We mark the death on July 15, 1857 – 162 years ago today – of the Austrian composer, pianist and teacher Carl Czerny.
What would we do without him? Indeed. Excepting Ferdinand Ries (who was, like Czerny, a student of Beethoven’s), no one has left us more numerous and more accurate first-hand accounts of Beethoven than Czerny. He was a great pianist and perhaps the greatest pianist who never played in public. (I would qualify that statement, because as a young man Czerny did indeed play in public a handful of times; for example, Beethoven entrusted the 21-year-old Czerny with the first public performance in Vienna of his Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-flat major, the “Emperor”, on February 12, 1812. But in fact, Czerny hated the pressure of performing in public, hated travelling, and felt that “my playing lacked the type of brilliant, calculated charlantry that is usually part of a travelling virtuoso’s essential equipment.” So he stayed home in Vienna, where he performed in private, composed, and taught.)
He was, very likely, the single most important piano teacher of the nineteenth century. According to the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians he was “a central figure in the transmission of Beethoven’s legacy”, a piano teacher who numbered among his star students Stephan Heller, Sigismond Thalberg, Theodor Leschetizky, and Franz Liszt.
(In late August of 1819 Liszt’s father Adam brought his son to Czerny’s studio in Vienna. Czerny remembered:
“One morning in 1819, a man with a small boy approached me with a request to let the youngster play something on the piano. He was a pale, sickly-looking child who, while playing, swayed about on the stool as if drunk, so that I thought that he would fall to the floor. His playing was also quite irregular, and he had so little idea of fingering that he threw his fingers quite arbitrarily around the keyboard. But that notwithstanding, I was astonished at the talent nature had bestowed upon him. He played something which I gave him to sight-read like a pure ‘natural’. It was just the same when, at his father’s request, I gave him a theme on which to improvise. Without the slightest knowledge of harmony, he still brought a touch of genius to his rendering. The father told me that he himself had taught the boy till now; but he asked me whether if I would myself accept his little ‘Franzi’. I told him I would be glad to.”
Czerny later wrote:
“Never before had I had so eager, talented, or industrious a student. After only a year I could let him perform publicly, and he aroused a degree of enthusiasm in Vienna that few artists have equaled.”
Czerny, who taught from 8 am to 8 pm, giving twelve lessons a day – a workload he himself called “lucrative but taxing.” – taught Liszt for free, giving him lessons every evening after having finished his day’s work. Liszt became a de-facto member of the Czerny family, and was grateful to Czerny – whom he always referred to, no matter how famous he got, as “My Dear, Revered Master” – for the rest of his life.)
Czerny was a tireless composer, who churned out thousands of works and whose final opus number was a staggering Op. 861(!!!) Harold Schonberg describes Czerny’s method of composing:
“A skullcap on his head, he would work on four or five compositions simultaneously, running from one to the other as the ink dried enough for him to turn the pages, while carrying on an animated conversation with anybody who happened to be in the room.”
While many of Czerny’s works are pedagogical in nature, many are not, and his music – derided by many – has been admired by some heavy hitters, including Igor Stravinsky, who wrote:
“As to Czerny, I have been appreciating the full-blooded musician in him more than the remarkable pedagogue.”
Carl Czerny was born in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna on February 21, 1791. He was a musical child prodigy who began playing the piano at three, composing at seven, and made his public debut at nine – in 1800 – performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor.
That same year – 1800 – Czerny began regular lessons with Beethoven, which continued to 1804 and occasionally thereafter. In 1805 Beethoven gave Czerny the following written recommendation:
“I, the undersigned, am glad to bear testimony to young Czerny having made the most extraordinary progress on the pianoforte, far beyond what might be expected at the age of fourteen. I consider him deserving of all possible assistance, not only because of what I have already referred to, but because of his astonishing memory.”
Beethoven wasn’t exaggerating when he referred to Czerny’s “astonishing memory.” That memory allowed him to memorize virtually every one of Beethoven’s piano works. During the years 1804 and 1805, the 13 and 14-year-old Czerny performed Beethoven’s music once or twice a week at the Viennese palace of Beethoven’s patron Prince Karl Lichnowsky. During these musicales, Lichnowsky would simply call out an opus number, and Czerny would perform it.
For all of his pianism, his enduring influence as a teacher, and his countless compositions, it is Czerny’s memories of Beethoven that have made him “the person we cannot do without.” As an example, here is Czerny’s wonderful account of his first meeting and initial lessons with Beethoven.
“I was about 10 years old [more likely 9] when I was taken to Beethoven through the kind offices of Krumpholz. [Václav Krumpholz was a Czech-born mandolin and violin player who arranged to introduce Czerny to Beethoven.] It was the winter of 1799-1800. How I was overjoyed and terrified on the day when I was to meet the esteemed master! On a winter’s day, my father, Krumpholz and I walked from the Leopoldstadt, where we still lived, into the city, to the so-called Tiefer Graben [a street name], climbed up, as if in a tower, to the fifth or sixth floor, where a rather grubby looking servant announced us to Beethoven and showed us in. A very barren looking room, papers and clothes strewn all over the place, a few boxes, bare walls, hardly a single chair save for a rickety one by the piano, a Walter, at the time the best make. In this room were gathered six to eight persons, including [the violinist] Schuppanzigh and one of Beethoven’s brothers.
Beethoven himself was dressed in a jacket of some shaggy dark grey cloth and trousers of the same material, so that he immediately reminded me of Robinson Crusoe which I had just then read. The coal-black hair cut a la Titus stood up around his head. His black beard, unshaven for several days, darkened the lower part of his already dark-complexion face. Also I noticed at a glance, as children are wont to do, that his ears were stuffed with cotton wool which seems to have been dipped in some yellow fluid. Yet at that time not the slightest sign of deafness was apparent. I had to play something immediately, and since I was too shy to begin with one of his compositions, I played Mozart’s great C Major Concerto [K. 503] which begins with chords. Beethoven was immediately attentive; he came close to my chair and played with his left hand the orchestra part in those sections where I had only accompanying passages. His hands were very hairy and his fingers, especially at the tips, very broad. He expressed himself as being satisfied, so I made bold and played [his] Pathétique Sonata which had then just appeared. When I had finished, Beethoven turned to my father and said, ‘The boy has talent. I will teach him myself and accept him as my pupil. Send him to me a few times a week. Before anything else, obtain for him Emanuel Bach’s handbook on the proper way to play the clavier [keyboard], so he can bring it with him the next time he comes.
In the first lessons, Beethoven gave me scales in every key, showed me the only proper position of the hands and of the fingers and particularly the use of the thumb, then unknown to the majority of players, rules whose complete scope I mastered only at a much later time.
Then he went over the exercises of the handbook with me and drew my special attention to legato [smooth, singing playing] of which he himself was an unequalled master and which, at that time, all other pianists believed to be impossible to obtain on the Fortepiano. At that time, dating still from Mozart’s days, the clipped and staccato way of playing was the fashion.”
As we might expect for someone with 861 published works, Czerny made a lot of money, and had no one to leave it to when he died: he never married, had no brothers or sisters or any other near relatives; just cats (7-10 of them at any given time). So he willed his fortune to a number of different charities – including one for the deaf – to the Society of Friends of Music in Vienna, and to his housekeeper.
Rest easy, Maestro.
For lots more on Ludwig van Beethoven, I would invite you to peruse my courses on Beethoven’s life, his symphonies (on sale now), his piano sonatas and his string quartets produced by The Great Courses and available for examination and download here at RobertGreenbergMusic.com.