Chris de Souza explores the life and work of the great Austrian composer Carl Czerny, from being taught by Beethoven to teaching Liszt

ByQuyen Anne

Jan 3, 2024

If genius is 99 per cent perspiration, then Carl Czerny undoubtedly was one. His output was enormous, produced on an industrial scale, using conveyor-belt processes.

Who was Carl Czerny?

Carl Czerny is a famous Austrian composer, pianist and teacher. His published works extend to Op. 861, with many numbers used more than once, plus hundreds of other works without opus numbers, some of which are most important for a proper reckoning of his output. Yet it is almost unknown apart from the volumes of studies and exercises with which he filled the page.

When was Carl Czerny born?

Carl Czerny was born in 1791 in Vienna to Czech parents – ‘Czerny’ means ‘black’ in Czech. His father, a piano teacher, accepted a job in Poland, where the family lived till 1795.

When did Czerny start learning music?

Czerny got the work ethic from an early age. He was three when he started piano lessons with his church-organist, music-teacher father, seven when he began composition and nine when he made his public debut, playing Mozart’s C minor Piano Concerto.

All this time, he was one of a group of children whose parents provided a self-help school, providing tuition in languages, literature, mathematics and other subjects. His father used BachHaydn and Mozart as his models. For a while he studied with Mozart’s pupil, Hummel, and played at Constanze Mozart’s musical gatherings.

Did Beethoven teach Carl Czerny?

And then in 1801 he was introduced to Beethoven. At the composer’s request he played the Pathétique Sonata and, as a result, was taken on as a pupil. From now on, Czerny quietly becomes a central figure in the classical music world. Wherever you look in his circle, an important figure looms.

Appropriately, one of 50 composers later invited by Anton Diabelli to write a variation on the composer and publisher’s own waltz, he also provided the coda, as though in some sense he embraced all the musicians in Vienna at the time.

Czerny’s formal lessons with Beethoven ended when he was 13, but the two maintained close relations. Czerny often proofread or arranged Beethoven’s works, and gave concerts in his own home, which Beethoven often attended. He also had a phenomenal musical memory and could play all of Beethoven’s pieces by heart. Around 1804 he paid a visit to Prince Lichnowsky, Beethoven’s patron, of an evening. The Prince would call out an opus number for Czerny to play, like a classical era iPod.

Beethoven used Muzio Clementi as the basis of his teaching, and Czerny’s infamous volumes of piano exercises in turn developed from those of the Italian-English composer and pianist. Czerny handed on Beethoven’s techniques to his pupils, and published an edition of Beethoven’s sonatas including his erstwhile teacher’s idiosyncratic fingering.

As distinguished a person as Brahms later wrote to Clara Schumann: ‘Czerny’s fingering is particularly worthy for attention. In fact, I think that people today ought to have more respect for this excellent man.’

Clara used Czerny in her teaching and Brahms wrote exercises influenced by him, though Brahms would have known that Robert Schumann had often written scathingly of Czerny. Schumann’s antipathy is ironic when one hears, in the first movement of Czerny’s First Piano Concerto, a strikingly clear preview of the principal subject of Schumann’s own Concerto.

Czerny’s Concerto, in D minor, seems to portend the atmosphere too of Brahms’s First. Brahms probably got the drum-roll effect in his Third Piano Sonata from Czerny’s First Sonata.

But back to Czerny and Beethoven. In 1812, the 20-year-old Czerny gave the first Vienna performance of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto No. 5.

Within days, he began a grand concerto of his own – his Third, in E flat. A homage to some extent, it is in fact only like the ‘Emperor’ in respect of its scale. It is inevitable that an intelligent, sensitive musical spirit would be influenced by the gravitational pull of such a genius as Beethoven, and spotting Beethoven-isms is good sport for Czerny critics. But what they miss is how well he maintained his independence.

That said, it is also fair to surmise that on occasions he did write with Beethoven in mind. It would have been difficult to compose a C minor symphony, as Czerny did in his First, without the Beethoven effect.

(Mendelssohn did likewise). And the opening movement of Czerny’s Second Symphony is imbued with Beethoven’s Second. His Funeral March on the Death of Beethoven for piano quotes the thrumming bass of the Eroica Symphony’s funeral March, also in C minor, and then goes into A flat minor, referencing Beethoven’s own ‘Funeral March’ Sonata, Op. 27.

