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Czerny, Carl (1791-1857)
Lithograph (1833) by Joseph Kriehuber

Carl Czerny

born: 21 February 1791
died: 15 July 1857
country: Austria

Few pianists will be unfamiliar with the name of Carl Czerny. At some point they will almost certainly have encountered at least one of his myriad studies; some might know that their author had the distinction of being the pupil of Beethoven and the teacher of Liszt. Beyond that, though—what? The average music-lover knows nothing of him beyond the fact that he wrote an extraordinary amount of pedagogical keyboard music.

It is rare indeed to hear any piece by Czerny played in concert. Moreover, only a tiny proportion has ever been recorded. Pianophiles will know Vladimir Horowitz’s 1944 recording of the Variations on a theme by Rode ‘La Ricordanza’, Op 33 (the pianist’s favourite of all his recordings), and, perhaps, the variation Czerny was invited to contribute to Liszt’s Hexaméron along with Chopin, Thalberg, Pixis and Herz. Such random nuggets excepted, the familiar name of Czerny will provoke a collective blank.

And what of the man? Joseph Kriehuber’s 1833 lithograph puts one in mind of a less chubby Schubert. He was born in Vienna on 21 February 1791 (though Austrian by birth he was of Czech extraction: ‘Czerny’ in Czech means ‘black’). His father, Wenzel Czerny, was a gifted musician and strict disciplinarian. Work and no play was the order of the day: Carl was never allowed to play with other children, a regime that paid off when a violinist friend, Wenzel Krumpholz, took the young boy to play for Beethoven. The great composer taught Carl for three years. Lessons from Hummel and Clementi completed his studies, by which time Czerny had already earned a reputation himself for being a patient and diligent teacher. In 1804 he made plans for a tour of Europe as a piano virtuoso (Beethoven provided a flattering testimonial) but the state of the Continent obliged him to abandon the tour, and also the idea of becoming a peripatetic concert pianist. He never played in public after this date. Indeed, apart from three trips—to Leipzig (1836), Paris and London (1837), and Lombardy (1846)—he remained in Vienna for the rest of his life, eschewing fashionable society and, it appears, more interested in promoting Beethoven’s music than his own.

Czerny’s devotion to his art was total. He never married (though he did allow himself to fall in love). He simply taught and composed for all the hours God gave him. His pupils included Thalberg, Theodor Kullak, Döhler and, as has been noted, Franz Liszt who was just ten years old when he took up residence in Czerny’s house (Czerny taught him for no fee). Later came Theodor Leschetizky, thus the same man trained the two most important piano teachers of the nineteenth century.

Whilst cramming as many as ten or twelve lessons into a single day, Czerny managed somehow to write an enormous amount of music. His publishers could not get enough of it. Frequently he was forced to compose at night. His total of 861 opus numbers hides the fact that many of them contain numerous individual movements. For example, Op 261 has ‘125 Exercises’, Op 820 ‘90 Daily Studies’, and Op 821 ‘160 Short Studies’. He tackled every genre except opera—sonatas, concertos, string quartets, Masses and hymns flowed from his pen; symphonies, overtures, requiems, oratorios, pieces for three pianists playing six-hands on a single keyboard; and arrangements of operas which included the overtures to Semiramide and William Tell transcribed for sixteen pianists playing four-hands on eight pianos.

For more than a century it has been acceptable to sneer at the fruits of such incredible industry, at this ability to turn out music with such fluency. John Field, Czerny’s contemporary and the inventor of the piano nocturne, described him as a Tintenfass—an inkpot. In 1845, a London concert manager named John Ella visited Czerny’s house in Vienna and observed how the composer operated: four music desks were set up in his studio. On each was a different composition in the process of being completed. Czerny would work on one to the bottom of the page then move to the next composition to do the same, so that by the time he had finished the bottom of the page on the fourth desk, the ink on the first page was dry. This could then be turned and composition could proceed.

Such fluency and over-production allowed his many inspired and good works to be overshadowed by a greater number of lesser works. He was, we learn from Czerny’s acquaintance the Viennese musicologist Ferdinand Pohl, ‘modest and simple in his manner of life, courteous and friendly in his behaviour, just and kindly in his judgement on matters of art, and helpful to all young artists who came his way’. When he died on 15 July 1857, having no brothers, sisters or any close relations, Czerny assigned part of his considerable fortune to an institution for deaf-mutes.

from notes by Jeremy Nicholas © 2017


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