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.