Muzio Clementi

Muzio Clementi

[kluh-men-tee; It. kle-men-tee]
Clementi, Muzio, 1752-1832, Italian composer, pianist, and conductor, b. Rome. He wrote more than 100 keyboard sonatas, which set the definitive form, and he had an enormous influence on almost everything concerning the piano. Educated in Italy, he went (1766) to England to live and study. In 1773 he caused a sensation in London as a pianist and conductor; there he conducted the Italian Opera from 1777 to 1780. In 1780 he went on a concert tour of Europe, which climaxed in a piano contest with Mozart. He returned to London in 1782 and, except for tours on the Continent (1802, 1810, 1820-21), spent the rest of his life there. Clementi amassed a fortune as performer, conductor, and proprietor of a piano factory and publishing house. Teacher of many musicians, including the pianists J. B. Cramer and John Field and the composer Meyerbeer, he is especially remembered for his series of études, Gradus ad Parnassum (1817); he also wrote several symphonies.

See catalog by A. Tyson (1967).

Muzio Clementi (23 January 1752 – 10 March 1832) was a classical composer, and acknowledged as the first to write specifically for the piano. He is best known for his piano sonatas and his collection of piano studies, Gradus ad Parnassum.


Clementi was born in Rome on 23 January 1752, the first of seven children, to Nicolo Clementi (1720–89), a silversmith, and Madalena, née Caisar. His musical talent became clear at an early age: by age nine he had secured a post as organist at his home church of St Lorenzo in Damaso.

In 1766, Sir Peter Beckford (1740-1811), a wealthy Englishman and cousin of the eccentric William Beckford, took an interest in the boy's musical talent, and struck a deal with Nicolò to take Clementi to his estate of Steepleton Iwerne, just north of Blandford Forum in Dorset, England — where Beckford agreed to provide quarterly payments to sponsor Muzio's musical education. In return for this education, he was expected to provide musical entertainment at the manor. It was here that he spent the next 7 years in devoted study and practice at the harpsichord. His compositions from this early period, however, are few, and they have almost all been lost.

In 1770, Clementi made his first public performance as an organist. The audience was very impressed with his playing, beginning what at the time was one of the most successful concert pianist careers in history. In 1774, Clementi was freed from his obligations to Peter Beckford, and he moved to London, where among other accomplishments he made several public appearances as a solo harpsichordist at benefit concerts for a singer and a harpist, and served as "conductor" — from the keyboard — at the King's Theatre, Haymarket for at least part of this period. His popularity grew in 1779 and 1780, due at least in part to the popularity of his newly-published Opus 2 Sonatas. His fame and popularity rose quickly, and he was considered by many in musical circles to be the greatest piano virtuoso in the world.

Clementi started a European tour in 1781, when he travelled to France, Germany, and Austria. In Vienna, Clementi agreed with Emperor Joseph II to enter a musical duel with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart for the entertainment of the Emperor and his guests. Each performer was called upon to improvise and perform selections from his own compositions. The ability of both these composer-virtuosi was so great that the Emperor was forced to declare a tie at the Vienese court that day on 24 December 1781.

On 12 January 1782, Mozart wrote to his father:

"Clementi plays well, as far as execution with the right hand goes. His greatest strength lies in his passages in 3rds. Apart from that, he has not a kreuzer’s worth of taste or feeling - in short he is a mere mechanicus.
(Mechanicus is Latin for automaton or robot.) In a subsequent letter, Mozart even went so far as to say: "Clementi is a charlatan, like all Italians. He marks a piece presto but plays only allegro." Clementi's impressions of Mozart, by contrast, were all rather enthusiastically positive. The main theme of Clementi's B-Flat Major sonata, however, captured Mozart's imagination. Ten years later, in 1791, Mozart used it in the overture to his opera Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). This so embittered Clementi that every time this sonata was published, he made certain that it included a note explaining that it had been written ten years before Mozart began writing Zauberflöte. Clementi's admiration and devotion to Mozart, obviously not reciprocated, show from a large number of transcriptions he made of Mozart's music, among which can be found a piano solo version of just this Overture to the "Zauberflöte".

Starting in 1782, and for the next twenty years, Clementi stayed in England playing the piano, conducting, and teaching. Two of his students attained a fair amount of fame for themselves: Johann Baptist Cramer; and John Field (who, in his turn, would become a major influence on Frédéric Chopin).

Clementi also began manufacturing pianos, but in 1807 his factory was destroyed by a fire. That same year, Clementi struck a deal with Ludwig van Beethoven, one of his greatest admirers, that gave him full publishing rights to all of Beethoven's music in England. His stature in music history as an editor and interpreter of Beethoven's music is certainly not less than as being a composer himself (although also criticised for some less docile editorial work, e.g., making harmonic "corrections" to some of Beethoven's music). That Beethoven in his later life started to compose (mostly chamber music) specifically for the British market might have been related to the fact that his publisher was based there.

In 1810, Clementi ceased his concerts to devote all of his time to composition and piano making. On January 24, 1813, Clementi together with a group of prominent professional musicians in London founded the "Philharmonic Society of London", which became the Royal Philharmonic Society in 1912.

