Letters to a Young Lady (Czerny)/Letter 1

Letters to a Young Lady
by Carl Czerny, translated by James Alexander Hamilton


Miss Cecilia,

When I, some years ago, had the pleasure of being personally acquainted with your family, I discovered in you so decided a talent for music, that I am exceedingly rejoiced to hear that you are now really about to devote yourself to the delightful art of playing the pianoforte. Your memory, at that time, easily retained any agreeable melody which you heard; you manifested a natural feeling for time and musical expression; and, added to this, your delicate fingers and hands possessed all the natural qualities so necessary for playing the pianoforte—flexibility, quickness of movement, and lightness, without being either too weak or too stiff.

So decided a disposition and inclination for this fine art could not, in truth, remain long dormant; for no art is more noble, nor more surely indicative of general mental cultivation than music; and you know that pianoforte playing, though suitable to every one, is yet more particularly one of the most charming and honorable accomplishments for young ladies, and, indeed, for the female sex in general. By it we can command, not only for one’s self, but for many others, a dignified and appropriate amusement; and, where great progress has been made, we also ensure a degree of distinction in the world, which is as agreeable to the amateur as to the professional artist.

As, on account of the distance of your residence, I cannot, alas! satisfy the wish of your honored parents by undertaking your instruction in person; I, with pleasure, impose it on myself as a duty, to urge you, from time to time by letters, to still greater diligence, and also to direct your attention, according to my own views, to all that may facilitate your tuition, and accelerate your progress; though, on the part of the very respectable master to whom your instruction is confided, all will unquestionably be done to cultivate your talent in a way equally tasteful and solid.

I beg of you, therefore, Miss Cecilia, to look upon my remarks merely as an explanatory repetition of what will have already been delivered to you, either verbally or in my Pianoforte School; and my end will be fully attained, if by this means your zeal is augmented, and the time and labor of learning abridged and facilitated.

The first principles, namely, a knowledge of the keys and of the notes, are the only really tedious and unpleasant points in learning music. When you have once conquered them, you will every day experience more and more amusement and delight in continuing your studies.

Consider the matter, dear Miss Cecilia, as if you were for a time compelled to wend your way among somewhat tangled and thorny bushes, in order to arrive at last at a beautiful prospect, and a spot always blooming in vernal beauty.

The best remedy against this disagreeable necessity is, to endeavour to fix these preliminary subjects on your memory as firmly and quickly as possible. Such pupils as manifest from the very outset a desire and love for the thing, and who strongly and rationally apply their memories to the matter, will acquire a perfect knowledge of the keys and notes in a few weeks; while others, frightened at the apparent tediousness of the acquisition, often lose several months in attaining the same object. Which, then, of these two ways is the better?

Before any thing else, I earnestly entreat you, Miss Cecilia, to acquire a graceful and appropriate position, when sitting at the pianoforte. The seat which you use must be just so high that the elbows, when hanging down freely, may be a very little less elevated than the upper surface of the keys; and if your feet should not reach the ground, have a dwarf stool or ottoman made, of a proper height, to place them upon. You must always seat yourself exactly facing the middle of the key-board, and at such a distance from it that the tips of the elbows may be a little nearer to the keys than the shoulders.

Equally important is a graceful position and carriage of the head and upper part of the chest; it must neither be stiff nor bent. Some of my former little pupils, whom I used to teaze with the reproach of making a cat’s back—that is, sitting with their backs bent and oblique—have, in later days, thanked me for the strictness which I shewed in this particular.

It is not merely that an awkward position is disagreeable and ridiculous, but it also impedes, if not prevents, the development of a free and elegant style of playing.

The fore part of the arm (from the elbow to the fingers) should form a perfectly straight horizontal line, for the hand must neither rise upwards like a ball, nor be bent so as to slope downwards.

The fingers are to be so bent that the tips of them, together with that of the thumb, when extended outwards, may form one right line; and so that the keys may always be struck with the soft and fleshy tips of the fingers, and that neither the nails nor the flat surface of the fingers shall touch the keys. In striking the black keys, the fingers must be stretched out a little more; but even in this case they must always remain sufficiently bent.

The percussion on the keys is effected solely by the fingers, which, without any actual blow, must press each key firmly down; and in doing this, neither the hand nor the arm must be allowed to make any unnecessary movements. The thumb should always strike the key with its external narrow surface, and in so doing it must be but very little bent.

