Clementi was born in 1752, four years before Mozart, a child prodigy playing both the harpsichord and the organ with great virtuosity. As a teenager, he experimented tirelessly on the new English Broadwood piano, developing a far more muscular approach than anyone had attempted, with a new legato style. He played bold, fast octaves, composed passages in thirds (a Clementi specialty), and successfully countered Mozart in a heated pianistic duel.
In England, Clementi entered the business of crafting pianofortes. In the end, Clementi’s pianos and view of the piano triumphed over Mozart’s light, flutey-sounding Viennese pianos, whose tones were too Rococo and reminiscent of the metallic harpsichord for the stronger vibrations of the Romantic style. He dramatically improved the art of piano building, though in the history of the piano, the instrument itself was invented by Bartolommeo Cristofori in Italy in the year 1709.
Clementi was not only the world’s first great pianist, but his sonatas of 1773 may be considered the first music composed for the young instrument’s capacity to produce a wide dynamic range through the manipulation of varying pressures. He was a music publisher as well, and brought to the public a stream of new publications, including much of his own music. As a piano teacher, Clementi produced important pianists of the next generation, including Field and Cramer.
Clementi helped to establish respect for the musician and also for the teaching of music, a profession that at the time was considered neither respectable nor gentlemanly. Haydn and other musicians, for instance, were accorded a status little higher than that of servants.
Celementi’s enlarged view of piano technique was codified in his 1817 magnum opus, Gradus ad Parnassum, a set of one hundred pieces including etudes, slow movements, fugues, and canons. Clementi’s pianism was still of the Classical period, but his work in many ways presaged what the piano would eventually be required to perform.
He also composed sixty-four solo sonatas from 1773 to 1820, the longest career of any sonata composer. In fact, had Beethoven not lived, Clementi’s status would represent a high-water mark in the history of the form. Beethoven was deeply indebted to the Clementi sonatas and kept his volume of them always at hand. Brahms, too, admired Clementi’s adventurousness and freedom of form. From the pianist view, Clementi’s etudes formed the foundation for the future of etude writing, culminating in the etudes of Chopin.
It is worth noting that not one of Chopin’s own pupils was ever allowed to touch Chopin’s etudes until the student had a thorough grounding in Clementi’s.