WITH the deaths of Beethoven and Schubert in 1827 and 1828 respectively, Vienna's golden age of music came to an abrupt end. What followed was a period of sustained mediocrity in which all aspects of artistic and creative life were dictated by a need for an easy life and the challenge-free pursuit of bourgeois comforts. This period later came to be known as the Biedermeier age, and was a direct result of the censorship that Prince Clemens von Metternich's Austria had strongly enforced after 1815, the year of the Congress of Vienna, at which the blueprint for a new, post-Napoleonic Europe was drawn up. The population, unable to express its political and intellectual aspirations in public, withdrew into itself, and gave vent to these aspirations in the secluded comforts of the home, where it could enjoy an essentially bourgeois existence, and criticise the government without fear of the police.
The Biedermeier home was a cosy place of light and graceful furniture bedecked with frilly furnishings and paintings depicting comfortable topics and pleasing pastoral scenes. The word gemutlichkeit came into its own, and the Viennese devoted themselves entirely to the pursuit of simple pleasures.
The world of music was also affected, but it needed the turbulent duststorms of Beethoven and Schubert to settle before Biedermeier Vienna came into its own musically, and could enjoy its new, up-to-date, essentially undemanding music. This manifested itself on two fronts. The first was the world of opera. Vienna had a number of theatres where plays and operas were mounted, the three main ones being the Grosse Redoutensaal of the Hofburg, the Karntnertor Theater, and the Theater an der Wien. Here the pleasure-loving Viennese initially flocked to the operas of Rossini, with their sparkling italianate tunes and lightweight story-lines. When Rossini retired after William Tell there was no shortage of imitators, many of them second-rate, but still able to keep up a regular supply of what the Viennese wanted - a merry night out at the opera with at least one good tune to hum on the way home.
Apart from Weber, Meyerbeer and Marschner, who fulfilled Vienna's criteria for enjoyment, perhaps the most successful Biedermeier opera composer was the German Albert Lortzing, whose Zar und Zimmermann, Der Wildschutz and Der Waffenschmied drew enormous audiences, attracted by the clever plots, the humour and the hummable arias.
The other front at which the music of the era manifested itself was in the home. It had become de rigueur to have a piano in the parlour at which home music making would take place, such as the archetypal Biedermeier home events, the Schubertiads, at which Schubert's circle met to enjoy performances of his enormously popular songs. At one stage 64 piano manufacturers made fortunes out of supplying fortepianos to Vienna's population of 200,000. All daughters were expected to learn the pianoforte - one of the few disciplines, along with sewing, embroidering and housekeeping, that society permitted them to pursue. This gave rise to the phenomenally successful piano teaching industry, at the apex of which sat Carl Czerny.
Czerny was a curious paradox of the age. He was arguably the greatest pianist who never performed, and the most successful composer to have been consigned to oblivion. He was born in Vienna in 1791 ten months before Mozart's death, the son of a Bohemian pianist and teacher. At about ten years of age he was taken on as a pupil by Beethoven, who saw in the boy a remarkable talent which he tried to nurture in his own, somewhat erratic manner. The boy, in turn, idolised his teacher, played all his works to perfection, and later became the acknowledged natural interpreter of his music.
Apart from the occasional performance, including the first airing of Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto, Czerny chose not to pursue a career as a virtuoso, partly because he lacked showmanship, partly because he did not wish to leave his ailing parents, and partly because he loathed performing in public. However, by his late teens he was a highly successful teacher, and ran Sunday lunchtime concerts at his parents' apartment, ostensibly to launch his more talented pupils. Beethoven often turned up as well, and either he or Czerny would give one of the Master's sonatas.
Czerny had turned twenty when Adam Liszt brought his ten-year-old son Franz to him, with a brief to knock the boy's anarchic piano technique into shape. Czerny embarked on this with total dedication and long-term method, but the lessons were cut short. To Czemy's outrage, as he did not consider the young 'Putzi' Liszt was yet ready for the world, his brilliant pupil was whisked off to Paris and fame. But for all that, the deep friendship between the Liszts and Czerny lasted for life. For Czerny the Liszt experience added to the Beethoven factor in formulating his theories on the art of piano technique, which ultimately led to those piano methods that are synonymous with the name of Czerny to this day.
Czerny was an improviser, but he started serious composition comparatively late, almost by accident. The discovery that he could not only compose, but also to have his compositions published, came as a bit of a surprise to him, and, having started, there was no stopping him. His works, which came to him with consummate ease, consisted largely of variations and fantasias on all the popular themes of the day for piano solo, duet, or indeed any number of hands on any number of pianos, chamber music, concertante works with optional accompaniments of full orchestra or string quartet, choral works and songs. He gave Biedermeierf Vienna what it wanted.
Czerny was a home-loving workaholic who continued teaching eight hours a day and composing at night, until middle age and ill-health eventually made him give up teaching -- but not composing, which he had turned into a cottage industry.
