Letters to a Young Lady (Czerny)/Letter 2

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


My dear Miss,

I have just received your welcome letter, and learn from it that you have already made a notable progress in reading the notes, and that you are able to play several of the first and easiest little pieces, somewhat slowly perhaps, but still intelligibly.

Continue daily to decypher a couple of new little pieces, and at the same time to practise still more those which you have already learned, so that these latter ones may go off quicker and quicker, and that you may each week study at least two fresh pieces. For, as you have an earnest wish to attain to a high degree of excellence in pianoforte-playing, you must look upon all that has been given to you as yet, only as a means to that end, and, indeed, as that means which will conduct to this end as quickly and as agreeably as possible.

I could not refrain from laughing a little, if I may be allowed to tell you so, at your complaining to me how much your master vexed and tormented you with finger-exercises, with rules relating to touch, to the position of the hands, to clearness, volubility, &c. &c.

“Ah!” exclaim you, in a manner quite touching, “must all this really be so?”

Yes—such is indeed the case; and here, dear Miss, I cannot assist you; your worthy teacher is quite right in being so strict as to all these points, and I will explain the reason why. From every musical instrument we may produce either a fine tone or a detestable one, according as we handle it. The same excellent violin which, in the hands of a clever player, sounds so delightfully, will, when handled by a clumsy person, yield as disagreeable sounds as if a number of kittens were squalling. It is the same with the pianoforte. If it is not properly handled by the player, or if we merely thump and bang the keys, the best instrument will sound hard and unpleasant. On the other hand, if we employ too little force, or do not know how to use this power in a proper manner, the tone will be poor and dull, and the performance unintelligible, and without soul or expression.

The interior mechanism of the keys is such that the strings will only sound well when we—

First. Strike each key perpendicularly; that is, straight downwards, and exactly in the middle, and therefore not sideways nor obliquely.

Secondly. When, after the percussion, each key is so firmly pressed down as to cause the full tone of the instrument to be audible.

Thirdly. When, before the percussion, we do not raise the finger too high; as otherwise, along with the tone, there will be heard the blow on the key.

Fourthly. When the hand and arm, even when striking with considerable force, do not make any jumping, chopping, or oscillating movement. For you will find, Miss, that the fingers cannot possibly play pleasantly and tranquilly when the hands and arms are unsteady.

Fifthly and lastly. When the player observes all these rules in rapid runs, or even in skips and extensions, as strictly as in slow and quiet passages.

All the finger-exercises, and particularly the scales, have no other end than to accustom the fingers to the application of these rules so thoroughly, that the player shall practise all that he studies in future strictly according to the principles we have given.

Ah! the scales,” you write to me; “that is truly a tedious story! Are these things then really as necessary as my teacher says?”

Yes, Miss Cecilia, these scales are the most necessary point of all, not only for beginners, but even for pupils who are much advanced; and, indeed, the most expert players do and must constantly have recourse to and practise them. Permit me to demonstrate this to you, as I know that you have a good understanding, and are fond of reflecting.

You know already that the passing of the thumb under the other fingers, and of the three-middle fingers over the thumb, is absolutely necessary, and that it is the only means by which we are enabled to strike a long series of keys quickly one after the other.

But this passing of the thumb and fingers, even in the most rapid passages, must be effected in a manner so natural, equal, and unlaboured, that the hearer shall not be able to distinguish the smallest interruption or inequality. This, however, is almost the greatest difficulty in pianoforte-playing; and it is possible only when neither the arm nor the hand makes the smallest movement upwards or sideways, and when the joints of all the fingers attain gradually and by long practice so great a degree of flexibility and address, that in a rapid run over the key-board one is almost tempted to think that the player has at least fifty fingers on each hand. To attain this highly necessary property, there is no other means than the most diligent, uninterrupted daily practice of the scales in all the keys, as you will find them given in a connected arrangement in my Pianoforte School, and illustrated by the requisite explanations.

But these scales have many other various uses. There are few musical compositions in which they are not introduced by the author in some shape or other. In every piece, whether written to day or one hundred years ago, they are the principal means by which every passage and every melody is formed. The diatonic scales, or the chords broken into arpeggios, you will every where find employed innumerable times.

You will now easily imagine, Miss, what an advantage it gives a player when he is perfectly acquainted, in all the keys, with these fundamental passages, from which so many others are derived; and what a command over the entire key-board, and what an easy insight into any musical piece he gains thereby.

Farther, no property is more necessary and important to the player than a well-developed flexibility, lightness, and volubility of the fingers. This cannot be acquired in any way so quickly as by the practice of the scales. For, if we were to try to attain those qualities by the merely studying of different musical compositions, we should spend whole years to accomplish our purpose. Many beautiful pieces require to be executed in a very quick degree of movement, and with great volubility of finger. But how tiresome and detestable would not these same pieces sound, if played slow, stiff, and unequal! And even those compositions which are slow on the whole, still contain many occasional runs and embellishments which require great rapidity of finger. All these he has already conquered who is able to play the scales well and with sufficient quickness.

At present, Miss Cecilia, you cannot form an idea of the beauty and effect which is produced by a pure, clear, rapid, and strictly equal execution of such runs; they are musical rows of pearls; and many great artists are more particularly distinguished on account of their peculiar excellence in the performance of them. You will no doubt have already remarked, that correct fingering is a very important part of pianoforte playing, and one which costs every pupil a good deal of labour. Now, the scales contain all the principal rules of fingering; and they are in themselves sufficient, in almost all cases, to shew the pupil the right path. What do you say to all these advantages? Is it not well worth the while to occupy yourself seriously with these same tiresome scales?

I must now tell you in what way you ought to proceed to do this. For, if studied in a wrong manner, the scales may prove as injurious as they are capable of being serviceable when properly practised. You know, Miss, that the five fingers are by no means equal to each other in natural strength. Thus, for example, the thumb is much stronger than any of the other fingers; the first finger is much stronger than the little finger, and the third finger, on the contrary, is, with almost every person, the weakest of all. The pianist, however, must know how to employ these various degrees of power, so that in playing the scales all the fingers may strike their appropriate keys with perfect equality of strength; for the scales sound well only when they are played in every respect with the most exact equality.

This equality is three-fold; namely—

First. Equality of strength.

No one note ought to sound in the smallest degree louder than another, whether it be struck with the thumb, or the first, second, third, or little finger.

Secondly. Equality in point of quickness.

Each note must follow the preceding one strictly in the same degree of movement, whether we play the scales slow or quick.

Thirdly and lastly. Equality in holding the notes down.

No key must be held down for a longer or shorter time than the rest; that is, each finger must only keep its key pressed down till the following one is struck, and it must then be taken up exactly at the very moment that the next finger comes in contact with its key. This must, of course, also be observed in passing the thumb under the middle fingers, or in passing the latter over the thumb.

If we offend even against only one of these three principal rules, the equality and beauty of the run is destroyed, and the utility of the practice lost. Each scale, therefore, must be practised in the order prescribed in my Pianoforte School, first with the right hand only, and then with both hands, and, at first, extremely slow, always consulting the judgment of your teacher, or taking the counsel of your own good ear as to whether the fingers sufficiently observe all the rules.

From week to week you must increase the degree of rapidity, till at last all the fingers are in a condition to fly over the keys with lightness, firmness, and distinct and beautiful execution. Every day, when you seat yourself at the pianoforte, let the scales be, for one half hour, the first thing which you attack; as by this means the fingers will be got in readiness for every thing else.

But I will not torment you longer to day, for I hope soon again to receive intelligence of your further progress, and I remain, Miss,

Yours, &c. &c.