Letters to a Young Lady (Czerny)/Letter 3

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




My dear Miss,

The intelligence of your further progress rejoiced me very much.

Your fingers already begin to develop a well-regulated flexibility; your touch and execution are no longer heavy and sluggish; the finger-exercises, the runs, and scale-passages go off tolerably quick, light, and equal; and, lastly, you already play several dozen little pieces without faults, and generally without stumbling. You see, Miss, that a reasonable degree of diligence and obedience to the precepts of your teacher will soon be rewarded by the most pleasing results.

The difficulty which the observance of the ♯, ♭, ♮, 𝄪, and 𝄫 still causes you, will soon disappear, if you firmly apply your memory to this point, and if you constantly take good notice of, and learn to quickly retain the marks of transposition which are indicated at the beginning of each piece, as well as those which occur accidentally in the bar.

But the time and the subdivision of the notes cause you, as you write to me, still much trouble; and we will therefore treat a little on this subject to day.

The subdivision of the notes in music is a thing so certain and so positively determined, that we cannot well commit a fault against it, if we give to each note and rest its exact value, and if, in so doing, we consult the eye rather than the ear. For the eye always sees aright when it is supported by the memory; but the ear by itself may very often be deceived, particularly in beginners.

The duration of the notes is, as you know, expressed by the fingers being held down on the keys; that of the rests, on the contrary, by the fingers being kept off the keys, and free; and we must take care not to confound these two things; for each note must be held exactly as long as its prescribed value requires, and the key must not be quitted either sooner or later. Simple and easy as this rule appears, it is often sinned against by much better players than yourself. This arises from the circumstance that most persons are neglectful on this head when they are first taught; partly out of carelessness, and partly also because the holding down of the keys appears tiresome and inconvenient; or, on the contrary, sometimes because the fingers are too unapt and sluggish to quit the key at the right moment.

Those who hold down the keys too long, accustom themselves to a lingering, adhesive, indistinct, and often discordant manner of playing. He who quits the keys too soon, falls into an unconnected, broken style of playing, which is without melody, and which at last degenerates into mere hacking and thumping the keys. That both modes will conduct us into the wrong path, I need not further explain to you.

The art of subdividing the notes consists in introducing the quicker notes, exactly at the right moment, among the longer ones.

But, as there occasionally occurs groups of notes which must be played very quick; if we are to observe the exact movement and the length of the bar, you will see, Miss, how necessary it is that the fingers should early be accustomed to play with readiness and rapidity. For without this, even with the best knowledge of the subdivision of the notes, we are at every moment in danger, either of lagging behind in the time, or of scrambling over these quicker notes in any way we best can.

You perceive here, again, that the diligent practice of the finger-exercises and scales if of the last importance; for the quick perception of the different values of the notes requires only a practised eye; while, for the rapid and correct execution of them, we also require a well-practised finger.

It is of great advantage to you that, in every piece, your worthy teacher either counts aloud each separate bar, or beats the time with a bit of stick, by which you are compelled to continue always in the right time.

Equally useful is it, that you have already studies several easy pieces as duets for four hands, occasionally playing the lower or bass part.

The two following capital points are most essential, and must not be overlooked:

First. Strictness in taking the right notes.

For every false note is also a dissonant note, which generally sounds very disagreeably, and strikes as unpleasantly on the ear as a spot of ink on a white frock does on the eye.

Secondly. Correctness in keeping time.

For, without time, music is unintelligible, and lost on the hearer.

To correctness in playing belong attention, tranquillity, a good position of the bands, correct fingering, and the requisite habit of striking every key in the middle of its breadth, so as not to touch any contiguous key.

To keeping time belong also the following points:

At the first decyphering of a new musical piece, the beginner cannot of course easily play in time; since he must bestow great attention on taking the notes correctly, and on the fingering, and must stop at each wrong-taken key to set himself right. As soon, however, as this is amended, he must endeavour to play through the piece; at first slowly indeed, and then continue to practise it, till he can go through it as quickly as the composer has indicated.

