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Playing Clementi on a piano built by Clementi

Muzio Clementi was a composer before turning to piano manufacturing.Getty Images

On May 29, the Frederick Historic Piano Collection’s spring concert series features Gail Olszewski playing a program of Classical and early Romantic-era music, performed on a circa-1805 instrument. Period pianos, particularly from the 18th and 19th centuries (before piano design became largely homogenized), can reveal repertoires: To hear Beethoven on a Broadwood piano, for instance, or Chopin on a Pleyel, or Brahms on a Streicher, is to channel the composer’s ear. Olszewski’s performance goes one step further: playing Muzio Clementi’s Fantasia in C (Op. 48) on a piano built by Clementi himself.

When Clementi got into the piano-building business, he was already famous. Born in Rome in 1752, Clementi — a prodigy — was taken to England at the age of 14 by Peter Beckford, an aristocrat who struck a deal with Clementi’s father to have the boy provide music at his estate. Beckford proved more interested in hunting than music; left to his own devices, Clementi practiced for hours a day, building up an unrivaled technique. Clementi was soon touring Europe; on one of those concert tours, Clementi famously participated in a pianistic cutting contest with Mozart (who found Clementi’s playing impressive but devoid of emotion).


Back home in England, Clementi’s celebrity as a performer did not translate into social status. The British path to respectability was business, in which Clementi proved fluent. His start was inauspicious: He invested in a London company, Longman and Broderip, which soon went bankrupt. But John Longman, Clementi, and others formed a new company; partners came and went, but Clementi remained, and Clementi & Co. prospered, as publisher (Clementi’s large corpus of educational music — such piano-lesson staples as his “Gradus ad Parnassum” and Sonatinas — diluted his reputation as a composer, but sold handsomely) and piano manufacturer.

Clementi preferred a light, transparent action on his pianos, but his firm’s most noteworthy innovation was a “harmonic swell,” developed by Clementi’s partner, William Frederick Collard, with which extra string lengths could be undamped, lending a glow of sympathetic resonance to the main sound — anticipating the sustain-pedal-fueled richness that would become part and parcel of Romantic piano technique. Clementi’s pianos embody both the era’s musical evolution and the highly developed technique and taste of Clementi himself, squaring a tendency toward bigger, louder instruments with the older Classical virtues of clarity and clean articulation. Clementi died in 1832, but his ghost lightly haunts his surviving instruments: To play a Clementi piano is to play, a little bit, like Clementi did.


Matthew Guerrieri

The Frederick Historical Piano Collection presents Gail Olszewski on May 29 at 4 p.m. at the Ashburnham Community Church, 84 Main St., Ashburnham. Tickets: $10. www

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.