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The hundred studies by Clementi: Dr.Gradus’ difficult ascent to the Parnassus

Gradus ad Parnassum, or The Art of Playing on the Piano Forte, exemplified in a series of exercises in both strict and free style.

In the history of piano didactics the name of Muzio Clementi is known worldwide: from the childhood strumming of the Sonatina in C major op.36 to the difficulties of the Gradus ad Parnassum Studies, Clementi is considered the preeminent teacher, the rite of passage for whoever wishes to deepen the study of the piano

The father of the piano” reads his tombstone in  Westminster Abbey and during his long life he was called “The father of the way of playing the piano”, “The father of the piano Sonata” and other such names.

Debussy instead calls him “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” with a clever and amiable pun in the first piece of his Children’s corner. Probably, Debussy was familiar with Carl Tausig’s edition of the Gradus published around 1865 and consisting of only the more mechanic exercises out of the hundred studies: (the first one Debussy hints at is actually No.16 of the complete edition). 

The father of the piano” reads his tombstone in  Westminster Abbey and during his long life he was called “The father of the way of playing the piano”, “The father of the piano Sonata” and other such names.

Debussy instead calls him “Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum” with a clever and amiable pun in the first piece of his Children’s corner. Probably, Debussy was familiar with Carl Tausig’s edition of the Gradus published around 1865 and consisting of only the more mechanic exercises out of the hundred studies: (the first one Debussy hints at is actually No.16 of the complete edition).

However, is the word “teacher”, rather pedantic and boring, enough to qualify Clementi? And should we share Mozart’s negative judgment that considered him a mere mecanicus, without a drop of sentiment or good taste and only good at thrashing out notes, scales and double thirds? Despite recent attempts to reassess his ambitions as composer of symphonies, nowadays we can actually state that the name of Clementi  identifies totally with the piano.

Composer, performer, teacher, arranger, editor, constructor, Clementi was the first to understand that the piano was not only an instrument fit to create music, but also an extraordinary means for the widespread of music, a means that, between the eighteenth and the nineteenth century, developed remarkably: Clementi was thus the first true “pianist” in the modern meaning of the term.

 

 

 Born in 1752 in Rome, four years before Mozart, eighteen before Beethoven and forty-five before Schubert, Clementi will outlive them and when he closes his days in Evesham, near London, in 1832, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt are at the peak of their creative cycle. It is therefore difficult and delicate to establish priorities or derivations, anticipations and correspondences between Clementi’s invention and the musical creations of the time, among the most bountiful in the history of music.

The character of the composer  Clementi is today still  “tenuta in bilico tra le lodi per i suoi flirts con l’Arte e i rammarichi per il suo lungo concubinaggio con la Meccanica” (“in balance between praises for his flirts with Art and regrets for his long concubinage with Mechanics”) (Rattalino), but also Clementi as a teacher is far from really being understood. Thus putting aside the issue of Clementi composer, I would here like to analyze Clementi, the teacher, even though the two aspects are not clearly outlined and are almost inseparable. We have no information on Clementi’s teaching methods: all we know is that after 1790 (year of his last piano performance in public) and until 1802 he was very much on demand as a teacher, as stated by the Quarterly Musical Magazine: ” ... wishing to guarantee himself enough time to carry on his studies, he raised his tuition fee to one guinea an hour. His fame, however, was such that this price rise increased instead of diminishing the number of students who wanted him as a teacher”.

And Mrs. Papendiek, lady companion of Queen Charlotte, informs us that Clementi used to teach up to sixteen hours a day; but there is no trace of what or how he taught. Nor do we know if his teaching method would change according to whether his students were amateurs (generally belonging to the bourgeoisie or  the aristocracy) or up and coming professionals. Neither do we get much information from the brief notes the composer wrote on his Méthode pour le Piano-forte (first work ever published with a didactical aim to be titled Method, in the French edition by Ignace Pleyel). Nor could it be differently: Clementi, an extremely practical man, would never have fallen in the trap of developing a  treatise and knew only too well that the individual relation between teacher and student cannot be replaced by apodictic dictates, based though they may be on unexceptional theoretic formulations. In fact, in the Advertissement in the eighth edition of the Method we read the following:

This book has not been written with the blind intention of replacing the necessary help of a teacher, but is offered by the author as a collaboration to the mutual hardship of teacher and student.”

