Clementi and the woman at the piano

Erin Helyard’s Clementi and the woman at the piano is the June volume in the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series. This book explores how Clementi afforded female pianists a new and radical style of performance. In this blog post, Erin Helyard discusses this new publication, Clementi’s career, and the impact Clementi had in creating a new kind of keyboard music.

Clementi and the woman at the piano: virtuosity and the marketing of music in eighteenth-century London looks at the works and activities of a composer you probably know. If you’re a pianist, you’ve probably played him. If you’re the parent of an aspiring pianist, you’ve probably heard him. If you’ve ever waited on a telephone line to be connected, you’ve probably experienced him as background music. He is arguably one of the most played and popular composers for the piano ever: Muzio Clementi. But it is only his Progressive Sonatinas (Op. 36, 1797) that have remained in the repertoire, choice pieces for beginners and “heard” widely as hold music on the telephone. Few non-musicians today would know his name, however, despite Clementi receiving widespread and international fame during his lifetime as a composer, performer, and entrepreneur of considerable repute. Previously quite rare, the piano only began to grow in popularity in Clementi’s youth in the 1770s. It was widespread and considerably more technically advanced at the height of Clementi’s career in the 1780s and 1790s. Clementi thus started out as a harpsichordist but ended up being lauded as the “Father of the Pianoforte.” His piano and music publishing company, Clementi & Co, was one of the largest music businesses in the world and was at the forefront of a rapidly changing piano technology.

His career not only straddles the emergence and dominance of the piano but also other important changes in musical culture. Most notably among these is a rise in female pianism. The market for keyboard music was overwhelmingly female, and Clementi’s music presents them with new—and controversial—challenges. Another feature arises during Clementi’s career: the so-called “work-concept.” After 1800, composers write works destined for repeat performance and musical notation and performance practice emphasise that the performer should play “as if from the soul of the composer,” to quote a contemporary, and not improvise or otherwise alter the text, as had been commonplace for centuries when notation was less prescriptive. Together with the rise of the work-concept and the conceptual separation of composer and performer, we also witness a consequent rupture of musical and commercial aesthetics. In Enlightenment culture commercial success was often equated with artistic success, but in the Romantic era commercial success was increasingly viewed with suspicion. Clementi’s career is thus in many respects a perfect case study for the tensions between Enlightenment thinking and new Romantic ideologies.

Aleksander Orlowski, “Portrait of an Italian Composer Muzio Clementi,” black chalk and sanguine (1810).

Before Clementi the ideology of domestic Enlightenment keyboard culture in England was essentially one of galant ease, gracefulness, and pleasantness. This music was ideally meant to be sight-readable (or at least performable after a couple of lessons) and difficulty was disdained as pretentious, unnecessary and—for some conservative, religious-minded writers—dangerous. Professional keyboard players working in the 1770s and before were for the most part male composer/performers whose virtuosity (sanctioned in this case by their gender and profession) goes generally unrecorded in works that were printed for the keyboard (and overwhelmingly female) market.

Clementi’s 6 Sonatas for Piano Forte or Harpsichord (Op. 2, 1779) is a springboard for discussion in this monograph. Op. 2 goes against all the established norms. This was the work that secured him the title “Father of the Pianoforte” and commentators regularly mentioned it in their assessments of Clementi’s achievements. Clementi dramatically interposes three accompanied sonatas that conform to prevailing notions of taste (easy, sight-readable, and galant) with three solo sonatas, “crammed … [with] passages so peculiar and difficult,” as a contemporary noted. Any compelling performance of these sonatas demands a level of dedicated practice that far exceeds traditional standards. In one bold stroke, Clementi has created a new kind of keyboard music. Furthermore, he does so in a set of six sonatas that calls attention to the difference between a prevailing printed keyboard culture and another more revolutionary one. The difficult sonatas allow other, mostly female, performers to partake in a virtuosity that had previously remained an undocumented (and hence unrepeatable) affair, practiced amongst a small class of male specialists. Importantly, it affords female players a new kind of musical expression and experience, radically different from the deliberately simple, beautiful, and artless music that had up to this point dominated publications destined for their consumption.

Clementi and the woman at the piano maps the social, musical, and gendered implications of technically difficult music, and attempts to underline and discuss important changes in Enlightenment culture and keyboard practice. Along the way we re-assess Clementi’s reputation, discuss Clementi’s influence on the emerging idea of the autonomous work-concept, and attempt to reassess Clementi’s “virtuosity” in a way that might help us understand its widespread popularity, currency, and agency. Clementi’s “virtuosity” and career as a businessman have dogged him in particularly unfair ways. These attitudes generally feed off Mozart’s jealous and racially charged commentary about Clementi, slights that emanated from Mozart when he came off rather bruised from an unexpectedly competitive musical encounter with Clementi in Vienna in 1781. This monograph reviews Mozart’s assessment of Clementi and shows that not all in the Mozart family shared Mozart’s negative assessment of Clementi’s works and playing style.

The book is complimented by a website with complete world premiere recordings by the author of the Op. 2 sonatas, both in their original 1779 format on a Kirckman harpsichord of the period, and then in their revised 1807 version from Vienna, on a replica of a Graf piano from the early nineteenth century. All the musical examples have also been recorded on period instruments.

— Erin Helyard (Artistic Director of the award-winning Pinchgut Opera in Sydney, Australia)

Clementi and the woman at the piano is part of the Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment series, published in collaboration with the Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford. Visit the Open Access companion website for this book, hosted on Manifold.


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  1. Pingback: Clementi and the woman at the piano | Voltaire Foundation

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