In 1830, Clementi moved to live outside Lichfield and then spent his final, less exciting years in Evesham. He died on 10 March 1832. He was buried at Westminster Abbey. He had been married three times.


Clementi is best known for his freerunning capabilities and his outstanding knowledge of piano studies, Gradus ad Parnassum, to which Debussy's piece Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum (the first movement of his suite Children's Corner) makes playful allusion. Similarly his sonatinas are still popular for piano students everywhere. Erik Satie, a contemporary of Debussy, would later parody these sonatinas (specifically the sonatina Op. 36 N° 1) in his Sonatine Bureaucratique.

Clementi composed almost 110 piano sonatas. Some of the earlier and easier ones were reissued as sonatinas after the success of his Sonatinas Op. 36, and continue to be popular pedagogical pieces in piano education. However, most of Clementi's sonatas are more difficult to play than those of Mozart, who wrote in a letter to his sister that he would prefer her not to play Clementi's sonatas due to their jumped runs, and wide stretches and chords, which he thought might ruin the natural lightness of her hand. Beethoven, however was a great admirer of the Clementi sonatas and their influence is very evident in his own piano compositions.

In addition to the piano solo repertoire, Clementi wrote a great deal of other music, including several recently pieced together, long worked on but slightly unfinished symphonies that are gradually becoming accepted by the musical establishment as being very fine works. A likely reason that these later works were not published in Clementi's lifetime is that he kept revising them. While Clementi's music is hardly ever played in concerts, it is becoming increasingly popular in recordings.

Mozart's most evident disrespect for Clementi (and perhaps Italians in general) has led some to call them "arch rivals". But the animosity was not as far as we know reciprocated by Clementi, and in any case Mozart's letters are full of irreverent jibes which he never expected to become public.

Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz developed a special fondness for Clementi's work after his wife, Wanda Toscanini bought him Clementi's complete works. Horowitz even compared some of them to the best works of Beethoven. The restoration of Clementi's image as an artist to be taken seriously is not least due to his efforts and today to Andreas Staier, Andrea Coen and Costantino Mastroprimiano.

Being a contemporary of the greatest classical piano composers such as Mozart and Beethoven cast a large shadow on his own work (making him one of the "lesser gods"), at least in concert practice, despite the fact that he had a central position in the history of piano music, as well as in the development of the sonata form.

With ministerial decree dated 20 March 2008, the Opera Omnia of the composer Muzio Clementi was promoted to the status of Italian National Edition. The steering committee of the National Edition consisting of the scholars Andrea Coen (Rome), Roberto De Caro (Bologna), Roberto Illiano (Lucca — President), Leon B. Plantinga (New Haven, CT), David Rowland (Milton Keynes, UK), Luca Sala (Cremona/Poitiers, Secretary and Treasurer), Massimiliano Sala (Pistoia, Vice-President), Rohan H. Stewart-MacDonald (Cambridge, UK) and Valeria Tarsetti (Bologna).


Critical Edition

With a ministerial decree dated 20 March 2008, the Opera Omnia of the composer Muzio Clementi was promoted to the status of Italian National Edition. The official ceremony took place at the Ministry for the Cultural Heritage (Rome) in the presence of On. Andrea Marcucci, the Under-Secretary of State, Dr. Maurizio Fallace, Director-General for the Library Heritage and Cultural Institutes, and the steering committee of the National Edition consisting of the scholars Andrea Coen (Rome), Roberto De Caro (Bologna), Roberto Illiano (Lucca — President), Leon B. Plantinga (New Haven, CT), David Rowland (Milton Keynes, UK), Luca Sala (Cremona/Poitiers, Secretary Treasurer), Massimiliano Sala (Pistoia, Vice-President), Rohan H. Stewart-MacDonald (Cambridge, UK) and Valeria Tarsetti (Bologna).

The critical edition of the complete works of Clementi, published by Ut Orpheus Edizioni of Bologna, will consist of 15 volumes: the first two will contain vocal and orchestral music respectively, five volumes will be devoted to the chamber music, two volumes to the keyboard works, and two volumes to the didactic works. Another three volumes will contain: 1.) the doubtful works, the arrangements and transcriptions of Clementi; 2.) the correspondence; 3.) a thematic catalogue of his works together with documents relating to his life, the iconography and an updated bibliography. Each volume will contain an analytical historical introduction, a critical edition of the music and a critical commentary (comprising a list, description and criticism of the sources, an account of the interpretational problems and a list of variants).

Further reading

  • Tyson, Alan (1967). Thematic catalogue of the works of Muzio Clementi. Tutzing: Schneider. OCLC 457741.
  • R. Illiano, L. Sala, M. Sala (eds.): Muzio Clementi. Studies and Prospects (Bologna 2002)
  • M. Sala, R. Bösel (eds.): Muzio Clementi Cosmopolita della Musica (Bologna 2004)
  • R. H. Stewart-MacDonald: New Perspectives on the Keyboard Sonatas of Muzio Clementi (Bologna 2006)


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