Carl Czerny: Composer of the Biedermeier Age

By Zaluski, Iwo; Zaluski, Pamela | Contemporary Review, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Carl Czerny: Composer of the Biedermeier Age


Zaluski, Iwo, Zaluski, Pamela, Contemporary Review


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. …

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