25 May 1925
Catania, Catania, Sicilia, Italy
3 March 2011 (aged 85)
Aldo Clementi (25 May, 1925 - 3 March, 2011) was the last survivor of the great generation of Italian postwar musical avant-gardists. He was also its quietest and most self-effacing member, both personally and musically. After a hesitant start, he developed a technique that allowed him to produce works as calmly consistent in sound and technique as a Renaissance motet, and some would say just as beautiful.
His style of decelerating canons has been described as "sharing in the widespread post-serial depression of the 1970s", while Paul Griffiths referred to the "Alexandrian simplicity of his solution to the current confusion in music". Clementi himself described his works as "an extremely dense counterpoint, relegating the parts to the shameful role of inaudible, cadaverous micro-organisms".
Clementi was born in Catania, Sicily, far from the centres of musical modernism. His talent was encouraged by his father, a keen amateur violinist. Aldo was a promising pianist, and in the salons of Catania he played the music that would one day be at the centre of his own, but mysteriously transformed: Bach, Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn. He also began to compose, receiving guidance from Alfredo Sangiorgi, a pupil of Arnold Schoenberg.
Clementi's studies in composition began in 1941, and his teachers included Alfredo Sangiorgi and Goffredo Petrassi. After receiving his diploma in 1954, he attended the Darmstadt summer courses from 1955 to 1962. Important influences during this period included meeting Bruno Maderna in 1956, and working at the electronic music studio of the Italian radio broadcaster RAI in Milan.
Poesia de Rilke (1946) was his first work to be performed (Vienna, 1947). Of more significance was the premiere of Cantata (1954), which was broadcast by North German Radio (Hamburg) in 1956. In 1959 he won second prize in the ISCM competition with Episodi (1958), and in 1963 he took first prize in the same competition, with Sette scene da "Collage" (1961).
Clementi's output became prolific from the 1970s onwards, and his music's quietism, far from being nihilistic, expresses a muffled joy. Philip Larkin's line about the particular beauty of trees in bud – "like something almost being said" – is very apt. To reach that state required a further epiphany, which came by chance in 1970. Clementi was asked to write a piece - B.A.C.H. for piano – using the name of JS Bach "translated" into musical notes. Clementi went further, embodying other material of Bach in a dense canonic weave, consuming and mysteriously transfiguring the originals.
Over the next three decades, Clementi infused this tender "pathos of distance" into all kinds of borrowed music, much of it taken from the classical repertoire that first claimed his affections as a child in Sicily (but not all – his Blues of 2001 for piano is based on a fragment of Thelonious Monk). The variety is enormous, ranging from delicate instrumental miniatures to a series of concertos for soloist, instrumental groups and toy carillons. All of them reveal Clementi's delight in creating a very exact sonorous world for each work, often bright and magical, sometimes tenebrous, as in Clessidra 2 (1996) for solo cello with piano, harp, vibraphone and celeste.
From 1971 to 1992, Clementi taught music theory at Bologna University.
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