Routes to Beethoven – Clementi

by Ben Hogwood

“Clementi plays well, with regard to right-hand technique. His speciality is passages in thirds. Otherwise he hasn’t a trace of feeling, or taste, in a word, he is a mere mechanic.”

This withering assessment of the virtuoso 18th century pianist Muzio Clementi came from none other than Mozart, who had engaged in a keyboard competition with the Roman composer at the request of Haydn on Christmas Eve in 1781. Mozart was writing to his father Leopold, as Daniel Heartz reports the duo in his superb book Mozart, Haydn and early Beethoven. Perhaps not surprisingly Haydn, who organised the duel, was more independent in his views, describing a set of Clementi’s Piano Sonatas as ‘very beautiful’ a year or so later.

Clementi was a nimble-fingered virtuoso. Born in Italy but settling in London, he is not mentioned a great deal in books of the time. Heartz reports a number of lukewarm reactions to his symphonies in England, though again this is not surprising given he was being compared with the visiting Haydn.

It was then in the field of piano music where Clementi really made his mark, and not just as a musician but as a publisher too. Beethoven recognised his influence in both disciplines, recommending his music for the use of piano students. Jan Swafford writes of how Beethoven and Clementi finally cemented a friendship in 1807. “As a pioneering composer for the piano, he had been a formative influence on the young Beethoven, because Clementi was among the best available models for how to write idiomatically for the instrument. Now retired from performing, Clementi lived in England and prowled the continent looking for music to publish and customers for his pianos.” He made several visits to Vienna. After an initial misunderstanding in Vienna in 1804, the pair struck a publishing deal and a friendship on a subsequent visit three years later.

Charles Rosen, writing in The Classical Style, recognises his influence. “In his (Beethoven’s) youthful works, the imitation of his two great precursors is largely exterior: in technique and even in spirit, he is at the beginning of his career often closer to Hummel, Weber, and to the later works of Clementi than to Haydn and Mozart.”

Harold Truscott, writing in The Beethoven Companion about Beethoven’s piano music, goes further. “I think it is true that Beethoven absorbed so much of this music of Clementi and Dussek that many times themes crop up in his work which go right back to themes in their work and that it seems probable he was unconscious of any origin; they had become part of him. We should be careful to distinguish between such unconscious connections and real influence, although the mere fact that these themes penetrated so deeply into his musical make-up seems to show that they had a great impact upon him.”

He observes many characteristics in the make-up of Beethoven’s themes and their treatment that have their common points with equivalent Clementi works. Looking at the Op.2 sonatas in particular, Truscott says, “Throughout his career the essentials of Beethoven’s piano writing changed little from what is displayed in these three sonatas. It was the writing of a virtuoso, using the basic techniques of Clementi and Dussek, but gradually developing their potential in his own way to meet new expressive demands as they arose.”

We will encounter the Op.2 sonatas early on in the Beethoven listening project…but for now we can enjoy Clementi’s own writing, when at its best is full of dramatic contrast, taking minimal melodic material and growing it substantially. The Sonata in G minor is perhaps the best example of his craft, and showing these qualities with the reminder that its date of composition, 1795, is before all of Beethoven’s early published work. It is included in the Spotify playlist below.

About the F minor work, also included in the playlist, Anselm Gerhard writes in his booklet notes how “the whirl of the final movement proclaims the definitive end of music’s historical dependence on traditional dance forms: here purely instrumental music reveals its determination to stand on its own two feet. It was not long before this idea was put into practice by Beethoven”, he continues, “albeit using completely different, characteristically revolutionary means: by consistently dramatising his music, he set out to transfer the prestige of the age’s most celebrated literary genre to instrumental music, and in the highly charged atmosphere of works like the Op.26 and Tempest sonatas, the medium’s new artistic ambitions were plain for all to hear.”

There is humour in Clementi’s thought process too, nowhere more so than in the brilliant pastiche of the Preludes in the style of Haydn and Mozart. Beginning the playlist is the Piano Concerto in C major, and there are two symphonies that illustrate how the composer’s prowess was not as stilted as some might have claimed. They may of course have seen him as a rival.

Clementi’s standing proves him to be more than that – and his influence on Beethoven will become clear in due course.

2020 Beethoven: The Story So Far

As you may well know, Arcana is undertaking a Beethoven listening project this year, in celebration of the 250th year since his birth.

We are approaching Beethoven by way of composers and teachers that had an influence on his output – J.S. Bach, son C.P.E., Handel and teachers Albrechtsberger and Salieri. We have also had a quick look at the Mannheim school of composers who helped the forms of the symphony and sonata to spread their wings.

We will shortly hear from Haydn and Mozart, then a quick look at Clementi – who Beethoven held in very high regard – before a guide to the music of 1770, the year of Beethoven’s birth. Then – finally – we will start on the music of Beethoven himself.

Arcana have several exciting interviews in the bag to help us with our discovery of Beethoven. Pianist Angela Hewitt has given some pearls of wisdom on the Piano Sonatas, while this morning Cyprien Katsaris held court as he talked of his upcoming Beethoven Odyssey. Many discoveries were made! We will also hear from cellist Steven Isserlis, who has offered his thoughts on the Cello Sonatas.

