Classical Reflections

The monothematic sonata (in which the main theme reappears as the second theme, and sometimes representing other functions as well) is reflexively associated with Haydn, but it could just as well be identified with Muzio Clementi. Except that Clementi approaches the idea with more nuance than Haydn. Often Clementi bases all his themes on the same motive, or else the second theme is a variation of the first, and perhaps the closing theme the inversion of the first. For instance, in the Op. 37 No. 2 Sonata in G, the opening theme:

Clementi1.jpg

is varied to become the second theme (and later inverted to become the closing theme):

Clementi2.jpg

It imparts to Clementi’s sonatas a lovely brand of introversion you don’t find in Mozart or Beethoven, a sense of the theme-hero being inflected according to its changing role in the sonata structure, and the whole movement being narrowly focused. I point this out to demonstrate how this particular sonata exhibits one of the cleverest strategies in leading to the recapitulation I’ve ever found. The development ends up on the dominant of A minor, and a modified form of the main theme emerges, moving ambiguously between e minor and G major, and finally reaching a dominant on G just in time for the second theme:

Clementi3.jpg

That means that, thematically, the piece arrives at the recapitulation thirteen measures before it reaches it tonally (i.e., a return to the tonic key), and uses the recapitulation of the main theme as its transitional element modulating back into the tonic. It’s an elegant structural pun, the theme serving to embody, hint at, and retransition to the recap all at once. Very smooth, very clever. Clementi clearly spent a lot of time thinking about the potential subtleties in sonata form and how to play around with them. There are many similar examples in his music (and Op. 37 No. 2 pales next to the six magnificent sonatas of his Op. 40 and Op. 50). And when you compare this level of structural thought and compositional rhetoric to the kind of awkward, slapdash transition that Mozart could jerry-rig in a now-famous sonata even as late as K. 545:

Mozart545.jpg

it’s clear that some of the excess idolatry we lavish on Mozart could aptly be retooled as honest admiration for Clementi, and for Jan Ladislav Dussek as well. Not that Clementi ever wrote anything that could match Mozart’s late piano concerti and operas (though he did provide Mozart with a theme for the Magic Flute overture), but it’s kind of silly and sad, given our far more complete view of the 19th century (except for the remarkable Franz Berwald) that we impart such a cartoonish, one-dimensional view of the classical era, just Haydn-Mozart-Beethoven with Gluck occasionally thrown in. Beethoven grew up with Clementi’s sonatas and borrowed from them, and I sometimes wonder what Ludwig thought of poor Clementi, a well-respected composer 19 years his senior, reduced to becoming Beethoven’s publisher and representative of his piano retailer. In my Evolution of the Sonata class, I try to correct the balance.

In Westminster Abbey a few years ago, I ran across Clementi’s grave by accident. (The English adopted him as they did Handel.) It was a thrill to run into someone whose music has given me so much pleasure.

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Comments

  1. Dmitri Tymoczko says

    Yeah, I agree. Clementi is a really really good composer, and very few people know it. I’ve heard historians suggest that nationalism has a role here — there is a certain Germano-centric bias toward the “standard model” of Western music history.

  2. says

    Great post about Clementi, but I must say that what you call an awkward slapdash transition in Mozart is something I’ve always thought works rather brilliantly. Mozart has enough chops to be as subtle as he wanted to be in any situation – it’s great that he didn’t always choose to. In this case, the structure may not be as subtle as your Clementi example, but the timing couldn’t be better. (That over-famous sonata is actually one of my favorites by Mozart, especially the first and third movements)
    KG replies: I knew someone would defend it. Plenty of facility as always, timing maybe, but no evidence of inspiration, I think, beyond the music-box main theme. I’ve never found the peremptory initial modulation in m. 13 convincing, and there’s a lot of running-in-place around the diatonic circle of fifths. I played the piece in high school, and found it a little disappointing even then (though I thought there must be something wrong with *me*, it couldn’t be *Mozart*). As I tell my students, Mozart wrote many of his sonatas for his students, but he wrote his concerti to make money, and it’s obvious where he put his time.

