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Czerny: Link between Beethoven and Liszt

If you have been playing piano music for some time you would probably have come across the name Carl Czerny. Czerny wrote over a thousand works for the piano, and his piano exercises were designed for beginners and also went right up to virtuosos. He was born in Vienna to Czech parents and came from a musical family: his grandfather played the violin and his father, Wenzel, was an oboist, organist and pianist.

Like Mozart, Czerny was a child prodigy who first began playing at the age of three under his father, who introduced him to the works of Bach, Haydn and Mozart. His big break came in 1801 when Wenzel Krumpholz, a Czech composer and violinist, arranged for him to play at the home of Ludwig van Beethoven, whereupon his talent impressed the composer enough that he was accepted as a pupil at only ten years of age. It is said that Czerny particularly admired Beethoven's facility at improvisation, his expertise at fingering, the rapidity of his scales and trills, and his restrained demeanour while performing - which somewhat goes against the impression we have of Romantic composers being overly expressive and emotional, head-banging and hair flailing with every few chords.

While under Beethoven's tutelage, Czerny became aware of symptoms of Beethoven's deafness before the latter's condition was made public: "I also noticed that he had cotton which seemed to have been steeped in a yellowish liquid, in his ears," he wrote in his diary.

Beethoven's condition had no impact on his teaching, and Czerny's growing talent meant that he was selected by Beethoven to give the premiere of the latter's Piano Concerto No. 1 in 1806 at the age of fifteen. Six years later he would give the Vienna premiere of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5, the famous "Emperor" Concerto in E-flat, where - after the opening orchestral chord - the pianist immediately comes in with arpeggiac patterns. This was characteristic Beethoven breaking with formal tradition - in the past soloists in concertos would only come in after the "orchestral exposition" was complete, but Beethoven was experimenting with form and elevating the pianist to the same status as the orchestra. Czerny's grasp of Beethoven's works was such that during the years 1804–1805, at Prince Lichnowsky's palace, the Prince would call out the opus numbers (like a system of cataloguing works) of Beethoven's works and Czerny would play the music from memory! It makes skills such as memorising and repeating back the order of a deck of cards seen only once look easy in comparison!

Incredibly, from the age of only fifteen, Czerny began a very successful teaching career using the music of Beethoven and Clementi as a basis. He was very much in demand and gave up to twelve lessons a day in the homes of Viennese nobility. It was in this capacity as a teacher that he encountered Franz Liszt. Czerny recalled of Liszt that he "was a pale, sickly-looking child, who, while playing, swayed about on the stool as if drunk", but he was impressed with his talent and took him on as a pupil for free, and introduced him to the works of Beethoven, Clementi and Johann Sebastian Bach. Liszt would later reciprocate by introducing the music of Czerny at many of his Paris recitals.

Shortly before Liszt's Vienna concert of 13 April 1823 Czerny arranged for Liszt to meet Beethoven, as Krumpholz had done for him many years earlier. Beethoven increasingly disliked child prodigies - was it because he had been made to appear as one himself, with some hint of fraud on the part of his own father? Nevertheless, the aging Beethoven was impressed with the young Liszt to give him a kiss on the forehead.

From about 1840, Czerny's efforts in music were directed at composition. He wrote a large number of piano solo exercises for the development of the pianistic technique. His art was his life and having never married and having no relatives, his willed his fortune to charities, including an institution for the deaf, ostensibly to acknowledge the influence Beethoven had on him.

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