Czerny is also frequently compared unfavourably to the great Romantic composersMendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin and Liszt. But they all belong to the generation after his and by their time, masters like Czerny had done a lot of the digesting of the strong stuff Beethoven had bequeathed to the world. As Liszt said, ‘In the 1820s, when a great portion of Beethoven’s creations was a kind of Sphinx, Czerny was playing it with an understanding as excellent as his technique was efficient and effective’.

His immediate contemporaries, with whom he ought more properly to be compared, were Spohr, WeberRossini and Schubert. Some of his 180-plus popular style variations used Schubert melodies. He transcribed some of Schubert’s songs in the manner Liszt later did, and in such works as his Op. 492 Fantasy on Themes from Le Nozze di Figaro one sees the germ of the great operatic fantasias and paraphrases of Liszt and his contemporaries.

Who did Carl Czerny teach?

Liszt was, in fact, the greatest of Czerny’s many pupils – from the age of 15 onwards, teaching proved a highly lucrative career and he was highly valued by those he tutored. Liszt lived in the same street as Czerny and used to pop round for lessons every evening. Czerny waived his fee, and Liszt became a favourite member of the household Czerny kept with his parents.

In turn, Liszt later dedicated his Transcendental Studies to the teacher who had forced him to do so many technical exercises to correct what he considered the young man’s ‘chaotic’ technique. He promoted Czerny’s music in his concerts, and had a high opinion of his concertos and the First Piano Sonata – though admitting that Czerny perhaps sacrificed artistic worth for long-windedness.

What is Carl Czerny most famous for?

One of the most striking things about Czerny’s vast output is his fondness for the fugue. A master of counterpoint, as evinced by the skittering violin descants in his orchestral music, he discussed the continuing relevance of fugue as a technique with Mendelssohn, and dedicated to him his Op. 400 preludes and fugues, subtitled ‘in a severe style’. He also published an edition of all Bach’s keyboard works, which became the bible to many musicians of the time, including Chopin, who would start the day with a Bach fugue.

Czerny’s sonatas and symphonies, not to mention his choral music, often include fugal movements, while fugato (passages in the style of a fugue) is frequent too.

He had a penchant for andamento subjects (longer than average fugal themes) and curiously, even in the longest and most complex, he often goes for a quiet ending. There is something rather pleasant about that. Indeed, Chopin was moved to report after meeting him, that he was rather nicer than his studies would lead him to expect.

Czerny also popularised the use of the word ‘Etude’, and was among the first to use the title ‘Nocturne’, following on from John Field. The Irish composer visited Czerny in Vienna in 1835, and from this period come the first eight of Czerny’s 17 nocturnes. At their best, as in the second and fourth of the Op. 368 collection, they show a very romantic side. They sound like Chopin’s Op. 9, which were published by the time Chopin visited Czerny in 1832.

Field paints a telling picture of Czerny at this time. His study had a series of desks around the room on which Czerny would work on several compositions at once, moving on from one desk to the other to allow the ink to dry. Meanwhile, in another room, an army of copyists would insert stretches of pre-composed figuration and development passage work, which they reached for out of a central repository, to fill in the required sections of the commercial music he churned out.

Czerny was nothing if not organised. He divided his output into sections: the pedagogical studies and exercises; easy pieces for students; concert pieces; and a fourth which he called his ‘serious’ music. In this last category he placed his 11 solo piano sonatas, which he seems to have considered an integrated group and, later on, his symphonies. All of these are fine works, redolent of their time and period, but the last, in G minor, is sui generis, with a lovely second subject, eloquent slow movement and a Mendelssohnian scherzo.

Did Czerny marry?

To judge from his music, Czerny was a mild man. He devoted his life to music and his parents. He seems to have been involved in no romance, though after his death it appeared from letters that he had harboured an unrequited love for an unidentified woman.

When did Czerny die?

Czerny died in Vienna in 1857 aged 66 and is buried inVienna Central Cemetery. He left bequests to his housekeeper, a charity for the deaf and the Vienna Society for the Friends of Music. Does that account for the other one per cent of his genius?

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