  3. David Cavlovic says

    Wasn’t it Horowitz who insisted that Mozart stole the main theme from the overture to The Magic Flute from a Clementi Sonata?
    Thank God for Maria Tipo’s recordings of Clementi Sonatas. I also find his Symphonies to be of top quality. And, I confess, I love the Op. 36 Sonatinas. They are great pieces for young and old alike.
    KG replies: Clementi and Mozart were called to compete by the Emperor Joseph II in 1781. Clementi played his Sonata in B-flat, which begins with the same 20 notes (in the same key) with which Mozart later began the Magic Flute. Subsequently, Clementi quite naturally felt compelled to publish a note with his sonata to the effect that it was written 10 years before The Magic Flute.

  4. says

    I’ve always loved playing Clementi. Even though his playing technique could be flashy (i.e. octaves), his melodies always seem to me more introspective than other composers. I got into him when I read that Beethoven had based one of his sonatas on Clementi – I’m too lazy to look it up right now, but there is a similarity.
    Also, does it have to always be either/or (subtle Gann reference ;-)) when comparing composers?

  5. Samuel Vriezen says

    Actually, Kyle, I confess I think that bar 13 trill is completely spot-on… the way it just suddenly drops in, seemingly without any reason, and then turns into a contrapuntal melody… I appreciate your point about Clementi and about reputations, but your example of a weaker Mozart piece just doesn’t seem to work for me!
    (I would have picked perhaps the 2nd movement of the same sonata. Which I still think very nice, but I just feel Mozart is spinning out his nice tune a bit more than he might have. When I play the piece for myself I usually skip bits in that movement or just go straight to nr. 3, which I think is again wonderful)
    KG replies: Well, to each his own. I think the C minor K. 457 is a little weak, too; perhaps you’ll grant that one instead. I’d rather discuss the concertos.

  6. A pure-hearted Songhuijun says

    Thank You, I agree with your Great post about Clementi. Muzio Clementi is a really really good composer. His sonatas are overshadowed, and to speak plainly, surpassed, by the sonatas of Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart. They are excellent and amazing! I Love Muzio Clementi’s Music especially the Op. 37 No. 2 in G major that you mentioned, also Op. 34 No. 2 in g minor and Op. 24 No. 2 in B flat major etc. They really contain great energy and spirit that encourage me, bring me Graet happiness. It is Muzio Clementi, who I Love the most best. It is Muzio Clementi, whose music always give me so much pleasure in my lifetime!!! Really Hope Someday Muzio Clementi can be Fully Understanded!!!

  7. A pure-hearted SongHuijun says

    Thank You, I agree with your Great post about Clementi. Muzio Clementi is a really really good composer. His sonatas are overshadowed, and to speak plainly, surpassed, by the sonatas of Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart. They are excellent and very amazing! I Love Muzio Clementi’s Music especially the Op. 37 No. 2 in G major that you mentioned, also Op. 34 No. 2 in g minor and Op. 24 No. 2 in B flat major etc. They really contain great energy and spirit that encourage me, bring me Graet happiness. It is Muzio Clementi, who I Love the most best. It is Muzio Clementi, whose music always give me so much pleasure in my lifetime!!! Really Hope Someday Muzio Clementi can be Fully Understanded!!!

  8. A pure-hearted SongHuijun says

    I’ve always loved playing Clementi. Even though his playing technique could be flashy and hard to play (e.g. octaves), his melodies always full of happiness and more introspective than other composers. Muzio Clementi’s Sonatas are very rewarding and helpful to the piano learning, esp. the counterpoint.

  9. Hui says

    Interesting, by the way, that Beethoven’s Op.13, Piano Sonata No.8 in c minor, Pathetique,
    1st Movement, which reprises its slow introduction during the development, was written two years *after* Muzio Clementi’s Op. 34 No. 2 in g minor, which does the same thing.
    and, Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in c minor, Op.67, which is written between 1804-1808,is a little bit similar to Muzio Clementi’s Op.34 No.2,Sonata in g minor (1795).