John Field, the Irish pianist and composer stayed with him in 1835, and described his host's composition factory. Czerny worked, often at four pieces simultaneously, at a round table in the middle of his main music room. A large cupboard served as a filing repository of samples of every kind of passage work and figuration, for instant availability. In the adjoining room worked his assistants, pupils with instructions to transpose selected passages and insert them in the piece they were copying. A great deal of Czern's work depended on formula writing, and a whole page of a development section could be 'composed', for instance, merely by setting a 4-bar figure out in a sequence of consecutive sevenths or diminished chord formations combined with a motif from the main subject -- a task easily delegated. As the vast majority of Czerny's work was formulaic, this method saved a great deal of donkey work, while at the same time, it served as theory exercises for his pupils. Czerny's only real aim lay in supplying a n insatiable demand for attractive yet undemanding pieces for consumption in the Biedermeier home, technical exercises and arrangements of the big hits of the day -- the populist term being apt in this case, since Czerny had become an unashamed purveyor of popular culture.
Czerny himself divided his music into four distinct categories. Category one consisted of what he called serious works, which included eleven piano sonatas very much in the Beethoven-Schubert vein. These were written with lip service to high art in mind, for they were not good sellers. The word 'sonata' had assumed a high-brow connotation not in keeping with the easy-listening ethos of Biedermeier leisure, and had gone out of fashion. Only by calling sonatas fantasias -- as Schubert was forced to do -- could a sonata gain any popular appeal; which is why some of Czerny's examples were called Fantaisie enforme de sonate.
The second category, by far the largest, covers his brilliant bravura variations and concert pieces, many for piano duet. This section, as described by Field, is Czerny's essential Biedermeier mass-production output, music of its time and written within the technical abilities of talented amateurs.
The third category consists of the exercises, piano methods and easy pieces for beginners and the less able.
The last category covers piano arrangements of operatic arias, symphonies (including those of Beethoven and Mozart), and simplifications, also for home consumption.
The Biedermeier age of cosiness and gemutlichkeit collapsed with the Revolutions of 1848. Carl Czerny died in 1857, the year in which Emperor Franz Joseph began, with the tearing down of the old wall, the reconstruction of Vienna as an act of faith in his capital's future.
Czerny's legacy had reached over 800 opus numbers, some subdivided into up to 50 pieces, as well as mounds of unpublished manuscripts. He died a phenomenally wealthy man, one of the most successful composers of the century, and undoubtedly the father of the modern concert virtuoso by virtue of the fact that he taught Liszt, Leschetitzky and Kullak, who, in turn, taught just about everyone else who took pianism into the twentieth century and beyond.
His piano methods have stood the test of time, but one might wonder why his compositions have not. The obvious answer is that Czerny sacrificed quality for quantity, but, as the music of the Biedermejer age had a shelf life of just a few weeks, Czerny was able to sustain the pace through workaholic routine, keeping in touch with the latest operas, and factory methods of formulaic composition. No sooner would a tuneful new opera appear, than the latest set of Czerny variations and arrangements would be on sale at Haslinger's music shop in the Graben. Today, nearby in the Kartner-strasse, Czemy has been honoured with a memorial stone.
However, it would be wrong to dismiss Czerny the composer outright, even though it is very difficult to get hold of his music. Very few of his compositions are published, apart from the Toccata, on which 10-year-old Clara Wieck (eventually Schumann's wife), honed her technique, and Czerny questors have to scrabble around academic libraries and archives for early editions or photocopies of his works. But they are there to find, and quite a few have been recorded recently. Daniel Blumenthal's Etcetera double CD (KTC 2023) is an excellent example of Czerny's solo piano works, as it features his first four Sonatas, as well as two sets of bravura Variations, thus giving a taste of Biedermeier Czerny and serious Czemy. Blumenthal and Diane Andersen have also recorded the set of three Piano Duet Sonatas Ops 119, 120 and 121 on Talent DOM 2910 62. Yaara Tal and Andreas Groethuysen's CD of music for four hands on Sony SK 45 936, likewise features two of his Sonatas as well as two bravura works. Also very worthy of not e is the Piano Duet Concerto. Of the two versions on the market the Czerny questor should go for the Liu Xiao Ming and Horst Gobel on Signum SIG X78-00, as it also features the late Second Symphony, the best of his five Symphonies. Czemy's' six Grand Trios -- for six hands on one piano -- is a must for Biedermeier students, and paints a very jolly picture of a particularly cosy Biedermeier home: the CD, by Isabel Beyer and Guy and Harvey Dagul, is available on Four Hands Music FHMD 9921. Czerny's chamber music is well represented; worthy of mention is the Piano Trio No 4, played by the Gobel Trio, on Signum X94-00, and a miscellany of very attractive, sparkling works for various small combinations by various artists on Meridian CDE 84310.
Czerny's music is eminently playable, predictable and listenable to in the same sort of way that Vivaldi's is eminently playable, predictable and listenable. The comparison across a century is very apt. Neither composer's mainstream output achieves the Elysian heights of a Bach or a Beethoven, but they were both highly successful and well-loved purveyors of accessible music of their time. When Vivaldi was 'discovered' in the 1950s, his compositions were dubbed, perhaps cynically, the muzak of the intelligentsia. Perhaps a similar sobriquet should be bestowed on Carl Czerny as a stepping-stone to a greater, deeper appreciation of what Biedermeier Vienna really meant. Dare one suggest a latter-day Tafelmusik?
Iwo and Pamela Zaluski are currently working on the first biography of Czerny. They have done several biographical works on Mozart and Liszt.…