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ClassicsOnline Home » CLEMENTI, M.: Gradus ad Parnassum, Vol. 1 (Marangoni) - Nos. 1-24
Remembered as the first of the great piano virtuosos, Muzio Clementi condensed his years of composition and performance into the monumental, three-volume Gradus ad Parnassum, a repository of stylistically diverse pieces designed to demonstrate utmost technical mastery of the instrument. Praised for his recordings of Rossini’s piano music for Naxos (8.570590-91, 8.570766 & 8.572315), the award-winning Italian pianist Alessandro Marangoni scales the heights of Clementi’s piano studies with an ease that belies their extraordinary demands, bringing to life their unfailingly engaging qualities. This is the first in a series of four Naxos albums.
Muzio Clementi (1752–1832)
Gradus ad Parnassum, Op. 44, Volume 1: Exercises Nos. 1–24
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 a church organist by the age of fourteen. His precocious Italian childhood was not to last, however; in 1766, Clementi was adopted—“purchase” 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 the solitary study of the harpsichord and composition.
In 1774 Clementi moved to London, making his début as a harpsichordist and conducting orchestral concerts from the keyboard. Stimulated by the publication of his popular Op. 2 Sonatas in 1779, his career as a composer and public performer brought him considerable fame and he 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 he 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 first 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 he called them, 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 entitled 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 live. 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.
The sweeping work opens with a broad, regal study of repeated notes in F major, followed by three more pieces in the same key: a moto perpetuo alternating between both hands; a quivering, tremolo-filled exercise; and a graceful, binary movement filled with legato double-thirds and sixths. The silky chromaticism of Exercise 5, gliding over an andante tenor melody in B flat major, turns into rapid scale patterns in the next piece, its contrasting contrapuntal sections juxtaposed with sparking trills. The fleeting arpeggios and trill-like figures of Exercise 7 in D major are followed by the cantabile melody of Exercise 8, its initially gentle accompaniment transformed into bravura octaves which then melt away into fluttering tremolos.
Arranged as a Suite de trois pièces, Exercises 9–11 consist of an improvisatory-like Preludio replete with extravagant arpeggios, an “infinite canon, in contrary motion, according to interval,” and an Allegro moderato flourished by Baroque dotted-rhythms and ornamental turns. Exercises 12–15, designated as a Suite de quatre pièces, also begins with a Preludio marked by tumultuous broken sixths and pedal notes. The following four-voice fugue, originally published forty years earlier, is followed by a delicate, chromatic Adagio sostenuto that could easily be the slow movement of a classical sonata. A lively Finale in sonata-allegro form dazzles with extensive passages in double-thirds and double-sixths.
Following these suites are two veloce finger exercises, one targeting each hand, dashing through various harmonic progressions and reminiscent of Hanon’s five-finger pattern drills. An abrupt change of mood accompanies Exercise 18, a stern Introduzione: Grave leading into a subdued, lengthy three-voice fugato. Following this study in counterpoint is the first exercise in a minor key, an étude of right-hand trill figures. Exercise 20 harks back both to Scarlatti, with its technique of changing fingers on repeated notes, and also to the first piece in the collection. Broken octaves clatter through the next study, anticipating the hazardous passages that defined many works of Franz Liszt, the greatest nineteenth-century piano virtuoso. Indeed, the treacherous double-notes of Liszt’s étude Feux follets can be seen as stemming from Clementi’s Exercise 22, the latter’s brilliance heightened by lefthand trills against the right-hand figurations. This study is followed by another taxing exercise in double-note trills and tremolos. In the final piece on this disc, rippling arpeggio patterns shimmer above a passionate left-hand melody, agitated, full-bodied, and romantic.
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