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Piano Sonata in G Minor Op.50 No.3,'Didone Abbandonata'

Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)

Piano Sonata in G Minor Op.50 No.3,'Didone Abbandonata'

Muzio Clementi was born in Rome on 23rd January 1752, the oldest son of a silversmith and his German wife. Young Muzio began his musical studies in Rome when he was six, and in January 1766 he was appointed organist of his local church, San Lorenzo in Damaso (not far from the Piazza Navona), but in the same year he was discovered by a wealthy English Member of Parliament and traveller, Peter Beckford, a cousin of the writer William Beckford. As Peter Beckford bluntly put it, he 'bought Clementi off his father for seven years'. Late in 1766 or early in 1767 he took the young musician back to his country estate at Stepleton Iwerne, near Blandford Forum in Dorset, and kept him there for seven years, virtually imprisoned and confined to solitary study and harpsichord practice.

In 1773 or 1774 Beckford released him, and Clementi went to live in London. His first professional appearances in the capital (in 1775) were as a solo harpsichordist, and for some time he was conductor/director at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket. In 1780 he embarked on a Continental tour, which took him to Paris, where he played before Marie-Antoinette, and Vienna, where he played before her brother, Joseph II. It was on the latter occasion that the Emperor arranged, for the benefit of his guests, the Grand Duke and Duchess of Austria, a musical 'contest' between Clementi and Mozart (four years his junior). On 12th January 1782 Mozart wrote to his father: 'Clementi plays well, so far as execution with the right hand goes; his strength lies in his passages in thirds. Apart from that he has not a kreutzer's worth of feeling or taste: in short, he is simply a mechanicus.' Clementi, on the other hand, reputedly told his pupil Ludwig Berger: 'Until then I had never heard anyone perform with such spirit and grace. I was particularly astonished by an adagio and some of his extemporised variations; the Emperor chose the theme for these, and we had to improvise variations on them, each alternately accompanying the other.'

After various vicissitudes, a brief return to London, followed by an inconclusive elopement with a French pupil, and, probably, a visit to his family in Rome, Clementi settled in London again in 1785, and remained there until 1802, achieving distinction as a composer and performer (notable at concerts in the Hanover Square Rooms) and as a (very expensive) teacher: his pupils included John Field, J.B. Cramer and Haydn's friend Therese Jansen (Mrs Bartolozzi). He also became active in the music publishing and piano manufacturing business with the company of Longman & Broderip. In 1802 he embarked on another tour, mostly connected with business, which took him to Russia, Italy and Vienna and lasted until 1810. On his return to London he resumed personal direction of his firm (by then Clementi & Co.) and became a Director of the Philharmonic Society on its formation in 1813, and appeared regularly at its concerts. He appeared at the Concert spitiruel in Paris in 1816-7 and at the Gewandhaus in Leipzig in 1822. He retired in 1830 and moved, first to Lichfield and then to Evesham, where he dies on 10th March 1832; he was buried in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.

Apart from half-a-dozen symphonies that have survived, the bulk of Clementi's music is for the keyboard (initially the harpsichord, later the piano): about ninety sonatas and a large body of shorter pieces, and the monumental Gradus ad Parnassum (published in three books, in 1817, 1819 and 1826, respectively, but incorporating work and ideas that had been taking shape for some forty years). As his biographer Leon Plantinga (OUP, 1977) wrote: 'His keyboard works describe a stylistic spectrum that extends from the most guileless galant writing to the rhetorical passion of romantic piano music - from something like Alberti to something like Chopin'. The plethora of opus numbers attached by publishers of reprints, in Clementi's day and later, is notoriously confusing (the lexicographer Ernst Ludwig Gerber was complaining about it as early as 1790), and the numbers attached to the four sonatas recorded here (two published in the 1790's framed by two published in 1821) follw the principle adopted in Alan Tyson's masterly Thematic Catalogue (Tutzing, 1967), which is based on the opus numbers of the first editions, most of which were published in London.

This late sonata comes from a set of three published in 1821 by Clementi &Co. of 26 Cheapside, as Op.50, with a dedication to Luigi Cherubini. It seems likely that they were composed by 1805, or even earlier, but withheld from publication. The third of the Op.50 sonatas, in G minor (in all three of its movements) is entitled Didone abbandonata, Scena tragica. The story of Dido and Aeneas and the Queen of Carthage's despair and suicide on being abandoned by her Trojan lover has inspired operas by Purcell and Berlioz, but Clementi's sonata, although it may portray the various stages and degrees of Dido's grief, is not 'programme' music. A dense slow introduction, with heavy dotted rhythms, precedes the first movement, a discursive Allegro with clearly recognisable first and subjects (the second in B flat major) but with a marked inclination towards tonal instability - no doubt intended to suggest Dido's confused state of mind. The 'development' section is more like an impassioned improvisation, and very striking it is too. The movement ends with a frenzied coda in quicker tempo. The Adagio dolente is a rhapsodic lament, which culminates in another despairing outburst and leads directly into the concluding Allegro agitato e con disperazione, an extended sonata-form movement with two distinct subjects, the second in the tonic major, and with many excursions into other keys and much use of canonic devices - and a feeling that here Clementi as pursued by the Fates almost as much as Dido was. Would Mozart have called him a mere mechanicus if he had heard this?

Robin Golding


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