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Carl Czerny

A Short Review of the Life and Work of the Teacher of Liszt and Leschetizky

[Editor’s Note.—Mr. Zielinski has given us a very vivid and interesting insight to the work of the man who doubtless holds the position in musical history as the most extraordinary and most verstile of teachers. Czerny’s astonishing productivity resulted in nearly one thousand opus numbers. It is obviously impossible for the student to become acquainted with more than a few of the most noted works, consequently selections of studies made by experienced teachers are of very great value.]

czerny.jpgWhen in 1775 the Revolt of Peasantry took place in Bohemia, the native land of Wenceslas Czerny, he was twenty-five years of age; six years later he witnessed the granting of the Edict of Toleration by Joseph II, son of Maria Theresa, and her consort, Francis I, of Lorraine, and having gathered unto himself during those years considerable knowledge of things, he concluded that since Austria needed Bohemia more than the latter country needed Austria, he would betake himself to Vienna and better his condition as a piano teacher. Bohemia, the land of mineral waters, Bohemian glass, breweries and brandy distilleries, was happy with its feudal nobility, its rich prelates, its literature and its learned cities; it had no thought for the Germans, who had come to stay and were steadily increasing their hold on the industries, commerce and banks of the land.

Vienna, with its St. Stephen’s Church, the newly erected Liechtenstein palace, and the older ones of Lobkowitz and Kinsky, with its music stores of Artaria, Joseph Eder, and Hoffmeister & Co., was certainly a greater attraction to this aspiring yet unworldly-wise musician than his native village on the Vltava. Moreover, the taste for music with all classes of the Viennese was an old story, and was closely associated with the lives of Austrian sovereigns. Wherever one’s steps were turned the sound of instruments attracted the ear, and if calling on a family, as soon as seated, after a flagon of wine and a plate of Pressburg biscuits had been placed before the visitor, the daughter of the house was sent to the piano to entertain the guest with music. These were the days of Emperor Joseph II, who was an excellent singer, played the piano, violoncello, and had private concerts nearly every afternoon at Schoenbrunn; these were also the days of Baron von Swieten, “the grave, tall, solemn man,” who enjoyed in Vienna almost the authority of a musical high priest; “an excellent amateur but indifferent composer,” as Haydn I believe expressed it, around whom flocked music-loving noblemen during the years of 1780 to 1803.

In 1785 we find Wenceslas Czerny living in the “Keiserstadt,” where six years later, February 21, 1791, was born to him a son, Carl Czerny.


One of the great points in the life of Czerny the elder was a repression of all sensitiveness and imagination; poverty had had its inning, and caused him to look upon things through spectacles of different hue; but his hopes and fancies were centered in the boy whose musical education he undertook himself at an early age, and having been well impressed with the philosophical principles of the eighteenth century he watched carefully against any possible romantic tendencies. Of course his instruction was thorough, and as a result, when only ten years of age, Carl could play from memory works by John Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), Clementi (1752-1832), Mozart (1756-1791), and Beethoven (1770-1827). Such ability could not fail to please greatly Wenzel Krumpholz (1750-1817), one of the first violins at the court opera, and a warm friend of the Czernys. Being also a very intimate friend of Beethoven, for whose genius he had inspired many with his own admiration, he took the boy to see him. Of course Beethoven heard him play, and was so delighted that of his own accord he offered to give him lessons.

The study of his teacher’s works became Carl Czerny’s preference, and he grew strong under such potent influence, while out of the treatise of Fux (1660-1741), Kirnberger (1721-1783), and Albrechtsberger (1736-1809), he dug up the knowledge of writing with a clearness of style most useful for the purposes of technical study. He heard Hummel (1778-1837), the great Johann Nepomuk Hummel, who had evolved out of Mozart’s art a number of stock pieces with nothing substantial enough in the material to preserve it from decay, and nothing tough in their texture to make them endure; it was music that had little to recommend it, yet his method of passage-twisting, with its hundred modifications, impressed the majority of so-called musicians who were ready to acclaim him as the equal of Beethoven! Czerny recognized the dexterity and neatness which made Hummel a most admirable pianist for those days, but he vowed to himself that if he ever had a pupil of decided talent he would lead him into new channels for the development of powers hitherto latent and unexercised.


Beethoven was proud of his pupil, and introduced him to his patron Prince Karl Lichnowski, a Polish magnate with whom he had a disgraceful row in 1806; also to his pupil Archduke Rudolph, and to other distinguished men. Such connections could not fail to bring young Czerny into good repute, and having started on the road of giving piano lessons, he was then only fourteen years of age, his time was soon filled, till he found himself occupied daily, teaching from ten to twelve hours. Not having any time left during the day for composing, he worked late into the nights to provide special exercises, studies and pieces for different pupils, and all sorts of conditions of players. To-day the enterprising publisher provides graded lists for the teacher, to cull from and puzzle over, grinding endless numbers of students through the same curriculum, to the detriment of all art tendencies and all hoped-for results.

In 1805 appeared in print his first composition, a concertante for violin and piano; but the troublesome conditions which beset the hearts of Austrian patriots in 1809 made pecuniary conditions very difficult. The bombardment of Vienna, the entry of the French, and finally the treaty of Pressburg, had their effect upon business as well as upon music teachers, and it was some years before the Czernys recovered fully. In 1818 Carl Czerny allowed the publication of another piece; this time it was a rondo brilliante for four hands; its success was immediate, for it was played everywhere! From that time on, the demands for his compositions were unceasing, and the house of Cappi and Diabelli, who published for Czerny specially, earned good commissions on all copies sold, for theirs was the fashionable rendez-vous of the musical profession and its patrons.


Musicales, in which his most advanced pupils showed off their skill at the piano, were an every Sunday affair for a number of years, and as he was one of the kindest and most amiable of men, universally beloved by his contemporaries, the rooms were always crowded with guests. A sprinkling of sonatas by Philip Emanuel Bach (1714-1788), Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Clementi and Beethoven, intermingled freely with variations, operatic fantasies or divertissements, by the Abbé Gelinek (1709-1779), Czerny and Franz Huenten (1793-1878), a class of work for which the demand was positively enormous. In these exhibition pieces of little more than academic value, in truth mere pot-boilers, Czerny unfolded tendencies to please the masses; here with an outward show of brilliant style woven around a pleasing melody, there with light, airy passages, broken chords and ornaments of all kinds, suitable to the Viennese piano, whose action was so light that the most subtle and delicate pressure produced a sound from the keys. From this facile mechanism came the rather extraordinary expression “to breathe upon the keys,” an expression which Czerny frequently used. But Czerny was also a practical man, and he knew what was necessary to be done to make a good pianist. He had studied John Sebastian and Philip Emanuel Bach; of the latter Haydn remarked, “he is a father, we are merely children, and he who does not agree to that—is an ass!” It was Philip Emanuel Bach who loosened the chains which bound instrumental music to canonical and cold rules, and led eventually into the greater and clearer path of modern music which Beethoven opened to perfection.

Czerny knew the art of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven; Clementi’s pianism confirmed his conviction as regards touch and tone, the bug-bear of piano players of all ages, while that of Hummel was a revelation in a new direction; and so the appreciation of those men’s master-works lent additional zest to his life-long devotion toward mastering in the best manner the technique of the piano.

A contemporary of Czerny, whose senior he was by fifty-one days, was Franz Grillparzer, born January 15, 1791. A true Viennese, for his soul was full of music; it permeated the very heart of his tragedies, and more than any other German writer does he merit the title of “musical poet” which Schiller bestowed on Klopstock. Music dominates Grillparzer’s poems, although a few songs with piano accompaniment are about the only essays of that kind that he left us. His mother, the daughter of a lawyer and musician, Christoph Sonnleiter, whose home was often visited by Haydn and Mozart, undertook first to develop her son’s musical talent, but concluded, after the first few efforts, to entrust it to one Jean Madaritsch (1765-1839), known also as Gallus. This man was really a remarkable genius; a contrapuntist of the highest order, yet so lazy that even Rossini (1792-1868) could not compare with him in that line. The story is told that at one time Madaritsch was chamber-musician to Stanislas Augustus Poniatowski, the last King of Poland, and whenever the King’s carriage stopped at the front door of the palace Gallus would disappear by a rear entrance, till at last the King dismissed him without ever having heard him play the piano! So this queer genius found his way to Vienna, and gave piano lessons for just enough to keep from starving. These were lessons on the kindergarten plan of some of to-day’s methods, for he had names for different fingers, and many of his elucidations were hunted for on all fours under the piano rather than on the keyboard! Nevertheless the contrapuntal art of this man, and his improvisations left a good impression on Grillparzer, whose philosophy of music, as well as his aesthetics, are based on Kant’s “Criticism of Pure Reason.”

Preëminently first among Czerny’s pupils, and true exponents of his science of finger training which he brought to perfection, were Ninetta de Belleville-Oury (1808-1880), whose technique controlled a beautiful if not a big tone; Theodore Doehler (1814-1856), Leopold von Meyer (1816-1883), Theodor Kullak (1818-1882), and last but not least, Franz Liszt (1811-1886).


Of him Czerny says: “In the year 1819, shortly after Belleville (one of the rarest musical talents) had left us, one morning a gentleman came with a little boy of about eight years, and asked to let the little one play something on the piano for me. He was a pale, delicate looking child, and in playing he swayed on the chair as if drunk, so that I thought he would fall down. His playing was quite irregular, indistinct, and confused, while of fingering he had so little notion that he threw his fingers over the keys quite ad libitum. Nevertheless I was astonished at the talent with which nature had favored him. He played at sight several things I put before him, to be sure, as a self-taught player, but for that very reason in a manner that any one could see nature alone had formed this pianist. The same was evident when, complying with the desire of his father, I gave him a theme on which to extemporize. Without the least knowledge of harmony, he put a certain spirit into his performance.

“The father told me that his name was Liszt, that he was a subordinate official of Prince Esterhazy; up till now he had instructed his son himself, but he would beg of me to take his little Franzi under my care, when he came to Vienna next year.

“I agreed to this readily, and gave him at the same time hints as to the manner in which he was to further the progress of the boy in the meantime, by showing him scales, exercises, etc. About a year later Liszt came with his son to Vienna, took lodgings in the same street we lived in, and having no time during the day, I devoted to the boy nearly every evening.


“I never had such a zealous, genial, and industrious pupil. As I knew from long experience that just such a genius, where the intellectual gifts are generally in advance of the physical powers, is likely, as a rule, to neglect the fundamental technical studies, it appeared to me to be necessary, before everything else, to employ the first month in regulating and fixing his mechanical accuracy in such a way that it could not go wrong in later years.

“In a short time he played the scales in all keys with all the masterly fluency which his fingers, so favorably formed for piano playing, made possible; and by an earnest study of Clementi’s sonatas (which will always remain the best school for pianists, if they know how to practice them according to his intentions),I accustomed him to strict accuracy of time, in which he had been quite wanting till then; furthermore, to a fine touch and tone, correct fingering, and true musical declamation, although those compositions appeared at first rather dry to the lively and always merry boy.

“The result of this method was that when a few months later we took up works by Hummel, Ries, Moscheles, and afterwards Beethoven and Bach, I had no occasion to trouble much about the mechanical rules, but could lead him at once to the apprehension of the spirit and character of the different authors. As he had to learn every piece very quickly, he acquired the faculty of playing at sight at last to such a degree that he was able to play even difficult compositions of importance publicly at sight, just as if he had studied them for a long time. I also endeavored to accustom him to extempore playing, by giving him frequently themes to improvise upon.”


If the wonder-child Liszt had been Czerny’s only pupil it is quite possible that the exercise-maker might not have known the wants and weaknesses of ordinary mortals; but with his constantly growing popularity there was also a constant demand upon his time as teacher, and owing to this persistent occupation which made him in time the foremost of instructive composers, and for which he gave up all hopes of professional triumphs, he left us numerous studies, natural enemies of piano students in search of short cuts; yet these studies are admirable groundwork for acquiring dexterity, neatness, and purity of touch, likewise fullness of tone, and completeness of execution in which he excelled.

The condition existing at the time of Bach, Handel (1685-1739), Couperin le Grand (1668-1733), and Rameau (1683-1764), was for polyphonic writing, and in those days there was really no distinction made between a professional and an amateur musician in point of training, for the part-writing of the old masters was not easy. In time, however, the style became more free, and with the increase of the compass of the instrument, which was of not more than five- octaves, Clementi invented and brought into use figures of thirds, sixths and octaves. Czerny was quick in perceiving the advantage of combining euphony with useful practice, and his studies opened to every student the way to the entire piano literature from John Sebastian Bach to Beethoven, just as Chopin (1810-1849) has done for the piano literature from Beethoven to Liszt. Such scholastic work can never cease being valuable as an aid to the formation of good style, and guide to the principles of good taste.

