A Clementi Afterthought

One more word about Clementi, and as example a piece I bring into many classes. I was always a collector of canons, even before I discovered Nancarrow, and Clementi was something of a fanatic about them. (Sometimes to his detriment; the otherwise magisterial Op. 40 No. 1 Sonata is a little marred by its canonic scherzo, which doesn’t bear enough weight for the rest of the piece.) There are eight canons in his massive, almost-five-hour piano opus Gradus ad Parnassum, and two of them are inversion canons. It seems to me that an effective inversion canon, in a tonal idiom, is one of the hardest things you can write, and this one, the more effective of Clementi’s two, I find remarkably charming for the genre:


You can hear the canon here in a recording by Danièle Laval. Of course in E major he has to reflect the lower voice around F#, because the major scale (as a glance at the keyboard will show, noting D’s position among the white keys) is symmetrical around the second scale degree. Debussy tweaked fun at Gradus ad Parnassum in his Children’s Corner, and Charles Rosen blasts the collection as a marathon of mechanical soullessness. He’s almost 100 percent wrong. They’re all teaching pieces on some level, but included are dozens of lovely, memorable vignettes, variously diverging toward early Romantic harmony and warm neo-Baroque counterpoint. 

I’ve always gotten a kick out of keeping a secondary musicological specialty besides contemporary American music, sort of as a hobby and to keep new music in perspective. My period used to be medieval, which I studied in grad school with Theodore Karp, one of the leading figures in the field. But the last time I taught medieval, the textbook (by Jeremy Yudkin, the only enjoyably readable medieval music text) contradicted half of what I said, and I realized that that field changes too fast for me to keep track of – pieces are now attributed to different composers than was true when I was in grad school, and even the technical terminology has changed. So several years ago I switched to Classical Era as a secondary specialty, though I only do the instrumental music; most 18th-century opera bores me to tears. I enjoy taking students through the Haydn symphonies because they’re so incredibly varied and numerous, though it’s a rare student who shares my enthusiasm for Haydn. And I try to show them that the period was a lot funkier than it gets credit for, by playing Albrechtsberger’s concertos for jew’s harp, Michele Corrette’s Combat Naval with its forearm clusters on the harpsichord, and music in odd meters like this fugue in 5/8 by Beethoven’s childhood friend Antonin Reicha:


But I bring up Clementi’s inversion canon even in composition lessons as an example of grace achieved under intense compositional restrictions.


  1. says

    I very much enjoy this kind of posts.
    1. It’s great to read about other composers like Clementi, whose names are not entirely unkown, but are not given the proper value. In my country Clementi’s Sonatinas are studied by piano students, and also Diabelli’s.
    2. Your writings about these other composers add to my recent habit of reading through pieces by less-well-known composers, particularly on the IMSLP site. As a coincidence, I’ve just finished preparing a seminar that will include a brief view on a Sonata by Johann Christian Bach.
    3. Do you like Hummel too?
    4. Would you say there are hidden treasures in less-spoken-about genres like Wind Quintet, Cello Sonata, String Sextet etc…, or have composers generally done their best work in piano sonatas, concerti, symphonies…?
    KG replies: Yes!, I teach Hummel, and particularly enjoy comparing his F#-minor Sonata to Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, which was supposedly written in reaction to (or competition with) it. And I suppose there are glories in the wind quintet, etc., media, too, but one can only work one’s way through the repertoire so fast – especially when one’s specialty lies somewhere else….

  2. Owen Gardner says

    What’s the name of the Jeremy Rudkin book? A Google search yielded nothing.
    I’m consistently frustrated by the low quality of medieval music texts, both by the writing and content. I think it’s a terribly interesting subject (those rhythms! those dissonances!) but you’d never know it from reading that crap. If you’ve any recommendations, please send them along.
    KG replies: Oops! – my mistake – the name is Yudkin, and it’s Music in Medieval Europe, in the series edited by Wiley Hitchcock. I’ve fixed the reference. When I used the book, it was being published only on a by-order basis, and not very well bound. But it was easier to follow than any of the others I looked at.

  3. David D. McIntire says

    Personally Kyle, I pull out your ‘Chicago Spiral’ when I want to show “an example of grace achieved under intense compositional restrictions.” But I’m glad to now have the Clementi to refer to as well. I’ve known about his ‘Gradus ad Parnassum’ for years, but never checked it out personally, instead relying on Rosen’s assessment as gospel. Now there’s some more music I need to get acquainted with. I do agree that Hummel is greatly underappreciated. When I worked in classical record stores I could rarely get people to try his music, but if they did they invariably became huge fans.

  4. says

    In fact I’ve been reading Rosen’s “Sonata Forms” for the past few days or weeks. I like it a lot, though I think I read it somewhat critically, mainly when he seems to dismiss Schumann’s Sonatas, which I love.
    It is so highly informative, but once in a while he is strict in a way I don’t like.
    KG replies: Rosen is brilliant on the stuff he knows about, but he too easily and too scornfully dismisses anything he can consider “not academically respectable” without learning anything about it.