the sonatas, Clementi had destroyed all his symphonies “in a fit of despair”. The real reason his works faded from view, however, was the fact that the repertory had by then established itself—works by anyone other than Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven were such rarities that by 1839 Schumann was speaking in terms of the imminent demise of the symphony. It was as if Beethoven had come up with the perfect model which other composers had no choice but to try and emulate, albeit without any hope of succeeding.
In 1921, Georges du Parc Poulain Saint-Foix, a pupil of Wyzewa, identified some incomplete manuscripts by Clementi housed in the Library of Congress. Having studied some of the composer’s other autograph scores, he was able to distinguish four symphonies (WO 32–35), a Minuetto pastorale (WO 36), and an Overture in D major, as well as various other fragments.
The two-part structure of the Overture in D (Andante sostenuto—Allegro con brio) mirrors that of the opening movements of the two symphonies also included here. Two thematic episodes alternate in the Andante, one primarily melodic in nature, the other made up of rapid ascending notes and repeated figures. The fast pace and incisive self-assurance of the rhythms in the Allegro and the originality of Clementi’s themes give the work a limpid irony that anticipates the idiom of his larger-scale orchestral works.
In 1935, Alfredo Casella studied the Library of Congress materials in great depth, reconstructing the two symphonies WO 32 (in C major) and WO 33 (in D major), and conducting successful performances of them in Rome, Naples and Turin.
In terms of scale and instrumentation, these later works fall somewhere between Beethoven’s conception of the symphony and Schubert’s, and demonstrate the extent to which Clementi was aware of the musical developments of his day. Full of nineteenth-century colour and atmosphere, they are written for full orchestral forces, with the winds providing significant harmonic underpinning. They also retain traditional elements, however, following the Classical four-movement pattern and featuring third-movement minuets rather than Beethovenian scherzos, fast movements with fugal sections or others in canon, and trios and finales in Haydnesque sonata or rondo form.
The Symphony in C major, WO 32, has survived in two different versions: an early B flat major draft, of which all we have are 21 pages of the finale and the second violin part of the first movement (incomplete), and a later version in C major. The latter consists of the following movements: I. Larghetto—Allegro molto, II. Andante con moto, III. Minuetto (Allegretto), IV. Finale (Allegro vivace). The refined writing of the initial Larghetto does not preclude the use of counterpoint: there is a subtle play of imitation in the exposition of the two themes, a device also employed in the Allegro molto section. In the Andante, in F major, an intense and elegant theme is unfurled in the strings, above which the winds inject broad melismas, with support from the brass. The simple Minuetto, in full galant style and typically symmetrical tripartite form, is followed by the Finale (Allegro vivace), a lively moto perpetuo in which the main theme, introduced by the flute, is thereafter imitated and varied by the other instruments. In structural terms, it is an original fusion of rondo and sonata forms.
The Symphony in D major, WO 33, was performed in London in 1819, and was also heard in Leipzig three years later, earning a favourable review in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung which happens to mention that in its London incarnation it had featured a “Minuetto pastorale” (probably the above-mentioned WO 36).
The composition is characterised by an admirable clarity of line, its writing full of life and vigour. Like the Symphony in C, it too opens with a slow introduction—Adagio—which then leads into the standard sonata-form Allegro. Clementi weaves a sense of warmth and good humour into the Larghetto, relying principally on the expressive energy of the winds who, above a lilting rhythm on the strings, open up into smooth cantabile lines, creating an idyllic pastoral atmosphere. The Minuetto is a scherzo in all but name; the thematic material is passed quickly from winds to strings and back again, with fugal sections and passages in canon, the discourse developing into brief duets between the different parts. The Finale recapitulates all that has gone before, with a fanciful, almost eccentric air, which seems to leave eighteenth-century style behind in favour of the newly emerging Romanticism.
English version: Susannah Howe / Naxos
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