Hidden Gems: Clementi – Sonata in B minor, Op. 40, No. 2

When you hear the name Muzio Clementi, what comes to mind?

Those six charming little sonatinas that have been and will be played by young pianists for perpetuity?

Gradus ad Parnassum?

Introduction to the Art of Playing the Pianoforte?

Unfortunately, Clementi’s legacy as a pedagogue has completely overshadowed his other, considerable contributions to the art of piano playing. He wrote, many, many sonatas. I’m not sure of the exact number, but it seems to range between 60 and slightly over 100. And besides that, he wrote twenty symphonies and started his own piano manufacturer. Casual.

Clementi was a supremely accomplished pianist at a time when the piano as an instrument was still fairly novel and its full possibilities were still being discovered. His sonatas made advancements in piano technique with thick textures and scintillating passagework. This, combined with a flair for dramatic moments and experiments in form, was hugely influential on Ludwig van Beethoven. He played Clementi’s sonatas often, recommended them to everyone, and was such a big fan that he taught his nephew almost exclusively from Clementi’s music. But Beethoven became such a singular force in musical history that his own sonatas quickly swept Clementi’s out of the public consciousness.

I can understand the neglect. Clementi’s sonatas are often grouped into three per opus, which can trigger confusion. Only one has a nickname (usually a good trait for survival) and that nickname is the wordy “Didone abbandonata”. The musical materials are not as iconic as some of Beethoven’s best, but some of these sonatas are totally solid pieces of repertoire that occasionally reach across the aisle from Classicism to Romanticism in surprising ways. They are enjoyable to listen to and to play, and the unique expressive qualities really blossom to life in the hands of the right pianist (like Beatrice Rana, featured in the links further below).

Some day I’ll get around to hearing all of them, but at this point, to commemorate Clementi’s birthday today on January 23, there’s just one that I want people to know more about: the Sonata in B minor, Op. 40, No. 2.

Clementi published the Op. 40 set in 1802, an important year for Beethoven; he wrote his Heilengenstadt Testament letter and was beginning his middle, “heroic” artistic period. For reference, Beethoven published his Op. 31 set this year, which contained the trailblazing “Tempest” sonata. I can only speculate as to whether Clementi was feeling the heat from Beethoven’s contributions, pushing himself to similarly experiment.

Whatever the case, this piece breaks the Classical sonata mold in two major ways. It only has two movements, and both movements begin with slow introductions before launching into fast sections that make up the rest of the content. This results in some great anticipation and surprise.

The first four measures of the opening Molto Adagio e sostenuto convey a whole lot with very economical means. The first phrase moves from B minor to F-sharp dominant, opening up. Then the next phrase gives a nice angsty dissonant G over a new B minor chord, and a pathétique diminished chord resolving back to F-sharp minor. Still open. Still unresolved. It’s an arresting opening to the sonata, and suggests quite a journey ahead. The continuing melody carves some nice peaks and valleys, traveling through a section of D major relief and coming to rest on a final F-sharp dominant cadence. The anticipation has reached a breaking point, and the only way to go is forward!

The ensuing Allegro con fuoco e con espressione has some quirks. The first three bars hammer home B minor with ascending cadences in a new fast tempo. We predict a final cadence to make a neat 4-bar phrase, but no! Instead the fourth bar is the beginning of a new idea that’s made up of a four-bar phrase and a three-bar phrase. So the music continues to subvert the usual breakdown of four- or eight-bar units. The rest of the movement is a fun game of “this sounds like [name of composer]”. Some of the usage of trills recalls Scarlatti. Elsewhere you might spot chunks of Haydn, but the sustained passages of broken octaves are more Beethoven and Clementi himself. My biggest critique of this movement is that the fast section’s D major theme (if you can call it that) doesn’t go anywhere. It just feels cadential.

After the busy, dense sturm und drang of the first movement, Clementi makes a daring choice to strip down the texture to just two voices in the Largo, mesto e patetico. The music remains in two-voice counterpoint for ten whole bars. Fuller chords only appear at the onset of a new idea with trills on strong beats. In a cool surprise, the following Allegro uses this same theme, in a whirling 6/8. Clean two-voice textures continue to pop up, some very reminiscent of Scarlatti. I can’t quite pin down the mood of this movement, and that intrigues me. It lurches from pastoral D major areas of calmly churning eighths to sudden rumblings in the bass and shimmering scalar passages. One of my favorite features is a moment shortly after the exposition repeat. A running scalar motive is introduced in the right hand, answered in the left hand, then briefly traded off before the left hand runs with it and exhausts it as a pedal-point ostinato. It all happens so fast that it’s easy to miss, but it’s kind of ingenious. After Clementi has built to a big climax with a long sustained passage of sixteenths, he returns to the Largo opening material of the movement for a moment of reflection. This heightens the anticipation for the Presto coda that creates a powerful storm of sound. One writer mentioned that this parallels Beethoven’s return to the slow introduction in the first movement of the “Pathétique” sonata. In fact both Clementi and Beethoven used this device several times.

Something worth noting: the first movement consists of a slow introduction in 6/8 and a fast main body in 4/4. The second movement has a slow introduction in 4/4 and a main body in 6/8. Was this intentional? Some kind of subconscious symmetry? I don’t know.

It’s a good piece, and worthy of better recognition. I hope that one day people will refer to “the Clementi B minor” in regular conversations about classical sonatas, since it’s the only one he wrote in B minor (good luck trying keep all the B-flat major ones straight) and offers many riches for pianistic expression and virtuosity.

Where to find it in print:

50485899 Clementi: Sonatinas and Sonatas (G. Schirmer, Inc.)

50254680 Clementi: 12 Sonatas, Book 2 (G. Schirmer, Inc.)

51480330 Clementi: Selected Sonatas, Volume II (Henle Urtext Edition)

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