 

However the brief theoretic compendium to the Method does have some interesting information. For instance, the paragraph on the fingering is interesting under several aspects:


To produce the best effect with the easiest means is the very basis of the art of fingering. First of all we must take care of the effect, which is of the utmost importance; then we must find the way to achieve it and we must favor the way that gives the best effect even if this may not be the easiest for the performer. However, as the combination of notes is almost endless, the art of fingering must be taught through examples”.

Looking  for the way, even the most impervious, to obtain the best expressive result, is symptomatic of Clementi’s idea not only of the fingering, but of the entire piano technique. The idea of piano technique is today still understood in a rather confused manner: The most current and commonplace definition is the one that limits the term Techne to speed, empty virtuosity, to the showing off of special effects, regardless of the functionality of the interpretative means: whether it be speed, accuracy, timbre or color. In other words technique is everything needed for the highest artistic expression.  Clementi the teacher’s ingenious and very modern intuition is, in my opinion, that of having understood that teaching does not only mean speed, accuracy and power, but also cantabile and phrasing, mastering form and counterpoint. So much so that the Gradus ad Parnassum, summa of the composer’s teaching experience, is a collection of a hundred pieces, a hundred exercises nello stile stretto e libero (in  strict and free style), and not a hundred studies meant as compositions where a technical formula becomes the leading theme apt to train and overcome some difficulties. Of course, many of these studies meet this concept (for example No. 16 and 17, respectively on the five notes for the right hand and left hand), but many of the them are Sonata allegros and finales, with or without a development, preludes, fugues, fugatos, canons, songs, rondos, minuettes and, in the third volume, scherzos, and characteristic pieces ( n.94 Stravaganze and n.95 Bizzarria).

 

In conclusion Gradus is a kind of Encyclopedia of knowledge, of Clementi’s piano style code, a sort of autobiography of the composer: neither a method nor a treatise, but a vaster testimony and proof of all the musician’s composition and piano experience. The work was published between 1817 and 1826:  the first volume was printed in 1817 and was brought out contemporarily in London, Leipzig and Paris; this contained the first 27 studies: in 1819 the second volume came out only in London and contained  Studies No. 28 to No. 50. In 1826 the third volume containing the last 50 studies came out in London. The second one was registered at Stationers Hall on the 16 April 1819 and the third on 31 October 1926. Stationers Hall was not a shop where these were sold but a kind of Authors Society ante litteram that safeguarded composers’ interests: it was enough for a single work to “enter Stationers Hall” ad no one would dare publish it without the author’s permission. At that same period Gradus was published by Breitkopf und Härtel in Leipzig. Clementi’s oevres complettes (sic) were also printed by Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna and by Erard in Paris. However the development of the work was actually the result of a process of composition and revision of the material collected in over forty five years: in 1780, for example, together with some Sonatas, seven fugues, which, re-elaborated, became Nos. 13, 25, 40, 45, 57, 69 and 74. Other Studies too suggest they were composed at an earlier date, that is around the late eighteenth century:  No.14, composed in 1786 and Nos. 8, 15, 41, 42, 55, 61, 62 and 76 almost certainly composed to be used as Sonata tempos, could most certainly have been written in the nineteenth century.

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superficial survey of such a heterogeneous collection shows how vast and complex  Clementi’s idea of didactics is and how little his descendants really perceived this. In the nineteenth century the work was badly taken to pieces and reduced to anthologies and collections. I have already mentioned Tausig who chose twenty-nine Studies and re-elaborated them making them more difficult.  Franz Kullak made an anthology of Tausig’s anthology and published, with a different fingering and phrasing, twenty-six of the twenty-nine Studies published by Tausig. Neither did the re-classification of the Studies according to their difficulty favor Clementi: apart from anything else, it would have been easy for a pedagogue such as Clementi to proceed in a more school-like and pedantic manner moving from extremely technical exercises to ever more complex mechanic elaborations. However Gradus was not a work conceived to testify some theoretic task, but to sum up the composing and teaching experience of the author.

