Pianist Anton Kuerti was born in Austria, grew up in the USA, and has lived in Canada for the last thirty-five years. His teachers included Arthur Loesser, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, and Rudolf Serkin. At [...]
They spoke about it
Carl Czerny (1791-1857) occupies an important niche in music history, as the link between Beethoven, the profound archetype of highly emotional and spiritual music, and Liszt, who exemplifies the ultra-romantic and often exhibitionistic virtuoso. For Beethoven was Czerny’s teacher and Liszt, his student.
A list of Czerny’s output occupies 22 pages of small type, at the end of which his London publisher Cocks Co., quasi apologizes that “many other arrangements exist by the talented Author of this Work, of which even the titles have escaped his memory.” It includes 798 published opus numbers, but be incomplete, there being 861 published opus numbers plus a great deal of unpublished material, including 4 symphonies (in addition to two published symphonies), 30 string quartets and innumerable religious works for voices and orchestra.
Czerny himself divided his music into 4 categories: 1) Studies and exercises; 2) Easy pieces for students; 3) Brilliant pieces for concerts; and 4) Serious music. How interesting that the “Brilliant pieces for concerts” are not what he considered his serious music!
The Piano Sonata No.1, in A flat Major, Op. 7, written in 1810, when the composer was 19, certainly belongs to the last category. It is the first of 11 piano sonatas that he wrote, and the only one currently in print, though unfortunately in an edition severely distorted by an intrusive editor. Much of the sonata sounds as though it might have been written by Schubert or Mendelssohn — who were, respectively, 13 and 1 year old at the time!
There is not more virtuoso writing than you would find in most Beethoven sonatas. Of the five movements (in itself unheard of for a sonata), only the incredibly passionate second movement ends loudly. This “scherzo” was much admired and often performed by Liszt (whom Czerny respected greatly though he felt that Franz had taken a wrong artistic path). The first movement is sweetly intimate, with a brief, turbulently expressive middle section, and includes some exquisitely Schubertian harmonic surprises. The third movement is a truly profound Adagio, with a stunning, Beethovenian modulation to an exotic foreign key for its stirring middle section. Next is a Rondo, at first nearly too charming, but very soon showing an unexpected polyphonic strength and intensity of emotion, which is further heightened by a furious central episode. The theme of this episode recurs as the subject of the fugue concluding the work, which ends with a haunting echo of the Sonata’s opening bars.
Placing a fugue in a sonata was unprecedented at the time, as was the cyclical provenance of its theme. It was not until many years later that Beethoven first used a fugue in a sonata, and that Schubert composed his cyclical “Wanderer Fantasy”. The fugue would not be a disgrace to Bach as one of his famous 48, and could conceivably be mistaken for one (assuming we found Johann Sebastian at his most romantic); and the sonata, as a whole, if it had been born from Beethoven, would perhaps not be considered the most inferior of his 32. Having dared say this, no further superlatives need apply.
Sonata No. 3 in F minor, Op. 7 (1824)
Carl Czerny’s Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, is a superbly constructed, profound work with almost as much drama as one can bear, long, soaring melodies and perhaps above all, an endearing tenderness that reflects the beautiful character of its composer. Indeed, the “dolce” character is central to Czerny, even more so than bravura (which, because of his famous studies, is usually assumed to be Czerny’s dominant feature).
In this sonata, there are no less than 35 places where he indicates “dolce”, “teneramente”, etc. — once even “dolce con amore”. It can hardly be coincidence that Beethoven’s most famous and popular sonata, the “Appassionata” is also F minor, and also Op. 57! Both are wildly passionate and outstandingly original. Was Czerny just paying hommage to Beethoven, or was he challenging his former teacher to a duel in F minor, proclaiming “I can do it too”?
The F minor Sonata was published in 1824, just two years after Beethoven had laid down his piano sonata pen for good, and 4 years before Schubert wrote his magical last three sonatas. But it is tiresome and unfair to compare all sonatas to those of Beethoven and Schubert; let the listeners draw their own conclusions in that respect. However, I would confidently assert that among the sonatas of the lesser – but still distinguished – figures of the early 19th century like Hummel, Clementi, Dussek, Moscheles and Ries, etc., there is nothing whose quality rivals that of Czerny’s finest works.
