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Learn about the pianist & educator, Carl Czerny, and his works & life.

Carl Czerny: Overview

  • Born: 1791 - Vienna, Austria
  • Died: 1857 - Vienna, Austria
  • Historical Period: Classical
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, choral

Composer, Carl Czerny

Born in Vienna, Austria in the year 1791, Carl Czerny came from a Bohemian heritage. His first language was Czech and his father, Wenzel, was a well-known pianist- both performer and teacher. Carl was introduced into music by his father and also went on to learn the violin, along with a number of languages. His exceptional musical talents, though sometimes undermined, are nonetheless commendable. He passed away in 1857 after a period of illness.

Carl Czerny: The Prodigious Understatement

Learning the piano from the age of 3, Carl Czerny wrote his own compositions when he was only 7. Wenzel was a member of a teacher group which instructed children on both general education and music. By 10, Carl was on his way to Beethoven, through the efforts of his violin master, Krumpholz. Beethoven, having been tremendously impressed by the boy’s skills, decided to take him as his student. 

Czerny was able to demonstrate his prodigious talents to Beethoven through his renderings of the former’s Sonata Pathetique and Adelaide. The brilliance of these performances inspired Beethoven enough to train Czerny in music for three years. This influence extended to Prince Lichnowsky, who was Beethoven’s patron, who was so impressed with Czerny that he asked for the young composer to perform regularly at his palace. Beethoven himself had Czerny play at the debut of his Quintet for Piano and Winds, along with the Emperor Piano Concerto

The year 1816 saw Czerny initiate weekly concerts in honor of Beethoven’s pieces, also writing commentaries on the music. These are precious information for any pianist today. He started teaching at 15 and among his students were future inspirations such as Franz Liszt, Theodor Leschetizky, Sigismond Thalberg, Stephen Heller and Anton Door. Despite his intense teaching schedule which ran for hours on end, Czerny was able to write over a thousand compositions. A master himself now, Czerny wrote a number of studies to help his students in their techniques. These include the School of Velocity (1833), School of Virtuosity (1837) and School of the Left Hand (1836-1837). The parts covered in these ranges from piano technique, with special attention to the agility and movement of the fingers, in addition to sound elements. 

Czerny’s achievements aren’t just restricted to the piano but also to the orchestra, organ, chamber ensemble, etc. He sorted them into four distinct groups which were- “Studies and Exercises”, “Easy pieces for Piano Students”, “Brilliant Pieces for Piano Concerts”, and “Serious Music”. The “Studies and Exercises” are the most well-known Czerny’s works that are used for piano students right now. The “serious music” category is the least known and was mostly unpublished for an extended period of time. This contained his symphonies, his eleven piano sonatas and string quartets, among others. Czerny considered the eleven piano sonatas as the only “serious music” among his piano works, although also falling under this category is the Prelude and Fugue, Op. 603, No. 3

The other great contribution of his to music was Opus 861 (the Studies for the Left Hand). Johann Nepomuk Hummel, a famed musician of his time, influenced Czerny’s development, from when they first met at a soiree hosted by Constanze Mozart, Wolfgang Mozart’s widow, sometime in the early 1800s. The young Czerny was incredibly moved by the melodic clarity of Hummel’s music, which was reminiscent of Mozart. However, the first piano sonata of Czerny’s authorship, published in 1820, was critically panned for a number of drawbacks. The enharmonic changes, sharp modulations, ugly parallel octaves mixed with shrill suspensions were all typical of Beethoven’s style. But they weren’t received well because Beethoven’s own style wouldn’t become popular until post-1830.

Czerny’s own insecurity of his pieces is evident in one of his letters to Beethoven in 1825, where he openly writes that his works up to that point were insignificant. He expressed a desire to write grander compositions. He preferred the use of ternary structure, which helped him generate refreshing variations of set formal styles of the era. It was very rare for him to repeatedly use formal structures in his pieces.

Again, Czerny’s harmonic delivery typically utilizes the romantic style which put a strong emphasis on strong chromaticism. As per his personal beliefs, he wrote in his “The School of Practical Composition”, that mediant progressions and distant keys’ modulation should be utilized for the developmental section to produce the most resounding effects. Czerny’s handling of orchestral textures is identifiable with Beethoven’s technique. This is the use of extreme dynamic with thick harmonic textures. He was, however, quite versatile at times, with his music resembling the tone of Chopin. His adept use of articulation in his work is evident in the expressiveness of his music. 

Czerny did not marry as, in his words, he was too preoccupied with compositions and performance. Despite this, rumors of unrequited love and a feminine presence in his life circulated after his death. These were due to the discovery of writings that indicated as such. His health began deteriorating in the 1840s and it was during these last years that he wrote Erinnerungen aus meinem Leben (1842). Czerny left his huge estate to a number of charities, which included the Vienna Gesselschaft der Musikfreunde, among others. 


 

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