The white keys are to be struck on the middle of their anterior broad surfaces, and the black keys pretty close to their nearest extremities or ends.

You must take great care, Miss, that you do not strike any key sideways or obliquely; as, otherwise, a contiguous and wrong key may chance to be touched; and, in music, nothing is worse than playing wrong notes.

While one finger strikes, the other fingers must be kept close to the keys, but always bent, and poised quite freely in the air; for we must not touch any key before the moment in which it is to be struck.

The most important of the fingers is the thumb; it must never be allowed to hang down below the key-board; but, on the contrary, it should always be held over the keys in such a way that its tip may be elevated a little higher than the upper surface of the black keys; and it must strike from this position.

To observe all these rules exactly, it is requisite that the elbows should never be too distant from the body; and that the arms, from the shoulder downwards, should hang freely, without being pressed against the body.

The necessity of all these rules you will not be able to comprehend till a future period.

The knowledge of the notes is a mere affair of memory; and for every note you must endeavour to find and strike the proper key, on the instant and without the least hesitation. In music, this constitutes what is called reading the notes; and when you shall have acquired this readiness, you will have overcome the most difficult thing which elementary objects in music will be likely to present to you.

At first, you will naturally learn only the notes in the treble clef; and for this purpose we may employ the following means:

First. When you look at a note, you must name it aloud, and then seek for and strike the key which belongs to it.

Secondly. When you strike at hazard any white key on the treble side of the key-board, you must name it aloud, and seek directly for the note belonging to it.

Thirdly. After having struck any white key at hazard, you must describe aloud, in words, on what line or in what space the note belonging to it must be written.

Fourthly. You must often play slowly through some of the easiest pieces for beginners, note by note, and with great attention, naming each note as you proceed.

Fifthly. I must also recommend you, Miss, to adopt the following expedient: since you are already much advanced in writing, as it becomes a young female of education to be, you must learn to write music. The little trouble that this will cost, you will find amply recompensed by great advantages. Notes are much easier to write than letters; and, if you daily devote a short quarter of an hour to this task, in a couple of weeks you will become sufficiently expert at it.

Your teacher will give you the instructions requisite for this purpose; and when you have been in this way accustomed to place the notes as they come, exactly on or between the lines, copy out daily one of the easiest elementary lessons, and then write in letters over each note its proper denomination; after which, play the piece over slowly.

When, in this way, you have learned to know perfectly all the notes in the treble clef, and are able to play slowly, but correctly, with both hands, all those little pieces in my School, which are written for both hands in the treble clef, then take the bass notes, and proceed with them just in the same manner.

You must practise each piece, paying the strictest attention to the fingering indicated, till you are able to execute it without stopping or stumbling. Each day you should read through a couple of fresh little pieces, to accustom the eye and the fingers to the various and ever-new passages which are formed by means of the notes.

At first, after each note, we must also look at the key which is to be struck; but afterwards, when we have attained a tolerable certainty in finding the keys, it is better to fix the eye on the notes rather than on the keys.

And now, Miss, allow me in this letter to offer this last very important remark: the best knowledge of the notes avails us very little, if, at the same time, the fingers do not begin to develop that degree of flexibility which is requisite for striking the keys and for playing in general. I therefore most earnestly recommend you to practise daily, with untiring diligence and the greatest attention, all the five-finger exercises in both hands, which you will find at the beginning of my Pianoforte School, and which your instructor will explain to you; in order that your small and delicate, though still sufficiently powerful fingers, may speedily acquire that pliability, independence, and volubility which is absolutely necessary to playing.

Do not be alarmed at the little trouble and application that this may require; try three or four times every day, for at least a quarter of an hour each time, to play through these exercises with attention. In fact, it is as impossible to play the pianoforte well with stiff and untractable fingers, as to dance well with stiff and untractable feet. Volubility of finger is one of the chief requisites in pianoforte-playing.

It is very proper that your teacher gives you an hour’s lesson every day. If, in addition to this, you daily dedicate another hour—or, if possible, two hours to practising by yourself—you will in a few months have for ever conquered all that is difficult or tedious in the elementary branches of playing; and you will each day see augmented the pleasure which the delightful art of music so richly bestows on its votaries.

And now, Miss Cecilia, farewell; and rejoice soon with the intelligence of your progress,

Your most devoted, &c.