27 May 2020
A piano-playing theme is emerging from the Coronavirus lockdown, with several famous names playing online, or mentioning that they are learning to play, including actor Anthony Hopkins, footballer Nathan Aké, and rugby union player Tom Curry. For anyone with time for a little extra practice, this seems a good time to visit the pedagogical works of the pianist and composer Muzio Clementi.
Clementi was born in Rome in 1752. Moving to England at the age of 14, he spent the rest of his life either in London or travelling extensively in France, Germany and Russia. A simple list of his professional activities does not convey the significance of his achievement in each area. As a publisher, he was the first to publish the works of Beethoven in England, including some first editions; as a teacher, he influenced many important pianists of the next generation; his piano manufacturing firm introduced technical innovations, and his compositions, although overshadowed by those of more famous composers, are still played and admired 200 years on.
As a composer, Clementi had most success with his keyboard music, writing sonatas, variations, suites, preludes and fugues and technical piano studies, and his best known publication Gradus ad Parnassum (1817, 1819, 1826) is a large compilation of these works.
His periods of travel were spent in promoting the Clementi firm’s pianos, making contacts with composers for his publishing business, and teaching. Both in England and abroad, he had professional pupils like J.B. Cramer, John Field, Ludwig Berger (later Mendelssohn’s teacher), Carl Zeuner and Frédéric Kalkbrenner (later briefly a teacher of Chopin). He also taught amateur players, and it was for this market that his educational works were written. In London he was in great demand as a piano teacher in the early 1790s, despite the lapse in his performing career caused by the great popularity of the music of the new arrival, Haydn.
His 1801 piano method, Introduction to the art of playing on the piano forte (British Library g.303.(3.), is one of the first instruction books specifically for the piano, which, as a relatively new instrument, was just beginning to supersede the harpsichord. It contains extracts from the works of other composers such as Handel, Corelli, Mozart and Beethoven, graded in difficulty, as well as instructional text. It begins with the basics (with a hint to the note-learning beginner to ignore the ‘short notes’ of the keyboard except as guides to the eye) and moves on to detailed information about theory, technique, style and expression for the more difficult pieces. The instructions are addressed directly to the pupil, with a serious and uncompromising assumption of a high level of understanding and application. For example, at the foot of one fingering study is the comment ‘Most of the passages fingered for the right hand, may, by the ingenuity and industry of the pupil, become models for the left.’ There is certainly no ‘dumbing down’ here!
Introduction to the art of playing on the piano forte quickly appeared in French and German translations. Publications aimed at intermediate and advanced students followed, and Clementi’s educational music became well known.
Among these pedagogical works are the easy Six progressive sonatinas op. 36, first published in 1797, which are still in use as teaching pieces, with a new edition appearing as recently as 2017.
The respectful attitude to the learner observable in the Introduction to the art of playing on the piano forte is also in evidence in the quality of the musical construction of these mini-sonatas; they are pieces which are not just possible but also satisfying for elementary pianists to play. Recommended for lockdown pianists everywhere!
Printed & Manuscript Music Processing & Cataloguing Team Manager
Leon Plantinga: ‘Clementi, Muzio’. Grove Music Online. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.40033, accessed 14 May 2020.
Margaret Cranmer and Peter Ward Jones: ‘Clementi’. Grove Music Online. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.05937, accessed 14 May 2020
Clementi Society: http://www.clementisociety.com/, accessed 15 May 2020.