Beethoven’s Pupil

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Beethoven’s Pupil, performed on Nov 14, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Throughout the last decade, the American Symphony Orchestra has sought in its programming to challenge the boundaries of music history. It has tried to do so largely through a two-part approach. The first has been to reclaim for the concert stage the greater part of the repertory from the past that is no longer frequently performed. When one looks at concert life in the past, one discovers that there was a tremendous amount of music once often played and revered that has since disappeared. The second part of the Orchestra’s approach centers on providing an historical logic for each concert, some basis that makes sense of performing three or four pieces together, something which stimulates the first-time listener, the occasional listener, and the connoisseur to experience the music in a new and provocative manner. Sometimes that historical framework has to do with the history of music itself, and sometimes the logic of a program may be derived from politics, literature, or the visual arts.

Tonight’s program is perhaps among the most unusual we have ever undertaken. All the music was written by one individual, Carl Czerny (1791–1857). Even more eyebrow-raising than the choice of Czerny as the basis for an entire concert may be the fact that three of the four works have never been performed in North America, and of some there is no record of having been performed at all. They were selected in partnership by me with Dr. Otto Biba, the archivist of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, where the papers and manuscripts of Carl Czerny are housed. These works were in manuscript form, and required a herculean effort by the American Symphony Orchestra library staff with the assistance of the Gesellschaft der Musikfruende to create new scores and parts for the musicians.

But Carl Czerny is a perfect example of why we present the programs we do. There are few cases of comparable historical influence to the great classical tradition, and such neglect. For the past two hundred years, there probably has not been a pianist in the western world to whom the name Czerny is not familiar. For many, the name conjures up arduous, mind-numbing exercises for the keyboard and the dreaded boredom of hours of practicing. But any pianist knows that without Czerny, piano technique as we know it today would not exist—or at least not be accessible to so many. The name Czerny has become associated with repetition, routine, predictability, and the most mechanical definitions of musical skill. But Czerny, at a pivotal point in the instrument’s history, created the basics of technique so that the average student and future piano owner could play. The irony of his voluminous output of exercises is that there are among the exercises works worthy of comparison with the etudes of Chopin and Liszt. The technical exercise for an instrument can in fact be a noble artistic form. Such exercises and their requirements can be compared to the rules for writing odes and sonnets. Each musical exercise functions to teach the user to use some aspect of the instrument. Given that indispensable criterion, making the acquisition of a particular skill at the same time aesthetically engaging becomes a challenge that can bring out the most imaginative and inspired ideas from a composer. Writing exercises for any instrument that are pedagogically effective and engaging is no laughing matter and is not a task that is easily accomplished. There are many Czerny exercises that are worthy of being heard in piano recitals.

This state of affairs led us to the purpose of tonight’s concert, which is intended as an overdue act of reputational reparation. Czerny was a great musician and prolific composer whose fate it was to be remembered only for his exercises. But during his lifetime Czerny was a significant, if not towering, musical figure of serious composition.

As his birth and death dates suggest, he spanned the classical and romantic eras. His music makes this clear as well. He was a pupil of Beethoven, and not just a nominal one either. Beethoven judged Czerny to be extraordinarily talented. The virtuoso took lessons with Beethoven twice a week for nearly three years between the very young ages of 8 and 11. Czerny maintained his close relationship with Beethoven ever after, and was one of the most avid performers of Beethoven’s music. He was said to have been able to play all of Beethoven’s music by memory. Indeed Czerny is one of the most reliable contemporary witnesses of Beethoven as a composer; his writings on the performance and meaning of Beethoven’s works are still standard and indispensable guides.

Despite the fantastic pianistic virtuosity that Czerny displayed, it was not as a performer that he became best known. Partly influenced by Muzio Clementi (1752–1832), Czerny took up teaching. He counted among his pupils Beethoven’s nephew Karl, and most famously, Franz Liszt. The list of his important pupils includes great pianists right through Robert Schumann’s generation. Schumann spearheaded the new romantic generation of composers. He waged a critical war against the new popularity of piano playing and composition. In that context, Schumann’s denigration of Czerny as a composer did a great deal to ruin Czerny’s posthumous impression.