It has been a relatively slow start – but expect the tempo to rise considerably over the coming months! Meanwhile here are clips from one of Hewitt’s discs for Hyperion on the Piano Sonatas, including the wonderful opening pages of the Pastoral:

Wigmore Mondays – Alexander Melnikov: Early piano music by Clementi, Haydn & Mozart

Alexander Melnikov (fortepiano)

Wigmore Hall, Monday 13 January 2020 (lunchtime)

You can listen to this concert on the BBC Sounds app here (opens in a new window)

Review and guide by Ben Hogwood

Something of a history lesson from the versatile pianist Alexander Melnikov, who is capable of moving between modern piano music on a concert grand and 19th century music on the instrument for which it was written, the fortepiano. Essentially the instrument is a forerunner of the grand version we are used to nowadays, but it allows us to see the join between the harpsichord – the go-to keyboard of much of the 18th century – and the bigger and more modern instruments the likes of Beethoven began to write for. Here Melnikov played an instrument by Paul McNulty after Walter & Sohn from an original of 1805. Alexander Skeaping deserves credit as the tuner and supplier.

Melnikov’s program was brilliantly conceived, including music by Mozart and Haydn but linking them through one of the leading pianists and composers of the day, Muzio Clementi. Beethoven was one of his greatest advocates and often played his sonatas, while Clementi promoted his fellow-composer in London, where he arrived in the early 1770s. At this point the English capital was regarded as the centre for keyboard innovations, and in the music for this concert – superbly played and interpreted by Melnikov – you can feel the sense of freedom and exploration as the music looks outwards and forwards towards Beethoven.

The pianist begins with a musical impression of Haydn by Clementi, a brief Prelude from his Musical Characteristics album written as a guide for to give performers an idea of the style of other composers. This short number (from 3:04 on the broadcast link) starts with a broad C major chord, helping us get used to the piano sound. The mood is free and expansive, with a busy left hand. The pianist adds a short improvised section, where it proves difficult to spot the joins, but this serves to lead us straight to a Haydn work, the Piano Sonata in C sharp minor HXVI:36 (4:53).

This was a very rare key for Haydn to use – and rare for piano music, with Beethoven’s Moonlight sonata the next excursion some 20 years later. Melnikov’s performance captures the exploratory air of the piece, beginning with quite a stern statement but then playfully holding back with some of the clipped right hand notes to emphasise the composer’s wit. Melnikov’s affinity for the music is clear, with some beautifully played melodies. The piano sound is lovely, with none of the tinny textures often associated with the earlier instruments.

The second movement is a Scherzando (14:26), Melnikov playing a graceful dance with a really satisfying sense of ebb and flow. The third movement (18:21) is the slowest, a slow and solemn Menuetto moving to a thoughtful and serene final section (20:14) where Haydn moves to the major key. The playing here, using the ‘damper’ pedal, is really lovely.

The next pair of works begin with Clementi’s second ‘impression’ of Mozart (24:17), where a great deal of technical control is required! Me The two composers famously sparred in an improvisation session in Vienna in 1781, so knew a lot about each other – but from the reports did not perhaps see eye to eye.

Clementi’s tribute is keenly felt however, before Mozart‘s own exploratory Fantasia (25:55) receives a carefully thought yet natural performance. Though a short piece, this unfinished work varies greatly in mood and tempo, with quick cascades from on high contrasting with dark left-hand thoughts, before a sunnier closing section to sweep away the clouds. Melnikov gives the music plenty of room, sometimes exaggerating the pauses but always to the benefit of the music.

The concert finished with one of Clementi’s own sonatas, the substantial Piano Sonata in G minor published in 1795. Before it we heard another Prelude from the Musical Characteristics, this time a portrait of himself with a tumbling figure and some highly chromatic music (32:55). The Sonata itself begins at 34:27 with a stern introduction of two-part writing, but that soon cuts to a busy and bright first movement proper. There are a number of abrupt mood swings in this movement, anticipating Beethoven’s way of changing quickly between thoughts, and Clementi also employs some daring harmonies for the time. Melnikov responds brilliantly to these, again his performance given as though performing a characterised stage work, with a stormy closing section.

The second movement (42:40) is marked Un poco adagio (loosely translated as ‘a little bit slow’) and is subtly charming, like a slower dance, before the third movement (48:38), marked Molto allegro (quick and lively), actually hangs back a bit in this performance before going full throttle to a thrilling finish. Again Melnikov’s right hand contours are brilliantly realised.

This was a really enjoyable concert, and great to see the importance of Clementi’s role properly realised. He was one of the true pioneers of early piano music, and without his part it is unlikely Mozart or especially Beethoven would have made their own mark.

Repertoire

This concert contained the following music (with timings on the BBC Sounds broadcast in brackets):

Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Preludio II alla Haydn in C major (publ.1787)
Haydn Piano Sonata in C sharp minor HXVI:36 (publ.1780)
Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Prelude I alla Mozart in A major (publ.1787)
Mozart Fantasia in D minor K397 (?1782)
Clementi Musical Characteristics Op.19: Prelude I alla Clementi (publ.1787)
Piano Sonata in G minor Op.34/2 (publ.1795)

Further listening

Alexander Melnikov has not yet recorded any of the music in this concert, but the playlist below includes recorded versions on the fortepiano wherever possible.

Thirty years ago it would have been unthinkable to consider we would now have a huge resource of recordings made on the fortepiano. This is thankful in part to early protagonists such as Melvyn Tan, but one pianist to have recorded a vast amount of this repertoire is Ronald Brautigam. His recordings of Beethoven are rewarding, but in Haydn he sparkles – such as in this disc of five sonatas, including the one heard in this concert:

Melnikov’s own discography on more historical instruments is in its relatively early stages, but this disc of piano music through the ages from Schubert to Stravinsky is well worth hearing:

Finally from this time comes a thrilling cycle of Beethoven sonatas for piano and violin – pioneering music which Arcana will explore in greater detail as part of 2020 Beethoven. This version with Isabelle Faust is one of the very best: