Carl Czerny: in the shadow of Beethoven.
Czerny was an extraordinary child prodigy. Wenzel Czerny, the boy's father, was a piano teacher himself, but hardly the typical prodigy parent. Beethoven once complained that the father was not strict enough, to which Wenzel replied, "Oh Mr Beethoven, but he is our only child." He did not have his heart set on Carl making a virtuoso career, and in fact Czerny never did embark on country-hopping concert tours as did Mozart and so many others. The fact that he did little performing and no touring abroad (he did visit Liszt in Paris) may be one reason why he did not make a lasting impact as a composer.
Carl's close association with Beethoven continued until the master's death. Before Carl was even in his teens, he had been so deeply affected by Beethoven's first two symphonies that, all on his own, he proceeded to make himself orchestral scores of them (these had not yet been published). The individual instrumental parts being available, he copied these out to create a score. What an extraordinary initiative for such a young lad! Writing about this in his brief but touching autobiography, Erinnerungen aus meinem Leben, he says, "Thus, very early on, I received a rather correct understanding of orchestration; and this work gave me such pleasure that I also made up scores for several Haydn and Mozart symphonies, which is in any case much more instructive for the student than just studying ready-made scores."
By the time Carl was 13, he had been engaged by Prince Lichnowsky, Beethoven's great patron, to come almost daily to play Beethoven's compositions for him, all of which Carl knew by memory (insofar as they had already been composed). For 35 years, starting at the age of 15, he taught piano all day, and composed all evening; that was his whole life. (Among his students was Theodor Leschetitzky, who taught one of my teachers, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who died in 1993 at over 100 years of age - so only two "degrees of separation" lie between myself and Czerny!) Then, at the age of 51, Vienna's most prominent teacher had become such a successful composer that he stopped teaching in order to devote himself entirely to writing music.
While close association with a smouldering genius like Beethoven is certainly inspiring, it is also, like living beside a volcano, fraught with danger. The volcano/genius can humble, threaten, and even suffocate all who are too close, and inevitably wields excessive influence over students, easily turning them into disciples rather than artists. Indeed, the greatest talents often have the lowest self-confidence and are thus all too easily overwhelmed and discouraged. Eventually every young protege must either go through a rebellion akin to the teenage detachment syndrome, challenging the supremacy of his master; or else humbly submerge himself in the anonymity of disciplehood, accepting unquestioningly and without regret the indisputable and eternal superiority of the master.
This peril of proximity may explain why so few students of the great composers ever equalled or surpassed their teachers. Certainly Bach's sons - in double jeopardy as students and offspring - were outstanding musicians, especially C.P.E Bach, but hardly at the level of their father. Beethoven did some studying, mostly of counterpoint, with Haydn, but it was for a short period when he was already in his twenties and confident of his own abilities. (Indeed, he claimed that he learned nothing from the older master!) In the twentieth century there are some contrary examples: Ravel studied with Faure, while Berg and Webern were disciples of Schoenberg. But most composers with the colossal talent we call genius learned from obscure teachers, and they seem to have sucked in their proficiency mainly from studying and hearing the precious scores of their predecessors.
The teacher-student relationship can be quite different in the visual arts, where watching the mentor's technical skill is of surpassing importance. Botticelli studied with Verrocchio and Fra Filipo Lippi, El Greco studied with Titian, and Michelangelo with Ghirlandaio, to give a few examples. Observing someone compose, by comparison, would be about as interesting as watching someone type. The way the master manipulates his pencil, the materials he uses, the pressure, the speed, etc., have no relationship to the creation of a musical composition, as they do to the process of making a painting. Indeed, many composers, including especially Mozart, claim to have composed an entire work - even a complete opera - in their head before setting it down on paper, which became a merely clerical task. Mozart would often be conversing or already composing another work while writing out a score!
Examples of huge talents stifled (in most cases probably without conscious intent) by their proximity to genius are not easy to find, obviously, because fond but unrealized hopes do not often penetrate to posterity. One might consider as a candidate Joseph Joachim, a close friend and colleague (though not a student) of Brahms. He was a superbly gifted composer who stopped composing because he felt that the existence of Brahms made his own efforts futile.
Felix Mendelssohn's sister Fanny was another huge talent who did not reach her full potential. On the basis of a few remarkable works, it is not an exaggeration to contend that her gifts were comparable to her brother's; some of her songs were even published under Felix's name. However, she produced only a small body of work, of uneven quality, certainly not sufficient to gain entry to the hall of supreme fame. In part this was certainly due to her gender, but she must also have been blinded and overawed by her brother's sovereign talent, his unique precocity and his celebrated fame. There is also evidence that, though he supported Clara Schumann's career as a pianist and composer, Felix preferred to have his sister stay out of the public eye.
To be a composer in Vienna, under the shadow of Beethoven, in the first decades of the nineteenth century must have been particularly daunting, for Beethoven owned Vienna musically during those years - indeed, to a large extent, he still does. His fame in 1827 can be gauged by the fact that over 10,000 people attended his funeral; ploughmen and peasants recognized him on his famous walks in the Vienna woods. It was impossible to challenge his supremacy; at best one could only hope to ignore or evade it. Schubert met this challenge by staying out of the limelight and immersing himself in his music (and the novels of James Fenimore Cooper!), but he paid a huge price; he had to live in poverty, never heard a public performance of his glorious symphonies, was noticed only by a small but devoted circle of friends, and died at the age of 31.
CARL CZERNY, too, had to contend with the overwhelming presence of Beethoven, though for most music lovers, suggesting that Czerny might even be in the running for a position as a significant composer - let alone a great one - would be like sending a gourmet seeking exquisite cuisine to the nearest McDonald's, or telling a drama critic that Silvester Stallone had given the definitive performance of Hamlet.
Is this indeed the same Carl Czerny whose "Art of Finger Dexterity" has been inflicted on piano students since time immemorial, and who wrote etudes with endearing titles such as "A Quiet Hand, with the Fingers Active to the Utmost" and "The Lightest Touch, with the Fingers at the Highest Speed"? To further jeopardize his reputation, Czerny did even worse than write thousands (literally) of etudes and exercises; he also wrote countless shallow potboilers: variations, paraphrases, or "potpourris" on the latest catchy opera tunes. How could the purveyor of such utilitarian merchandise be a serious artist?
Of course this attitude is just another form of racism. We are too prone to extrapolate judgements from one characteristic of a person to embrace the individual's whole entity; just imagine a roofer or a police officer trying to get people to take his or her poetry seriously.
Other composers have inflicted similar damage on themselves; Liszt's flashy, slam-bang tendencies prejudice some listeners against his occasional profound and original creations. Arthur Benjamin has never been forgiven by musical snobs for having spawned the popular "Jamaican Rhumba," though he wrote serious works of real merit; and Peter Schickele has made such a success of "P.D.Q. Bach" that it is hard to resist the temptation to laugh off his worthy non-comic compositions.
Czerny himself divided his music into four categories: 1) studies and exercises; 2) easy pieces for students; 3) brilliant pieces for concerts; and 4) serious music. How interesting that the "Brilliant pieces for concerts" are not what he considered his serious music! In an 1824 letter to Friederich Wieck, Clara Schumann's father, he asked him to "beg the musical world's forgiveness for me, dear friend, for producing such a quantity of small things and so few great ones until now. As a man of my word, I'll endeavour to make up for it." And 33 years later, in a letter written just ten days before his death, he vowed that he would henceforth write only serious music and expressed the wish that the Lord would grant him many more years for that purpose ...
Czerny has paid more dearly than any other composer for his lack of musical correctness and the hegemony of Beethoven, especially in relation to his incredible talent. Robert Schumann, usually the epitome of generosity, wrote some of his cruellest critiques about him: "A greater bankruptcy of imagination than that demonstrated in Mr Czerny's newest creation (The Four Seasons, Op. 434) could hardly exist. One should force the esteemed composer into retirement and give him his well-earned pension, so he would stop writing." Arthur Loesser, in general well-disposed toward music of lesser gods and even "salon" music, describes Czerny, in his authoritative and entertaining Men, Women and Pianos, as "without depth, intensity, or wit, but always smooth and pretty and rather ear-tickling when played fast ... endless variety of patterns and endless monotony of import." However, I strongly suspect - and would like to believe - that neither Schumann nor Loesser were acquainted with Czerny's "serious" music, almost none of which is to be found in any North American library.
If the quality of his music is contentious, the quantity certainly is not. A partial list I have of his output occupies 22 pages of small type, at the end of which his London publisher, Cocks & Co., quasi apologizes that "many other arrangements exist by the talented Author of this Work, of which even the titles have escaped his memory." It includes only (!) the first 798 of his 861 published opus numbers.
Yet even these numbers tell only part of the story, for his average opus contains about three pieces, and many a great deal more. Consider Op. 247, "Souvenir Theatral," containing over 50 "Fantaisies Elegantes" on favourite tunes of new operas, each arranged both as a solo and as a duet for two pianists; Op. 354, consisting of eight books of "Morceaux agreables et brillants"; or Op. 769, "48 Rondinos on favourite themes." In addition, the archives of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna contain numerous unpublished works: four "Grand Symphonies" (in addition to two published as Op. 780 and Op. 781). Various other references speak of 30 string quartets, 24 masses, 4 requiems, and 300 offertories, graduals, cantatas, and choruses, all for voices and orchestra. He also arranged hundreds of works for piano solo and/or piano duet, including all of Beethoven's symphonies and overtures, Handel's Messiah and Mozart's Don Giovanni, and he edited the "Pianoforte [sic] Works" of Bach and Scarlatti.
