Early Piano Music

Readers must bear with me for the slowness of updating...eventually this page will be an index, and the composers will have their separate pages, but for now I'm listing a few composers together.

I had always considered Karl Czerny as a teacher pure and simple. He was the teacher of Liszt, and the composer of countless forgotten studies which successive generations of students have sweated over. I remember spending over a year on his op. 699 when I was about 23. Very fine studies they were, too, but not the sort of thing you would play to anyone, let alone record. But I have discovered that Czerny could write wonderful music. I've recently been working on his set of variations "La Ricordanca". This was a favourite of Vladimir Horowitz, who often used to play it during his recitals. A lovely tune, and the variations really sparkle. There is no other phrase for it...

Dates: 1752-1832; born Rome; moved to England aged 13, lived in England until his death at Evesham.

Whilst a child, his playing attracted the attention of an English traveller Peter Beckford. Beckford "bought Clementi of his father for seven years" and brought him to a country estate just north of Blandford Forum. Clementi spent the next seven years in solitary study and practice at the harpsichord. When he became free of his obligations to Beckford he moved to London, aged about 22.

Clementi was something of a virtuoso and his name was seen in concert programmes (as performer) with increasing frequency. He went on a European tour in 1780, aged 28. Mozart appreciated his virtuosity but reckoned his playing was rather mechanical. In 1783 Clementi accepted J.B.Cramer as a pupil. Shortly afterwards he was the regular keyboard soloist at the Hanover Square concerts.

From 1785 to 1802 Clementi remained in London and became famous as composer, performer and teacher; then as a publisher and piano maker. His last solo performance at a concert as pianist was in 1790, aged 38. Those interested in the details of Clementi's busy life can read the article in Grove. Clementi is sometimes bracketed with Field, Pinto, Dussek and Cramer and this group is known as the "London Piano School".

Clementi's best music is to be found in his sonatas for piano. There is a resemblance between some of his writing and that of Beethoven, especially the more lively minor-key sonatas. The sonata in F# minor was a favourite of Horowitz. Some of his pieces are too difficult for the amateur; he had a liking for virtuoso passages in double thirds and octaves. The Sonatinas for piano are very well-known but seem to have diminished his reputation somewhat; they are relatively harmless teaching pieces and were in frequent use during the first half of the twentieth century.

His symphonies are mainly lost, but a few survive. The "Great National" is occasionally heard today and shows his skill in counterpoint. The tune he uses in the last movement is "God Save the King" .....which appears in many guises (even backwards) before it appears in its usual form.

Impressions of Clementi's music for piano
There is excellent music here; movements which might have been written by Beethoven, and the F# minor sonata is reminiscent of Scarlatti. The sonata in C major (which also exists as a concerto) is good.

Nevertheless you have to be choosy. He can be tiresome and uninspiring, or difficult without being musical. Some movements are too long and outstay their welcome. Some of the ideas are commonplace, and it's difficult to see why they were published. As for the "Gradus ad Parnassum" .... I'd rather break stones in a quarry. Czerny's studies flow better and are easier on the back.

Pinto was very gifted as a composer and died young - at about 20. His piano writing is good but rather tiring to play. Four sonatas are available, published in Australia, with a foreword by pianist John McCabe.

Nigel Deacon / Diversity website

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