If you can accustom yourself, while playing, to count aloud, it will be exceedingly advantageous to you. But this it is difficult to manage, because, by so doing, freedom of playing is apt to be impeded; and, besides, we easily fall into the error of counting unequally. When you practise alone, therefore, it will be best only to count in idea, and to consult your car with great attention, in order to recall to your mind how the piece sounded while your teacher was present. Beating the time with the foot cannot well be recommended, because it often settles into a bad habit.

When long rests occur in both hands, counting mentally or aloud is exceedingly necessary; for you know that, in every musical composition, each bar must occupy exactly the same quantity of time as the rest, whether it consists of notes or rests.

Hitherto, I have only spoken of that sort of keeping time in which we neither come to a stand-still, nor omit, nor pass over any thing. But there is another sort of keeping time, in which we may observe all this very correctly, and yet commit errors against time.

These faults consist in this—that, in the course of the piece, we either continually play quicker and quicker or slower and slower; or else, that we sometimes play too quick, and then again too slow.

Into the error of accelerating the time, just such young and lively persons as my dear Miss Cecilia are most apt to fall; and who knows whether I have not guessed right when I imagine that you sometimes begin a piece which goes off pretty fluently, at first very quietly and sagely; but then, becoming excited as you go on, you play quicker and quicker, and at last, finish with such rapidity as if your fingers were holding a run-away pony? Have I not guessed right?

To avoid this, you must practise even those pieces which you already play well, as composedly and as attentively as when you first began to study them; and in so doing, you must not allow the fingers to indulge their own fancies, or to be in the least degree inattentive. For the fingers are little disobedient creatures, if they are not kept well-reined in; and they are apt to run off like an unbroken colt as soon as they have gained some degree of fluency.

The opposite fault of hanging back, or dragging in the time, generally proceeds from our having begun too fast; and by that means stumbling against difficulties which we cannot overcome in that quick degree of movement.

Hence this capital rule: never begin a piece quicker than you can with certainty go on with it to the very end.

There are exceptions to this rule, which you will be taught by and by, when you learn the higher branches of expression and execution.

You will already have remarked, how necessary correct fingering is in playing. A single ill-chosen finger may often cause the complete failure of a whole passage, or, at least, make it sound coarse, unequal, and disagreeable. As doubtless you have studied all the elementary pieces exactly with fingering indicated, your fingers are, to a certain degree, already accustomed to a regular system of fingering. But as, in other compositions, you may, by and by, be often in doubt on this head—before you proceed to the Second Part of this Pianoforte School, which treats of fingering—I will impart, by the way, a few rules on this subject, as to what must be observed or avoided in every regular system of fingering.

First. When several keys are to be played one after another, either in ascending or in descending, and that five fingers are not sufficient for this purpose, the four longer fingers must never be turned over one another; but we must either pass the thumb under, or pass the three middle fingers over the thumb.

Secondly. The thumb must never be placed on the black keys.

Thirdly. We must not strike two or more keys one after another with the self-same finger; for each key must always retain its own finger.

Fourthly. In runs, the little finger should never be placed on the black keys.

Fifthly. In chords and wide extensions, however, the thumb, as well as the little finger, may occasionally fall upon the black keys.

Sixthly. The fingering given for the scales must be resorted to everywhere, and as much as possible.

Seventhly. At each note that we strike, we must consider whether, for the following notes, the appropriate fingers stand in readiness.

In general, that mode of fingering must be chosen by which we may most easily and naturally be able to maintain a tranquil and fine position of the hands, a firm and perpendicular percussion, as well as a correct holding down of the keys, and a beautiful and connected performance of the melody and of the scales and runs.

I am so convinced that an exact observance of what I have hitherto laid down will, in a short time, enable you to conquer all elementary difficulties, that I trust, in my next intelligence from you, to receive the assurance of this being the case: and, in this pleasing anticipation, I remain,

&c. &c.