One of the greatest prejudices against Czerny arose from his prolific output as a composer. There is an apocryphal story that Czerny maintained a series of stand-up desks, on each of which was composition of a different genre of music. One desk was dedicated to secular choral music, one to sacred choral music, one to symphonic music, one to exercises, and so on. Czerny was said to move from one to the next effortlessly each day, composing several pieces simultaneously in this manner. In Czerny’s lifetime, performance and composition were inextricably intertwined. Performers wrote their own music and composers performed. But in Czerny’s case there are so many works for all sorts of occasions and ensembles that the number of published items is in the hundreds, not to mention the many manuscripts that have not been published. Add to this Czerny’s many arrangements of music of others, and then also the numerous significant treatises on performance and composition that he wrote, including his pioneering work on the performance of pre-classical music from the Baroque. In the end, his reputation suffered for his apparently boundless energy and devotion.

But tonight we hope to show that this need not be the case. Czerny’s contributions to music took many forms. He was very generous to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, and therefore indirectly to his native city of Vienna. An important legacy left by Czerny’s generation was the popularization of musical culture, particularly through the piano, the instrument most closely associated with him and nineteenth-century musical culture in Europe. The place Czerny occupies in history is in some measure due to his own role as a pedagogue of the transformative generation after Beethoven. It was in this era that virtuosi became popular figures and an active concert life in European cities and towns took shape. Aspiring middle-class Europeans bought pianos and tried to play them, and piano manufacturers, much like the manufacturers of personal computers in our own time, competed with one another not only in the development of better (and less expensive) hardware and mechanics, but of better software, as it were, with easier systems of fingering and methods of learning how to use the keyboard. Czerny stands at the birth of the modern piano and musical life and helped to usher in an aesthetic logic into the musical culture of the nineteenth century. As a child prodigy, Czerny played the fortepiano. He witnessed expansion of its range and sonority. By 1857, the year of his death, the piano that we now recognize was well on its way to realizing its final form. It would be only six years later at the Paris exposition of 1863 that the American Steinway would take Europe by storm with its new industrial-age components, structure, and mode of manufacture. Tonight we hope the audience will come to think of Czerny as more than the nightmarish author of childhood piano lessons, and appreciate the many shapes and influences of his contribution to music. Perhaps we will be inclined to give the composer his due, and perhaps even come to appreciate the beauty of those exercises upon which the art of the piano was built.

Psalm 130, “Aus der Tiefe rufe ich Herr zu dir” (1840)

By Professor Otto Biba, Archivist, Society of the Friends of Music, Vienna

Written for the concert Beethoven’s Pupil, performed on Nov 14, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Among the unpublished compositions of Carl Czerny that ended up after his death at the archive of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde [Society of the Friends of Music] in Vienna, and which are recognized today as highly valuable music, are settings of Psalms 113, 130 and 134—expressive choral compositions whose creative origins remain a secret. At the time they were written, Czerny composed some of his best works for the desk-drawer without any intention of making them public. He was already earning quite a bit of money with pieces the public expected: works and arrangements for piano. There was no one to commission these other works and no goal to perform them; rather, what mattered to him was to come to terms with the text. The autograph score of Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to Thee, O Lord,” bears the date of 1840. To the best of our knowledge tonight’s performance is the first ever of this work. Czerny knows the traditions of musical rhetoric: at the beginning he briefly paints with the orchestra the depths from which humanity (in a melodically ascending line) calls up to God, but then lets the chorus speak, followed by the soloists in the middle section. The orchestra does not just provide accompaniment for them, but partakes in the musical event with spirited independence. The pizzicato section in the quiet middle part follows the waltz rhythm, but the way he makes us forget or not even notice this is brilliant: instead of turning towards the partner in the waltz, what the music expresses in the soloists’ trio, without even a hint of blasphemy, is a beseeching and trusting turning towards God.

