Any person who has ever had formal piano lessons will surely have come across Mr Clementi, and his Op 36 sonatinas. They are mechanical pedagogical pieces that are very pleasant and useful in developing a budding talent. Yet that is just a tiny part of Clementi’s oeuvre. If you can find the sheet music beyond (well use IMSLP) Op 36 you will find a treasure chest of masterful, superbly crafted piano music that will not only surprise but make you wonder. Make you wonder why this music has been historically mothballed. It seems almost impossible to access Clementi’s music beyond IMSLP (if you wanted to buy bound copies of all his sonatas), although Amazon and Spotify have a fairly comprehensive collection of recordings mainly by pianist Pietro Spada. Spada opens Clementi up and shows very clearly that Clementi’s music stood on the boundary of the classical and romantic periods.
Clementi was slightly eclipsed by giants like Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn yet, I personally feel, his music is on par with the latter two and some of former’s early piano sonata repertoire. Of course Beethoven went off in a direction that no mortal could match. I will at this point admit that a few of Clementi’s works (mainly the sonatinas) are a touch twee and rigid but there is a selection of his sonatas that puts him at the top of the minor composer’s pile (although I will argue he is not a minor composer, but I will use that term for now). The Op 40, 46, 47 and 50 collection of nine sonatas are all masterpieces that really should get more attention. If I could compare him to such contemporaries as Dussek, Kalkbrenner and Hummel then he ever so slightly pushes the boundaries of originality and breadth. While Hummel composed some worthy sonatas ,No 4 and 5, and the fantasy in E flat major, a lot of his work is lacklustre and contrived. I point towards Clementi’s Op 47 sonatas, or capriccios. This is No. 1 in E minor. It has a very long introduction, one of the longest I have ever come across. Listening to the first movement you can see music paving a way towards Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. Whether this music ever did influence such composers is not clear although it is well documented that Beethoven had a fondness for Clementi’s music.
Clementi’s style is unique in that he explores, almost mathematically, the vast variety of motifs that are possible to compose. Each sonata has a little nugget that gets bent and twisted throughout the movement. This is done before Beethoven and it seems that Clementi influenced him in the use of introductions to works which can be long (a mentioned above) or just a few bars. These mini preludes set the tone and act as a warm up; Clementi normally includes some hemidemisemi quaver (32nd notes) glissando to ready the performer’s suppleness. He uses the full toolbox of sonata form artillery that works superbly on all occasions. In fact I find it hard to find a weak sonata produced by Muzio. They are melodious yet modulated in a heart beat making the piece strecthed and pulled.
Personally my favourite sonata is the Op 50, No. 2 in D minor. It has, what I believe, to be the most haunting first movement of the classical period. It is powerful and brooding, there is no room for any major key ditty in F major because is rolls along with some inner strength,some inner meaning. What is Clementi trying to convey in this sonata? He is a man we seem to know little about but he must have been something special to produce something akin to a middle period sonata of Beethoven’s. D minor is an evocative key and all works that adopt it are mysterious and dark (Mozart’s Requiem Mass, Beethoven’s sonata No. 17 and symphony No.9, Bruckner’s symphonies No. 3 and 9). Clementi has given the world something that is precious but is lost to humanity. The finale of this sonata is authoritative and the wonderfully mastered entrance to the coda makes my back tremble every time I play or hear it.
I urge people to give Clementi a chance. He is so close to becoming a grandmaster of the classical romantic bridge-in fact he built the bridge and his back was the bridge to aid the greats like Beethoven. Of course there was his incredible Gradus ad Parnassum that is a fine collection of studies and shows Clementi’s full breadth of his craft. This is the beautiful beginning to one hundred impressive variations that only a genius could produce.
So there is more to Clementi then just a few sonatinas. There is more then I expect we will ever know.