1791 — 1857
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Carl Czerny was an early 19th century pianist, teacher and composer from Austria. He composed more than 1000 works during his lifetime, the most famous of which are his piano studies and exercises, which are still valued by pianists today. His legacy was continued through his most famous students, including Franz Liszt.
Carl Czerny was born in Vienna, Austria in 1791 to a Bohemian family, thus learning Czech as his first language. His family was also very musical. His father, Wenzel Czerny, was also an accomplished pianist in addition to playing organ, oboe and singing. He was also a piano repairman and piano teacher. Wenzel gave Carl his first piano lessons; Carl also learned literature, violin and various languages from other teachers through a teaching exchange group his father participated in, in which each teacher taught one discipline to all the children.
Carl’s progress at the piano was astonishingly rapid. He began at the age of three and was writing his own music at the age of seven. He was primarily introduced to the music of Bach, Mozart and Clementi. After numerous private concerts at home, he made his first public debut in 1800 with the Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor by Mozart. During these early years, Czerny also received piano lessons from famous composers such as Muzio Clementi, Antonio Salieri and Johann Nepomuk Hummel.
At the age of 11, Carl Czerny was introduced to Beethoven by one of his teachers. Czerny impressed Beethoven with his performance of theSonata Pathetique and Adelaide, prompting Beethoven to teach the boy for the next three years. Under Beethoven’s guidance, Czerny developed into a virtuoso pianist and memorized all the works of Beethoven. Beethoven’s great patron, Prince Lichnowsky, was also taken with the young Czerny and requested his presence at the palace nearly daily to perform Beethoven’s works. Beethoven also specified Czerny for the premiere of his Quintet for Piano and Winds in 1806 and his ‘Emperor’ Piano Concerto in 1812. He happily agreed to premiere these works despite having decided to devote his life to teaching and composing instead of performing.
From 1816 on, Czerny devoted a weekly concert series at his home for the exclusive performance of Beethoven’s piano compositions, of which he had become the foremost interpreter. During this period he also wrote valuable commentaries of the performance of these works.
Czerny was a brilliant and sought after teacher even at the age of 15. He taught Franz Liszt, Stephen Heller, Sigismond Thalberg, Theodor Leschetizky, Anton Door, Theodor Dohler and Beethoven’s nephew (at Beethoven’s request). As a student of both Clementi and Beethoven, Czerny had learned from both classical and early romantic figures, thus giving him a broad spectrum to base his own teachings on. His early methods relied heavily on the style of this teacher, though he soon developed his own method of teaching.
Czerny taught up to ten hours of piano lessons per day and composed many studies for his students, including theSchool of Velocity, School of Virtuosity andSchool of the Left Hand. These exercises focused on every aspect of piano technique, but especially dexterity and velocity of the fingers; expressiveness and sound were also addressed. These studies are still frequently used by students.
Czerny became the most popular piano teacher in Europe and is considered the father of modern piano technique today.
After his long days of teaching, Czerny would compose into the night. He typically worked on many pieces simultaneously and hence devised a system in which he had multiple desks set up around his room, with one composition in progress per desk. He would complete several pages of a composition before moving to the next one. By the time he had gone all the way around the room the ink would be dry on the first composition and he could continue. He maintained this routine for nearly 35 years.
With his workaholic mindset, Czerny managed to compose more than 1,000 works. His compositions include works for piano, organ, orchestra, chamber ensemble and sacred. He grouped these works into four categories: Serious Music, Brilliant Pieces for Piano Concerts, Easy pieces for Piano Students and Studies and Exercises.
Of his solo piano music, the only works he considered ‘Serious Music’ were his eleven piano sonatas. This category includes his organ music, which contains works such as the Prelude and Fugue, Op. 603, No. 3, his orchestral music (symphonies, overtures and concertos), chamber music (piano trios and piano quartets) and church music (mass, graduals and offertories).
Czerny’s exercises, methods and arrangements fill the final two categories. The arrangements include symphonies, especially those of Beethoven and Mozart, overtures (two by Rossini for eight pianos, four hands each), arias in versions for two to eight pianos and also simplifications of works. Many of Czerny’s compositions remained unpublished and still exist solely in manuscript form. His works continue until Opus 861, theStudies for the Left Hand.
Though many of Czerny’s studies and exercises are quite repetitive, his other compositions are not only technically proficient but also quite charming.
In order to accomplish everything he set out to do in terms of teaching and composing, Czerny consciously chose to forgo marriage. In addition, he did not have any relatives. Writings found after his death reveal an interest in an unknown woman. Some believe the relationship was platonic while others believe it was unrequited love. In either case, it is believe that hisGradus et Parnassum was dedicated to this woman.
Czerny’s health began to worsen in the 1840s. During this period he wrote and publishedErinnerungen aus meinem Leben (1842, ‘Memories from My Life’).
Carl Czerny died in July of 1857 in his hometown. Due to his constant teaching and composing, Czerny had acquired a large estate. As he did not have any family, he dedicated his assets to charities including the Vienna Gesselschaft der Musikfreunde, the Monks and Nuns of Charity and an institute for the deaf (in honour of his former teacher Beethoven).