Czerny knows the great choral literature from the baroque and the classical era; he knows how to loosen the choral homophony to heighten the text with repetitive intercalations. He knows how, in the end, one builds a large choral fugue, but on the whole he is much closer to Brahms than to Haydn, as when he lets a phrase from a single register of the chorus sing alone, and in addition keeps the orchestra strenuously busy. Is there a vacuum between Schubert and Brahms in the history of Viennese music? There is not, because Czerny stands exactly between them.

In July 1842, Czerny set to music Friedrich von Schiller’s poem “The Power of Song.” He calls this work “Fantasy for Chorus and Orchestra,” and leaves little doubt that what matters to him is the power of music in general. Thus the orchestra, which in the great prelude makes us envision rain and storms, is the carrier of the musical action. The chorus narrates the text and no more, and even then it is only just a four-voiced recitative. In this narration there is no repetition and no large choral fugue at the end. The orchestra embodies the power of music described to us by the chorus; the chorus remains a monodic narrator while the orchestra engages us greatly.

In his text Schiller compares the rush of the song with the torrent of rain from the heavens, flowing over rocks into the valley. He shows us through examples what song and voice are capable of, but Czerny surpasses this praise of song by recognizing the overall power of music. It was a daring task to write a fantasy for chorus and orchestra that is not a choral work, but actually music integrated into the text. This is made manifest by the voices of the chorus, while the orchestra’s task is to transfer the message of the words into the music. Everything we now know suggests this work too was never performed. Equally remarkable is the fact that here for the first time in Vienna the ophakleid, a familiar presence in military music, is absorbed into the symphony orchestra.

One of the pieces in today’s program was given public performance by Czerny himself: the Variations for Piano and Orchestra, op. 73 on Haydn’s hymn “Gott Erhalte,” (also the hymns of the Austrian empire or the hymns of the Habsburg’s domains, which only later became Germany’s national anthem.) Czerny debuted this work in 1824, probably shortly after completing it. It is a brilliant concert piece in the form of variations, one of the many variations of the same melody, the first of which derives from Haydn himself, the slow movement in his “Kaiser-Quartett,” op.76/3 (Hob. III:77).

What a strong artistic personality the young Czerny must have been! First an intelligent and attentive student, then a grateful and loyal friend and supporter to his teacher Ludwig van Beethoven. But when he composes he reaches far beyond his teacher, and always takes the lead, as in for instance writing the last movement of a piano sonata as a fugue, as we find in Sonata Op. 7, which Czerny performed in 1820, and in Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 110, which was written in 1820/22. This is also to be found in Czerny’s Second Symphony, written in 1814. This work remained unpublished and was probably never performed—but why? Likely out of respect and consideration for Beethoven, whose circle he did not want to disturb. So this 23-year-old composer writes a symphony that begins with a drum roll and that features a first movement, “Allegro molto quasi presto,” in 12/8. Its racing Scherzo plays with harmonies and intervals (comparable to the first movement of Haydn’s Piano Sonata No. 50 from 1794, only more “modern” and reminiscent of the Scherzo of the “Eroica” in its dynamics, but more consistent and therefore more interesting) before it begins to develop a theme. A 20-measure drum solo leads the transition from the Scherzo’s D minor to the D major of the Trio. Then, finally a last movement emerges out of contained wind chords rising slowly and in which a filigree-like interplay of the violins finally leads to the main theme of a formidable sonata-form movement. That is quite a bit of innovation all at once in the symphonic landscape for a work written between April 21 and October 9, 1814. This was a time in which Beethoven’s symphonic endeavors were at a standstill, other composers wrote symphonies that were Haydn- or Beethoven-like clichés, and even the young Franz Schubert, in his first symphonies, did not dare to be as courageously different and original as Czerny was with this work. What is truly remarkable, however, is that nothing in Czerny’s Symphony feels self-consciously “different,” but appears completely organic and logical.

(Translated by Susana Meyer)