Bear in mind that Carl Czerny was not a tone-poet, nor are his compositions of the quality which renders art works classic; he was not Mendelssohn (1809-1847), Chopin, nor Schumann (1810-1856). But what Czerny wrote, particularly in the line of studies, was written well, and above all usefully; indeed these latter are of an indisputable merit when the acquiring of a facile piano technique is considered.


Czerny’s compositions, some of which embrace fifty numbers, approach the formidable number of a thousand, not counting the piano arrangements of numerous symphonies, oratorios, operas, overtures, etc., nor a German translation of Reicha’s voluminous work on harmony, nor his own grand method for the piano so well described in Adolph Kullak’s (1823-1862) “Æsthetics of Piano Playing;” nor his own “Treatise on Composition;” nor, if I am not mistaken, twenty-four masses with orchestra, four requiems, three hundred graduales, motets, concertos, symphonies, quartets and quintets, songs with and without orchestra, all of which are still in manuscript.

Teachers will find in the following list of his studies, and from which only selections should be made, distinct figures, purposly arranged difficulties, and other motifs intended to make the fingers independent of each other; they will find material for equalizing the fingers and for strengthening the weak fingers of either hand; studies in style, phrasing, and expressive execution; material for acquiring freedom of the wrist and for attaining freedom in both hands independently of each other; for arpeggio playing, for crossing the hands, for interlocking, and in fact for all that may likely beset the path of a player in his desire to overcome difficulties of higher pianism, which includes a beautiful legato as well as a crisp staccato. As Mr. Emil Liebling (1851—), one of our leading musical educators says: “We still play the legato of Czerny, Clementi and Moscheles (1794-1870), the staccato of Mendelssohn and Liszt.” The latter, however, got his art from Carl Czerny, whose grateful pupil he always remained. To be sure all that kind of work is not as amusing as a valse or a two-step; but in the end the student with ambition not higher than those two dance forms will find that even a two-step will gain in brilliancy when the touch is smooth and crisp, to be acquired only by well regulated practice.


One set of studies out of each group should serve all purposes.



Op. 261.


Op. 821.


Op. 599.


Op. 139.


Op. 829.


Op. 849 (as an introduction to Op. 299).


Op. 335.


Op. 636 (as an introduction to Op. 740).


Op. 299 (as an introduction to Op. 740).


Op. 834.


Op. 355.


Op. 740 (double thirds and sixths).


Op. 553.


Op. 821.


Toccata, Op. 92, edited by Joseffy, and as companion pieces, for expanding one’s power over technical detail, I would suggest preceding it with one by Clementi and by Francesco Pollini (1763-1846) respectively, and to follow it with one by Carl Mayer (1799-1862), Georg Liebling (1865—), Henri Pachulski (1857—), Robert Schumann and Balakireff (1837—).



Excellent are the forty daily studies, Op. 337, as edited by Door (1833—), likewise the “School of Velocity” (higher grade), Op. 365.

Studies in the development of finger facility, 433, have been edited by Breslaur (1836-1899).

Players with two left hands are common enough; but it is a rare event when one meets a pianist of whom one may say, as Cramer said about Alexander Dreyschock (1818-1869), that “he has two right hands.” Fearful of the tendency to neglect the left hand, owing to the rapid development of the “lyric” (homophonic) style which entrusted the most important work to the right hand, Czerny wrote also some studies for the left hand: Op. 399, and Op. 718 of medium grade. Well prepared teachers have always had in these studies the requisite material leading to the higher studies of Cramer (as edited by von Buelow), Robert Fuchs, August Winding, Henselt, Chopin and Rubinstein.

Grillparzer said one day to Beethoven: “The literary men of foreign lands are united against everything that comes from Austria; a combination has been formed in Germany against Austrian authors.” So are innovators, inventors of shortcuts and of excelsior methods combined against a worthy pattern to be found in Czerny’s studies intended for developing technical perfection without catering to the emotional.

Of small stature, delicate health, and very simple appearance, Czerny was nevertheless a jolly good companion, although some called him stingy. Such a distinction is always acquired by those whose labors are great and economies small. As a teacher, with all the equipments of a broad and versatile mind, he was le maître par excellence, whose scholastic works endure, and we may be truly happy if we can pay a tithe of the debt we owe him.


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