A Pianist's Diary


Carl Czerny

1791 - 1857

(pronounced chair-nee)

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

In the ebb and flow of time, some people seem to acquire for themselves some measure of immortality, while others fade into relative obscurity. One of the latter is the stunningly prodigious composer, Carl Czerny, noted for his vast output of technical exercises for the piano, but also the composer of many serious works; sonatas, string quartets and even symphonies, many of which have never been published or even performed.

How is this possible? The Opus numbers I indicated are not misprints, for Carl Czerny published over a thousand opus numbers! Well, it turns out that there are as many works in manuscript form that have never been published. We may be grateful that the paper Czerny used was not like that used in the intervening eras, or that Vienna escaped much damage from war so that this man's vast creative output has largely been preserved. For musicologists this is the equivalent of some vast quantity of buried treasure; a vast amount of silver, with here and there a few coins of pure gold.

Many may be somewhat bemused to see me include Czerny etudes on my target repertoire table. Do I really intend to memorize these or prepare them for a concert as anyone might treat of the Chopin etudes? Well, probably not. But I reasoned that unless I started considering these pieces as a bit more serious than I had been used to doing, I wouldn't pay much attention while playing them, and that was one of the revelations from recent reading of great pianists; the name of Czerny came up again and again and in particular his Opus 740 Die Kunst der Fingerfertigkeit or The Art of Finger Dexterity, often mistranslated as The School of Technic. This music I have in a wonderful old Peters edition which a piano student in Canada who owned it previously had bound in leather. The picture of the composer above comes from this edition.

This huge opus comprises fifty etudes which cover virtually every aspect of pianism that would have been useful for the music of Beethoven through Liszt. Think of it, Carl Czerny was born in Vienna the year Mozart died, became the student of Beethoven, in fact Czerny premiered several of Beethoven's concertos including the Emperor Concerto, and was even taken for the great composer by ignorant out of towners who came to Vienna to hear concerts of Beethoven's music. During such events Beethoven himself would sit out in the lobby while Czerny played his concertos inside the hall. Sometimes a bored noble woman would come out during the concert, as concert proprieties were far less formal in those days, in fact they often served beer and sandwiches while the music was playing and there may have even been a little polite conversation, after all, many of these people considered themselves too noble to have their socializing interrupted by mere music. Anyway, Beethoven would jokingly ask her whether she thought much of this fellow Beethoven up there on the stage playing his wild concertos. "Oh I think he's wonderful," she might say and Beethoven would have his joke. I guess he wasn't completely deaf at these times or else he read lips.

In any case Carl Czerny was a somewhat shy and retiring man who became a reclusive but famous piano teacher. Czerny had been a prodigy and became an active piano teacher from the age of FIFTEEN on. His pupils became a startling string of piano virtuosi including Franz Liszt and Theodore Leschetizky, probably the greatest piano teacher of the last half of the nineteenth century as his teacher, Carl Czerny had been of the first half. There is sort of a chain of musical heritage formed here from all those students of students of Leschetizky and Czerny that lead back to Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn and ultimately to J. S. Bach. I too am involved in this chain as at least one of my teachers can trace his musical training back through his teachers to Liszt. And when I was a child, I too was given the exercises of Czerny to play.

Unfortunately for me, my teachers were at the time, as were we all, being swayed by the "modernism" of the times into thinking that the old masters didn't have the last word on teaching, technic, pianism or music. Had my teachers been more severe or I myself been less interested in trying to be socially popular, I might have paid more attention to these exercises and been a much better pianist by now. I am going to attempt to get back a lot of what I have lost over the years, therefore I will be working on these exercises to some level of mastery. They aren't the worst music I have ever played or heard and where any of them become even half as interesting as say a Chopin etude, I may consider programming them in a recital. Wouldn't that be a preposterous idea!

Incidentally, the interest in Carl Czerny seems to be heating up, if one can call going from the deep freeze to room temperature, heating up. See, International Symposium & Music Festival Proposal which was supposed to happen this spring but has been put off til next year, see Future Projects, or see this world premiere recording of his Nonet written in 1850 or perhaps piano music four hands is more what you'd like to hear. That's usually two pianists playing one piano, though occasionally two pianists playing two pianos. Czerny actually wrote some music for up to four pianos playing simultaneously. The effect can become quite jangling. Two pianos is usually plenty. But Czerny was apparently given to extremes; too many opus numbers, many of them crammed with etudes, and when he died in Vienna, one wonders whether he ever left town, in 1857 over a dozen cats were found in his house.

Maybe his musical extremity is what will ultimately save Carl Czerny from obscurity. He wrote so much music that some of it is bound to be good enough to survive. I certainly felt that way about Telemann, another obscure Carl, who wrote at least four times as many pieces as Czerny did. Good grief!