Letters to a Young Lady (Czerny)/Letter 6

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

LETTER VI.

ON THE SELECTION OF COMPOSITIONS MOST SUITABLE
FOR EACH PIANIST
.

You wish to know, Miss, what compositions you are chiefly to play, so that you may learn all that are good, as far as that is possible, and that too in a natural and progressive order; and it does credit to your taste, that you are desirous not only of studying the favorite pieces of the present day, but likewise the most striking works of the earlier and more ancient masters.

Your worthy teacher has already recommended to you the admirable Studies of Bertini, Cramer, &c. as also the excellent Grand Scale-Exercises of Clementi; and I cannot but rejoice that you have also had the goodness and patience to occupy yourself with some of my own contributions towards furthering volubility of execution,—such as my School for Virtuosi;—of Graces and embellishments;—of Legato and Staccato, &c.

The studies just named have, for the greater part, a merely practical aim; but, in the present day, there frequently appears, under the same titles, grand and difficult pieces by Chopin, Hiller, Hummel, Henselt, Kalkbrenner, Liszt, Potter, Thalberg, and many others, which I shall recommend you to study at some future time, when your execution shall have reached a very high degree of excellence: for most of these pieces are splendid bravura-compositions, intended rather for highly cultivated players, and for public performances, than for the instruction of those who, like you, Miss, have still to climb many steps to arrive at perfection.

Useful as these studies are in general, we must not lose sight of the fact, that every piece, be it a sonata, a rondo, an air with variations, a fantasia, &c. is also a study in its way; and that, for example, we may draw from a concerto, or a set of brilliant variations, equally as much advantage in regard to rapidity of finger, or from a sentimental adagio equally as much improvement in regard to expression, as we can from the practice of any set of studies whatever.

The authors which you have chiefly studied as yet, were well adapted to the purpose; for, at first, pupils require such compositions as combine pleasing and intelligible melody, and modern taste, with passages naturally calculated for preserving a fine position of the hands; as, for example, the easier works of Bertini, Herz, Hünten, Kalkbrenner, Moscheles, &c. &c.

But you have now arrived at an epoch when the more difficult works of the above-named masters, as also of Hummel, Cramer, Dussek, Ries, Steibelt, and the easier ones of Beethoven, are very suitable and proper for you.

In the course of the ensuing year, with the same industry and zeal, you may easily arrive at that degree of advancement, that you will be enabled to study by yourself, and with the best results, the difficult works of the present as well as of past times; such as those of Chopin, Thalberg, Liszt, Field, &c. as also the Concertos of Hummel, Kalkbrenner, and Moscheles; and, lastly, the best compositions of Mozart, Clementi, Beethoven, Cramer, Dussek, Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, &c.

In the choice of musical pieces, we should always bear in mind the following points:

1st. That we ought always to proceed from the more easy to the more difficult as to execution.

2ndly. That, as far as possible, we should make ourselves acquainted with the works of all the great composers, and not by any means tie ourselves down to any favorite author.

3rdly. That, by degrees, we should also thoroughly learn the classical and truly valuable works of the earlier composers.

Every distinguished composer requires to be played in a style peculiar to himself. With many, there predominates a brilliant, shewy, and strongly marked manner; with others, an expressive, quiet, connected, and gentle style of playing is most generally called for; others, again, require a characteristic, impassioned, or even fantastic and humorous expression; and, in many compositions, a tender, warm, playful, and pleasing mode of execution is most suitable. Lastly, there are pieces which include all these different styles, and which therefore compel the player to adopt corresponding alternations of manner in his performance. Thus, for example, Hummel’s compositions require an extraordinary and pearl-like mode of execution, which is produced by a lightly dropping of the keys, as I have explained to you in my Pianoforte School. In Beethoven’s works this style will seldom be suitable; as, in them, great characteristic energy, deep feeling, often capricious humor, and a sometimes very legato, and at others a very marked and emphatic style of playing are requisite.

A piece which is played too fast or too slow loses all its effect, and becomes quite disfigured. Where the time is not marked according to Maelzel’s metronome, the player must look to the Italian words which indicate the degree of movement; as allegro, moderato, presto, &c. and likewise to the character of the composition, and gradually learn by experience to know their real significations.

No less important is the proper mode of treating the pedals; and I beg of you, Miss, to observe strictly all that I have said on this subject in my Pianoforte School.

By a proper employment of the forte or damper pedal, the player is enabled to produce effects which would seem to require that he should have two pair of hands at his command. But, used at an improper time, this pedal causes an unpleasant and unintelligible noise, which falls on the ear as disagreeably as a writing on wet paper falls on the eye.

I have already explained how important to the pupil is a gradual and easy progression, as to difficulty, in the selection of pieces intended for him; and I shall now add a few words more on this head. Every composer, as well as every player, founds his art and his science on what his predecessors have already done; adding to that the inventions of his own talent. By these natural steps in advance, it is evident that the compositions of the present distinguished pianists are in many respects much more difficult than those of times gone by; and that whoever desires to study them must already possess great knowledge of music, and a very considerable degree of execution.

Many pupils, however, as soon as their fingers have acquired some little facility, and led astray by the charms of novelty, run into the error of attacking the most difficult compositions. Not a few who can hardly play the scales in a decent manner, and who ought to practise for years studies and easy and appropriate pieces, have the presumption to attempt Hummel’s concertos or Thalberg’s fantasias!

The natural result of this over-haste, is, that such players, by omitting the requisite preparatory studies, always continue imperfect, lose much time, and are at last unable to execute either difficult or easy pieces in a creditable manner.

This is the true cause why, although so many talented young folks devote themselves to the pianoforte, we are still not so over and above rich in good players, as, beyond all doubt, was the case formerly; and why so many, with the best dispositions, and often with enormous industry, still remain but mediocre and indifferent performers.

Many other pupils run into the error of attempting to decide on the merits of a composition before they are able to play it properly. From this it happens that many excellent pieces appear contemptible to them, while the fault lies in their playing them in a stumbling, incorrect, and unconnected manner, often coming to a stand-still on false and discordant harmonies, missing the time, &c. &c.

You have, no doubt, Miss, frequently been placed in this situation; and I would wager that you have sometimes impatiently thrown aside a piece which did not much promise to please you. In this manner, you must, in the sequel, have often lost that exquisite enjoyment which the ingenious and elaborate works of the great masters offer to you, if you have the patience to overcome the difficulties generally inseparable from them.

Here more particularly belong compositions in what is called the strict style; as, for example, the works of Handel, Bach, and other masters of this stamp. For the execution of such pieces, generally written in several parts, and in the fugue style, and of such single passages in the same style as we often meet with in the most modern compositions, there are required a strict legato, and a very firm and equal touch; and also a clear enunciation of each single part; and, for the attainment of all this, the employment of a peculiar mode of fingering, which, in general, deviates very much from the usual one, and which chiefly consists in quickly and adroitly substituting one finger for another on the same key, while it is held down, and without sounding it anew.

By this substitution, the five fingers are in a manner multiplied ad infinitum, and we are enabled to play each of the four parts, of which such passages in general consist, as smoothly, connectedly, and in as singing a manner as though we had so many hands.

I beg you, Miss, to study very attentively all that I have said on these subjects in the Second and Third Parts of my Pianoforte School, and to retain it equally in your memory and at your fingers’ ends.

I have now once more put your patience to the test. But I beg of you to recollect, Miss, that much of what I now write to you is calculated for a future period; and therefore that reading over these remarks by and by will prove of still more particular service to you.

In the mean while, I subscribe myself,

&c. &c.