Miss Cecilia,
When I, some years ago, had the pleasure of being personally acquainted with your family, I discovered in you so decided a talent for music, that I am exceedingly rejoiced to hear that you are now really about to devote yourself to the delightful art of playing the pianoforte.  Your memory, at that time, easily retained any agreeable melody which you heard; you manifested a natural feeling for time and musical expression; and added to this, your delicate fingers and hands possessed all the natural qualities so necessary for playing the pianoforte flexibility, quickness of movement, and lightness, without being either too weak or too stiff.
Carl Czerny, Letters to a Young Lady, On the Art of Playing the Pianoforte, 1837

OOooh I hated Czerny.   I wish I could remember who wrote nicer sounding drills.  Aside from Chopin.     Have fun!!!
2013 personal correspondence from a music-degreed, piano playing lady of my acquaintance

The latter piece of correspondence came when I told my piano-playing acquaintance about my new project to learn piano, and to do so on my own until the need for outside help became screamingly obvious, and to make drilling down with Czerny one of the central features of this endeavor.  Czerny (1791-1857, additional bio facts available as usual) has reams of pedagogical books that were a grand success in his time and continue in use, often to the dissatisfaction of some students, as the email extract above indicates.  He has a reputation for grimly repetitive, 19th century prim severity.  This is what initially attracted me to the idea, I suppose: if I can handle this stuff I surely have managed to establish some sort of indubitable piano playing Grundlage.  But honestly his little pedagogical pieces sound a ton better than the half-tuneless little dumbed down bits and pieces of familiar songs my other beginner’s books are having me play and are far funner to puzzle out.  My piano playing are only a couple of months in,  and Czerny was not feasible to incorporate at day one.  I have therefore make it just to page 5 of my edition of Czerny’s Practical Method for Beginners, op. 599.  Here’s the Czerny that’s killing me at the moment:

Czerny was a legit composer as well as writer of student studies and very connected to brightest luminaries of his era, having studied under Beethoven (they later continued friends and Czerny proofread his scores for publication) and having briefly taught a very young Liszt .  A brief memoir he wrote makes it clear how aware he was that he was alive and active at a crucial time, not only because of the people he knew and worked with, but also in regard to the concepts in play both musically and in terms of that era’s many developments in reengineering the physical piano.  This quote combines all of these.  It’s from a section outlining some of the features of his tuition under Beethoven:

[Beethoven] especially insisted on legato technique, which was one of the unforgettable features of his playing; at that time all other pianists considered that kind of legato unattainable, since the hammered, detached staccato technique of Mozart’s time was still fashionable. (Some years later Beethoven told me that he had heard Mozart play on several occasions and that, since at that time the fortepiano was still in its infancy, Mozart, more accustomed to the then still prevalent Flügel, used a technique entirely unsuited for the fortepiano…)
Recollections from My Life
, trans. Ernest Sanders.  The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Jul., 1956)

Successful, quite wealthy: no angsty bohemian unappreciated genius narratives to be told about Czerny.  Again from his memoir:

Since I composed extremely rapidly and put out serious works and trifles with equal ease, I was always able to fulfill the numerous commissions which streamed from everywhere (including foreign countries), and many a work by me had the good fortune to become the public’s and hence the publishers’ favorite.

The Letters to a Young Lady quoted up top is a book that lays out his pedagogical techniques in the form of letters to a fictional addressee, Cecelia, a clever beginner to piano, aged 12.  His insights into student psychology seem to me both sympathetic and insightful:

You complain. Miss, that the studying of difficult pieces still costs you much time and labour. There is a certain remedy against this, which I may call the art of studying, and which I will impart to you, as far as it can be done in writing.

There are pupils who study such compositions attentively enough it is true, but so slow and with such frequent interruptions, that these pieces become tedious and disagreeable to them before they have half learned them. Such pupils often take half a year to learn  a few pieces tolerably ; and, by this wasteful expenditure of time, always remain in the back-ground.

Others, on the contrary, try to conquer every thing by force ; and imagine that they shall succeed in this by practicing for hours, laboriously indeed, but in an inattentive and thoughtless manner, and by hastily playing over all kinds of difficulties innumerable times. These persons play till their fingers are lamed ; but how ? confusedly, over hastily, and without expression ; or, what is still worse, with a false expression.

We may escape all this by keeping the right medium between these two ways…

He has pretty stringent standards for his young student, and advises 3 hours practice every day, with half an hour specified for scales/exercises, and another half an hour for review of already learned pieces.

There is an extensive Czerny fan site, explicitly aimed at rehabilitating Czerny’s reputation, but providing a broader range of materials as well.  On the Czerny as tedious pedant side, you can find the following:

His piano methods have stood the test of time, but one might wonder why his compositions have not. The obvious answer is that Czerny sacrificed quality for quantity, but, as the music of the Biedermejer age had a shelf life of just a few weeks, Czerny was able to sustain the pace through workaholic routine, keeping in touch with the latest operas, and  factory methods of formulaic composition. No sooner would a tuneful new opera appear, than the latest set of Czerny variations and arrangements would be on sale at Haslinger’s music shop in the Graben.
Iwo and Pamela Zaluski, “Carl Czerny: composer of the Biedermeier age.” Contemporary Review, 2002.

On the pro-Czerny side, a somewhat eyecatching link notes that Oscar Peterson found his Czerny studies useful:

*Surely there must needs be a metal band named Czerny already?  Let’s not overparse the subgenres: speed, black, what have you.  The spiffy consonant clusters? The fact that, one reads, “czerny”  means black in Czech? Their first release? Why, “School of Velocity” of course.

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Posted in history, music
3 comments on “Czerny*
  1. […] I know this pattern well and because I’ve lived it. Often. (Possibly recently). […]

  2. […] I know this pattern well and because I’ve lived it. Often. (Possibly recently). […]

  3. […] perhaps– and moving from blog to piano– I have a little room to let slack a little one line of somewhat aimlessly grim discipline). Here whim and compulsion stop bickering over whose property […]

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