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W&L Music Faculty Play Rare Clementi Grand Piano, Record CD

Only seven grand fortepianos built by Muzio Clementi, sometimes called the father of the piano, are known to have survived in the world—and one of them, restored to its former glory, now resides in the Department of Music at Washington and Lee University. Playing that treasured instrument, three faculty members have recorded a CD, “Clementi Grand: His Works, His Fortepiano” (Navona Records), to celebrate that piano’s 200th birthday.

Washington and Lee also owns an 1807 small square piano by Clementi that was more common, smaller, had fewer keys and was much less expensive. Most recordings on Clementi instruments have been made on such square pianos rather than on the rare grand fortepiano.

Muzio Clementi (1752–1832) was an Italian composer who was also a pianist, teacher, conductor, music publisher, editor and piano manufacturer. He was among the first to compose works expressly for the fortepiano.

W&L’s Clementi grand fortepiano is hand-carved, with brass inlay, 7′ 8″ in length. Its 1814 construction is confirmed by the serial number on the instrument. “We can’t identify the original owner, but from the decorativeness and elaborateness it must have been a very wealthy person,” said Timothy Gaylard, professor of music at W&L, who played on the recording.

The other faculty members on the recording are Shuko Watanabe, instructor of music, who played piano, and Byron Petty, lecturer in music, who played flute to piano accompaniment.

The main difference in the Clementi grand fortepiano is the shallowness of the touch, noted Gaylard. “This creates more of a challenge for the modern pianist to be able to control the dynamics, because the differences between the softs and louds are much more subtle,” he said.

“It’s close to the sound of the harpsichord,” added Watanabe.

The Clementi grand fortepiano was a gift from Dr. Lawrence Smith, W&L Class of 1958, and his wife, Ganelle, who purchased it from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1995. Dr. Smith, an amateur musician who collects musical instruments, had the instrument restored to its original state by re-covering the hammers, re-wiring the strings and re-decorating the elaborate cabinet. The Smiths then donated the piano to Washington and Lee to benefit students of music.

“It was very generous,” said Gaylard. “So many instruments in museums are seen but never heard. But this instrument will be used as a learning tool for students, so that when they play Mozart or music of the Classical or early Romantic period, they will know what the sound of the piano was at that time and have an idea of what the composer heard.”

The recording features only works by Clementi, including two piano duets for four hands played by Gaylard and Watanabe. “It’s really exciting,” said Gaylard, “because you get a better sense of the range of the instrument and a fuller sound when you have four hands playing instead of two.”

Gaylard also plays Clementi’s “Piano Sonata in B-flat Major,” which Clementi included in his famous 1781 piano duel with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in front of Emperor Joseph II. “The emperor was aware of Clementi’s fame at that time,” noted Gaylard, “and since the Italian pianist was a bit of a rival to Mozart, the emperor wanted to see them together. It’s interesting to note that the opening theme from the first movement of Clementi’s sonata is also the beginning of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute Overture,’ composed 10 years later.” There was no copyright law at that time and, as the CD’s liner notes state, no one knows whether this was a direct steal, a subliminal swipe or an underhanded compliment to Clementi.

Also included on the CD are the rarely recorded “Character Pieces,” in which Clementi donned the mantle of six of his contemporaries. Gaylard plays the two composed in the style of Mozart, and Watanabe plays the two pieces in the style of Haydn.

Watanabe also plays a set of sonatinas that Clementi wrote to help his students develop their skills. “Piano students usually play these pieces at some point in their training,” noted Watanabe. “It’s a great teaching tool for them to hear Clementi’s works on this instrument instead of on the modern piano.”

“Clementi Grand: His Works, His Fortepiano” is available at Navona Records.