Italian Keyboard Series at Columbia’s Italian Academy

A friend invited me to accompany him to the final of three concerts in the series Italian Hapsichord Music presented at Columbia University's Italian Academy for Advanced Studies in America.  Despite the title of the series, this last concert on December 1 did not involve a harpsichord!  Rather, the excellent keyboard performer Andrew Appel played a fortepiano, a copy of the kind of piano that Mozart preferred to play and a most appropriate choice for the repertory on order by Domenico Cimarosa, Luigi Boccherini, and Muzio Clementi, all contemporaries of Mozart.

After an interesting spoken introduction by Appel, the brief program (about an hour) consisted of two sets: first, a Cimarosa one-movement keyboard sonata followed by an early Sonata for Piano and Violin by Boccherini (Op. 5, No. 5); then, after another one-movement keyboard sonata by Cimarosa, we had a Sonata for Piano with Violin and Cello by Clementi.  One presumes the titles of the Boccherini and Clementi were intended by their composers to indicate that these were basically keyboard sonatas with obbligato string parts, and so it proved.  The excellent string players were Krista Bennion Feeney (violin) and Loretta O'Sullivan (cello).  All three musicians are members of a very fine chamber music ensemble going under the name Four Nations Ensemble, which I've heard perform in other venues in the past.

It is always interesting to hear music by the contemporaries of our most famous composers, and to speculate as to why we hear many performances of Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven, but few performances of music by Cimarosa, Boccherini, and Clementi.  The answer, one fears, is the difference between talent and craft, on the one hand, and genius on the other.  That is, it is clear from hearing these performances that Cimarosa, Boccherini and Clementi were exceptionally talented musicians who had mastered their craft, but each of whom lacked that special spark of inspiration that results in the composition of music that is truly memorable.  Each piece was enjoyable while it was being performed but none of them left much residue afterwards.

In any given period, there are many, many well-trained and talented composers writing music, only a small percentage of whom will show that genuine spark of genius that transcends the ordinarily good and results in a permanent addition to the repertory.  The truly great will produce a body of work of which many pieces will achieve that permanent repertory status, such as Mozart or Haydn, while some are fated to be known by that one exceptional work that stands out from an otherwise merely good body of unexceptional work.  And the truly great might not accomplish quite so much without the foundations established by the merely very, very good.  Clementi was an important innovator of keyboard technique, and his rivalty surely spurred Mozart to greater heights.  We know that Haydn took inspiration from Mozart, and that the works he produced after coming into contact with Mozart's genius are on a higher level of memorability than his earlier efforts - he was spurred to greater achievement by the extraordinary accomplishments of his younger colleague and friend.  (Compare Haydn's later and earlier quartets, or the merely very good early and middle period symphonies with the extraordinary Paris and London symphonies.)  Beethoven surely built on the achievements of his immediate predecessors, and was known to be an admirer of Boccherini.  His early piano concerti build on the concerti of Mozart.  And so it goes….

Last night's program was a worthy reminder that there is plenty of interesting and historically significant music for us to explore beyond the established all-stars of any given period.  Thanks to Appel & Company for accomplished renditions that were worthy of this fine music.

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