Havoc of his work, however, was made in Italy in the ‘30s when, as stated by Vincenzo Vitale in his preface of the first recording of the entire work, some well-meaning men encharged by the Supreme Authority of the time reformed the piano programs of music schools in the pitiful way still existing nowadays, by extracting from the corpus of the hundred Studies, twenty three of them irrationally chosen for the exam absurdities of the average performance. Also the attempt to divide the Studies into categories (mechanism, expression and polyphonic studies) is unacceptably empiric and can certainly not be proposed didactically. To say the truth, Clementi had actually attempted a physiognomic approach by grouping the Studies into sequences called Suites. There are thirteen Suites that include three to six pieces each and have nothing to remind us of Bach’s Suites and the frail thread that ties together the Studies forming the Suites is formed by the use of similar tonalities: that is corresponding and not relative. In the Suite that brings together Nos. 12, 13, 14 and 15 there is a compromise between Suite and Sonata with a Prelude (no.12) in C major and a Fugue  (no.13) in C major too followed by an Adagio (no. 14) in F major and a Finale  (no.15) in C major. However these groups only corroborate “l’impressione di un materiale accatastato alla rinfusa” (the impression of some material put together haphazardly”)(Rattalino), a sense of general randomness, of disorderly stockage, of a non-alphabetical Encyclopedia. This certainly contributed to the difficulty in completely understanding the didactic meaning of the work that gathers the styles achieved during the fifty years Clementi devoted to his piano research, ending in his own very personal style. Though, as already mentioned, a survey of the composer Clementi’s historical position would lead us astray, I would here like to underline how Clementi’s stylistic mark cannot be framed in the so-called Viennese Civilization, but must been seen as an individual and isolated experience with the British culture.  Clementi represents, together with Scarlatti first and later Busoni, the musician who, away from his native land, gives rise to a cultural movement in a foreign ambit. This experience however will have no further development. In fact, in the Gradus there is not a single piece apt to remind us of Haydn or Mozart and very few are the Beethovenisms ante litteram present in the Sonatas. And though the work was published when Bach’s polyphony dominated, Clementi proposed himself as a teacher of polyphony and counterpoint stretching his didactic commitment to polyphonic forms.

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uzio Clementi was thus the first axiomatically piano composer of fugues, fugatos, canons and so forth.  However, the nineteenth century will ignore polyphonic Clementi all together and claim Bach’s didactic function and that of the Clavicembalo ben temperato, forgetting the vitalizing function of polyphony in the Roman composer’s piano creations. It is an integrating part of the language and may be found anywhere: from the first Sonata tempo to the Rondò, to the true and proper Studies that differ from most similar studies of the time on scales, arpeggios, trills and so forth because definitely polyphonic.

The Gradus has no theoretic introduction even if some studies, very few indeed, are preceded by synthetic annotations. The first, the third and the twenty seventh studies are specifically indicated by Clementi per rendere le dita indipendenti (to make the fingers work independently). Modern didactics has overcome the principle according to which one or more held keys and the others played contemporarily should be considered essential to achieve finger independence. Actually, the contrary is true: only by a complete muscular disassociation can one cope with this kind of exercise, though in Clementi’s time it was much easier to achieve certain instrumental combinations on the then easy keyboards or we may even believe that perhaps Clementi gave the muscular attitude of those facing the Gradus for granted.

However we do not know, as already mentioned, which exercises the musician used to start off and teach the technique to his students. The Gradus, I repeat, is the summary of his piano experience and marks a now codified and definite style; in other words Clementi does not look to the future and even if some pieces such as Nos. 53, 56 and 83 can be placed at the dawn of Romanticism, the entirety of the work is superbly reactionary also as regards technique. Clementi, for example, does not explore the possibility of the arpeggios in a general manner, does not invent complicated combinations of double notes; he dedicates only a brief study to octaves to be performed with the fall of the forearm instead of the pulse;  the tonality is not characterized by a psychological variation or the variation of the timbre: in sum in the Gradus, as cleverly observed by Rattalino, there is not a single piece in D flat major, in C sharp, in G sharp and in D sharp minor and yet it still represents a didactically essential and unequalled text. Clementi’s fate, but for some enlightened exception, is that of being misunderstood and outdated: forefather of romantic suggestions, but preserver of the polyphonic style, unknown at home but accused by Mozart of being a ciarlattano (sic) as all Italians, solipsistically clenched to his own dimension of Maestro of rhetoric, Clementi still does not have a fair collocation beyond the tombstone in Westminster Abbey, flattering though it may be.