Guest post by Christian A. Pohl, Professor of Piano and Piano Methodology, Head of Piano Department, University of Music and Theatre ‘Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’ Leipzig
The start of the nineteenth century saw a seismic shift in the world of domestic keyboard playing as the piano rapidly displaced the harpsichord and clavichord as the instrument of choice in homes across Europe. Seizing on this new opportunity, a series of piano instruction methods were swiftly published, followed by methods and studies over subsequent generations that covered the rudiments of piano playing, technique and performance practice. A huge number of these studies are represented in the Edition Peters Piano Catalogue.
Major names in the field of piano pedagogy were quickly established – including Beyer, Burgmüller, Hanon and Clementi – but it was one who followed behind them that arguably defined the shape of piano pedagogy for generations to come. Indeed, even today – nearly 200 years after this educational “meteorite” first struck the German-speaking piano world – the waves of his impact are still being felt. There is no getting around Carl Czerny when it comes to pianistic exercises or didactic approaches to building a virtuoso pianist.
Czerny’s lifetime was shaped by three phases or key words: Beethoven, pedagogy and composition. Beethoven had already established a considerable reputation in Vienna when, in 1800, a certain nine-year-old boy – Carl Czerny – made such an impression on the composer that he took him on as a pupil. This pupil became a colleague, and an apprentice relationship became a friendship, which – unusually for Beethoven – lasted right up to the composer’s death.
It is hard to imagine what the encounter with Beethoven must have meant for the young musician: how the intensive, decades-long contact with one of the greatest geniuses in music history must have affected his own artistic formation. It can be assumed that Czerny not only played all of Beethoven’s works, but also to some extent contributed to their development with Beethoven. However, although he was extremely talented as a pianist and could have pursued a career as a virtuoso, the young Czerny decided, on the advice of his father, that he would instead pursue a career as a teacher.
The second phase of Czerny’s life was characterized by an almost inhuman teaching workload, where he taught 10-12 hours a day for more than 20 years. The fruits of this labor decisively shaped the pianistic development of all subsequent generations and continue to have a major influence on pianists today. Just as Johann Nikolaus Forkel attests in his Bach biography that the compositional mastery of the St. Matthew Passion could only be achieved amidst a backdrop of an enormous corpus of works, so, too, does this reasoning applies to Czerny. Thanks to his exceptional educational talent, Czerny produced a multitude of students, including Liszt, Kullak and Leschetizky, whose educational lines extend to the present day and are associated with legendary names such as Van Cliburn, Artur Schnabel and Leon Fleisher. It is only when we understand what kind of influence Beethoven made on Czerny, and what educational impact Czerny then went on to achieve, that his piano pedagogical work can be properly assessed and adequately appreciated.
In the third and final phase of his life, from 1836 to his death, countless compositions and educational works were created, including Czerny’s iconic études. These works do not claim to be mentioned in the same breath as the musically outstanding études by Chopin or Liszt, since they are largely designed for a different pianistic level and with a focus on the training aspect. Yet they are so musically composed that they bring real pleasure both to listen to and to play.
Czerny’s études are an almost inexhaustible source of inspiration for pianists and piano teachers, isolating and condensing musical and technical skills into a series of attractive musical miniatures. For these, and for so much more, we remain evermore indebted to this pedagogical and musical giant.