The dark and melancholy first movement is a masterpiece of concentrated, compact expression, with not a note wasted, comparable in that respect to Beethoven’s first F minor sonata, Op. 2, No. 1.
Its mood, on the other hand, is closer to that of another work in the same key, the first movement of Chopin’s F minor Piano Concerto (written 7 years later), while its texture, rhythmic drive, and highly contrapuntal nature (most of it is in consistent 4-voice writing) calls to mind the great Scherzo of Beethoven’s Op. 101 Sonata. The supremely lyrical second theme continues the alert, dotted rhythm of the main theme, but it has a warm, sweet nobility that comforts the preceeding pathos. Here we have one of several parallels with the “Appassionata”, whose second theme also glows with sweetness and warmth, despite the jagged nature of its dotted rhythm (similarly borrowed from its main theme).
The development introduces urgent 16th notes that grow in vehemence until the recapitulation, which is dramatically strengthened compared to the initial presentation of the main theme — another parallel with the “Appassionata”. An overwhelming moment follows, as the main theme suddenly veers from the minor and adopts the colour and exalted sweetness of the second theme. An intensely expressive coda ends this inspired movement. The Andante’s form is an interesting blend of variation form with 3-part form, the middle section being an elaborate contrapuntal development of the tail end of the theme. The theme itself, with its ostinato dotted rhythm, has the naive simplicity of a campfire song, but Czerny takes pains to emphasize that it is not meant to be frivolous, specifying “Andante con moto, ma serioso”.
The variations themselves are conventional, merely adding increasingly rapid ornamentation to the theme — similar to the corresponding movement of the “Appassionata”. The Scherzo could be dismissed as just another etude from Czerny’s inexhaustible stockpile, but it has an exceptional intensity, relieved only by a brief excursion into what sounds almost like circus music. The trio is more unusual. Its songful, introspective nature is interrupted repeatedly by long pauses, brief exclamations and harmonic surprises.
The finale is the longest and most dramatic part of the sonata. There can be no question of writing a rondo here; only sonata form can support this degree of furor. Chords fly about in angry, clipped rhythms, roaring triplet accompaniments underpin passionate, operatic melodies, and orchestral effects defy the limits of pianistic sonorities. The second theme is again lyrical and harmonically fascinating, but is interrupted repeatedly by a set of three forceful, knocking chords, an interesting but somewhat bizarre device. A swirling development in full sway comes to an unexpected halt, and is interrupted by a monumental non-sequitur, as though a new movement were being spliced in. An ingenious, tight canon is presented here in which the leading voice switches suddenly back and forth between the treble and the bass. Commencing peacefully in F major, it grows steadily in intensity, until it suddenly shifts gears, speeds up and tightens even further, the second voice pursuing the first just one beat behind. This daring double octave passage leads smoothly back into the main material of the movement, which becomes ever more agitated. But after a climactic surge, it subsides and restarts the canon, which however, taking a new track, soon retreats to a mournful halt in F minor. (All this is reminiscent of the fugue that suddenly interrupts the flow of the last movement of Beethoven’s Op. 101, and which is also aborted after threatening a second appearance).
All that remains is a frenetic coda (just as in the “Appassionata”) which requires the last remaining bit of pianistic adrenalin to bring the massive work to a stunning conclusion.
Marche funèbre sur la mort de Beethoven, Op. 146
The Funeral March, op. 146, was no doubt written in 1827, the year of Beethoven’s death. It starts with a clear reference to the theme of the second movement funeral march in Beethoven’s Eroica symphony, both in the growling flourish in the bass, and in the poignant descending third at the focal point of the tune. But Czerny’s March manages nonetheless to maintain its independence, and makes a noble and tragic statement of its own, expressing what must have been Czerny’s great grief at the loss of his teacher. The Trio leaves C minor to reminisce sweetly in C Major, which gives it a bitter-sweet mixture of tragedy and hope. While this work may not be one of Czerny’s greatest, it is touching, and it represents a fascinating curiosity documenting the end of a relationship which had a great and beneficial effect not only on the two composers, but also on their musical heritage, which still survives today.
© Anton Kuerti