According to the Book of Lists II, Haydn was history's most prolific composer, having written some 340 hours of music, at the rate of 6.3 hours per active year, equivalent to more than a symphony per month. If the average length of each of Czerny's 861 published opus numbers and about 400 unpublished works were just 20 minutes, he outdid Haydn, at a rate at least equal to that champion of productivity, Franz Schubert, who created about 7.4 hours of glorious music per year. But since it is unlikely that anyone will ever tally the duration of Czerny's output, the crown for musical prolixity may remain forever in doubt, though he would definitely win "fingers down" on the basis of actual notes written, as he definitely spews out far more notes per minute than Haydn!
An amusing story about how he managed to write so much is quoted in Men, Women & Pianos: "There were four music desks in Czerny's studio; upon each reposed a composition in progress. Czerny was apparently in the habit of working on one down to the end of a page, then turning to work on another while the ink was drying on the previous one; by the time he had completed the fourth, the first was ready to be turned over. He claimed to have set down more notes than any copyist." One would expect to find something of merit amongst all these notes if one could only devote half a lifetime to exploring them, just as one expects that among the 200 billion stars in our galaxy there may well be some sort of life elsewhere.
THE first serious Czerny work I came across was the Piano Sonata No. 1, in A flat major, Op. 7, which I purchased at an Edmonton music store that was going out of business and selling off its stock for a song (or maybe, in this case, for an etude?). Written when the composer was 19, it is the only one of his 11 piano sonatas to have been republished in a modern edition (unfortunately a very poor edition at that, with innumerable editorial contaminations tossed in).
The score languished unopened for a good decade on my shelves, until 1994, when I spent a few weeks looking for a piece of surpassing beauty by a relatively unknown nineteenth-century composer, as I felt that my concert programs were too concentrated on Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and about ten other superstar composers. So I scoured the music of composers like Hummel, Clementi, Moscheles, Dussek, Raff, Rheinberger, Reinecke, Liapounov, and Ries, uncovering many gems - but none more interesting than the Czerny sonata.
This sonata is hardly what you might expect from the writer of etudes emphasizing "the highest speed" and other superlatives of dexterity. Much of it sounds as though it might have been written by Schubert or Mendelssohn - who were, respectively, thirteen and one year old at the time! There is not more virtuoso writing than you would find in most Beethoven sonatas. Of the five movements (in itself unheard of for a sonata), only the incredibly passionate second movement ends loudly. This "scherzo" was much admired and often performed by Liszt (whom Czerny respected greatly though he felt that Franz had taken a wrong artistic path).
The first movement is sweetly intimate, with a brief, turbulently expressive middle section, and includes some exquisitely Schubertian harmonic surprises. The third movement is a truly profound adagio, with a stunning Beethovenian modulation to an exotic foreign key for its stirring middle section. Next is a rondo, at first nearly too charming, but very soon showing an unexpected polyphonic strength and intensity of emotion, which is further heightened by a furious central episode. The theme of this episode recurs as the subject of the fugue concluding the work, which ends with a haunting echo of the sonata's opening bars.
Placing a fugue in a sonata was unprecedented at the time, as was the cyclical provenance of its theme. It was not until many years later that Beethoven first used a fugue in a sonata, and that Schubert composed his cyclical "Wanderer Fantasy." (There are earlier fugues in Beethoven's Op. 59, No. 3, String Quartet and in the Eroica Symphony.) The fugue would not be a disgrace to Bach as one of his famous 48, and could conceivably be mistaken for one (assuming we found Johann Sebastian at his most romantic); and the sonata as a whole, if it had been born from Beethoven, would not, I believe, be considered the most inferior of his 32. Having dared say this, no further superlatives need apply.
After discovering this work, I of course became eager to inspect some of the other 800-odd opus numbers, slightly fearful that the sonata might turn out to have been a supernova burst that quickly disappeared into the black hole of mindless virtuosity and shallow salon confections.
My doubts were soon dispelled when I heard a beautiful CD by Yaara Tal and Andreas Groethuysen of works for piano four-hands (Sony SK 45936), including two majestic sonatas, with extraordinary, original harmonic colourings, inspired themes, poetic lyricism, and never a dull moment.
