London’s Forgotten Genius


Tucked away on the wall of 128 Kensington Church Street is a blue plaque marking the one-time home of Muzio Clementi. Composer, conductor, keyboard virtuoso, music publisher, piano maker, he was once one of London’s brightest musical stars.

Clementi was born in Rome in 1752, where a visiting English milord, Sir Peter Beckford, spotted his exceptional talents, playing the harpsichord and organ, and brought him back to his country estate in Dorset. There he continued his studies and was shown off as a musical prodigy. Released from these duties aged 21, Muzio did not return to Rome but headed straight for London and the start of a phenomenal career.

He came of age during the latter part of the 18th century, when the symphony, the concerto, the string quartet and the keyboard sonata were the major new musical forms. Clementi wrote several symphonies which show a firm grasp of the style and form perfected by Haydn. In his Symphony No 3 (‘The Great National’) Clementi also doffs his hat to the British national anthem. But it was with his many sonatas and other keyboard compositions that Clementi showed his genius as a composer. These fine works are now sadly neglected, and for most music lovers today Clementi’s mastery of the keyboard is remembered by just one work, his formidable collection of keyboard studies, Gradus ad Parnassum (Steps to Parnassus, mythical home of the Greek muses). Many years later this work was affectionately recalled by Debussy in his Children’s Corner piano suite.

It was in fact as a brilliant keyboard player (harpsichord and piano) that Clementi first made a big name for himself in London, where he also conducted the orchestra at the King’s Theatre in The Haymarket. Emboldened by this early success Clementi embarked on an even more successful European concert tour. In Paris he played for Queen Marie Antoinette, while in Vienna he famously took part in a keyboard-playing competition with Mozart (a tactful Emperor Joseph II declaring the contest a draw). Incidentally, some years later Mozart ‘borrowed’ the opening from one of Clementi’s piano sonatas for the Overture to his opera The Magic Flute.

Back in London Clementi became teacher to a whole generation of celebrated keyboard virtuosi, including Johann Cramer, Ignaz Moscheles, Johann Hummel and, most notably, the Irishman John Field, whose dreamily romantic piano nocturnes inspired, in their turn, Chopin and Fauré.

Clementi’s boundless energy and enterprise next took him into music publishing. From offices in fashionable Cheapside, close to St Paul’s Cathedral, he pulled off one of the biggest coups in the business. Beethoven much admired Clementi’s sonatas, and in Vienna Clementi had met the great man. Subsequently he acquired the publishing rights to much of Beethoven’s music in England.

Then Clementi turned to piano making. Once again, his timing couldn’t have been better. In the early years of the 19th century the pianoforte or fortepiano was the most exciting new instrument of the age, improving in strength and tone by leaps and bounds. Aided by William Collard, a musical craftsman of genius, the pianos of Clementi and Co carried his name across Europe and America, as well as adding to his fortune.

As a postscript, Clementi was among the founding members of the Philharmonic Society of London, which is today the Royal Philharmonic Society and one of our city’s proudest musical institutions.

This great Londoner by adoption finally retired to the rural calm of Evesham in Worcestershire, where he died peacefully in 1832, at what was then the very ripe old age of 80. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, where his epitaph describes him as ‘the Father of the Piano.

by Alan Blackwood