In a set of LPs on the obscure FHM label one can also hear a number of dazzling compositions for the very bizarre combination of three pianists belabouring one and the same keyboard. While these works are mainly fun - damn difficult fun - and not profound, they testify to an uncanny ability of the composer to imagine such scintillating sound combinations, all so natural and well balanced. (Imagining six-hand piano works is much more challenging than imagining a full orchestra, and is harder for the composer to experiment with, all alone at the keyboard.) Czerny's ideas for the various possible permutations possible for ten, let alone thirty, fingers on a keyboard are simply inexhaustible, as is also evident from his etudes (many are much more difficult than those of Chopin). Though obviously not intended for concerts, many of them show moments of quite unnecessary beauty. Is not making things more aesthetically appealing than required for their utility the very essence of artistry?
A piano concerto and a concerto for piano four-hands proved comparatively disappointing, though their exquisitely orchestrated and nearly symphonic openings would be worthy of any composer. After magnificent openings, they tend to lose themselves in passage work, especially irritating because it tends to grossly overstay its visits to the newly expanded top octave of the piano, where it tinkles away brilliantly. Much of this tinkling is highly imaginative, with its supremely inventive patterns, but it does clearly fit his rubric of "brilliant music for concerts," not of "serious music."
Yet even in such shallower works, one has to admire the infallible craft, the instinctive and uninhibited mastery of melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, and form, and the astonishing innovations that helped prepare the way for the music of Schumann, Liszt, Saint-Saens, Alkan, Henselt, and ever so many others.
The chamber music for piano and strings that I have seen suffers occasionally from what today's somewhat snobbish audiences might consider excessive brilliance in the piano writing. Chamber music is generally expected to be too refined to permit much in the way of scintillating virtuoso brilliance, though the acknowledged masters were not consistently all that austere in their chamber music. The first movement of Beethoven's Violin Sonata Op. 12, No. 3, much of the Mendelssohn D minor Trio, and the last of movement of Brahms' Piano Quartet in G minor, Op. 25, for example, are highly brilliant and acrobatic.
Some of Czerny's chamber music is definitely worth reviving, but aside from the formidable problem of even finding the music at all, it is difficult to form a judgement of it because the publishing practice in Czerny's day did not include printing a score. The printed piano part has only the notes that the piano plays, no full score, no cues, and in fact not even rehearsal numbers or letters. So to get an idea of the piece, one must get a group of musicians to read through it; and the piano parts, due to the above-mentioned brilliance, are not easily read. If the players stumble apart from each other and have to stop, it is not easy to find a spot from which to begin again.
Among the chamber works I have been able to find and read through - a small percentage of his chamber music output - there is a beautiful and original Piano Trio in A major, and at least two worthy piano quartests. I have also heard two movements from one of his string quartets, which struck me as warm, delightful, and beautifully crafted.
I have had the privilege of conducting Czerny's Symphony No. 2 in D major on two occasions, and consider it an inspired, exciting, and splendidly orchestrated work. The score of the Symphony No. 1 in C minor impresses me even more, and I have also had in my hands the original manuscript score of his unpublished last symphony, which at first glance seems very promising. This is entombed at the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, together with most of Czerny's published and unpublished material. Getting acquainted with these works is not easy, as this easy-going and typically Austrian institution is open only three mornings a week, and closes for three months in the summer, and ordering microfilm of works in manuscript costs about $5 per page.
Czerny's "serious" music is consistently fascinating, if not without some weaknesses. While the range of his emotions is huge, there is perhaps less variety of character than one finds in most great composers, and the trivial occasionally emerges immediately adjoining the poetically imaginative. Some of these astonishing juxtapositions are actually an asset, establishing a naive but charming personal trademark, comparable to the way Bruckner's exalted symphonies gain so much power from their earthy, almost banal scherzos, or Schubert's heavenly lyricism becomes even more poignant by the occasional detour through an almost generic, lilting Viennese laendler.
Particularly interesting is the Piano Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 57. It can hardly be coincidence that Beethoven's most famous and popular sonata, the "Appassionata," is also a sonata in F minor, and is also Op. 57! Both sonatas are wildly passionate and outstandingly original. Was Czerny just paying homage to Beethoven, or was he (perhaps subconsciously) challenging his former teacher to a duel in F minor? What a daring gambit, akin to writing a new Faust after Goethe. My speculation is indeed that this was his final declaration of independence from his teacher, proclaiming that "I can do it too."
IF Czerny loses the duel, it is not for lack of invention, craft, or emotion, all of which he richly displays. "Great" composer or not, he was certainly a genius of musical and pianistic creativity who should not be despised or forgotten, nor condemned to remain eternally in the shadow of Beethoven.