Letters to a Young Lady (Czerny)/Letter 5

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




You are now well acquainted with all the twenty-four keys, and with the scales and chords belonging to them; and it is with pleasure I learn that you even now daily play through all the scales and passages in them, as diligently as you formerly did those in the twelve major keys; and that you acknowledge the many advantages of these exercises, by which also you save yourself the labour of wading through so many tedious études, or professed studies.

One of the most necessary acquirements for a pianist is to be equally practised and ready in all the keys. There are many who are as much startled at a piece having four or five sharps or flats for its signature, as though they saw a spectre. And, nevertheless, to the fingers all keys are in reality of equal difficulty; for there are as difficult compositions in C major as in C sharp major. Only that the eye and the memory must be early accustomed to this great number of marks of transposition.

As, in such unusual keys, the black keys must be principally employed, and as they are narrower than the white ones, and therefore less certain as to the striking of them; it is absolutely requisite on the part of the player, that he should keep his hand particularly firm, and somewhat higher than usual over the keys, and employ a very decided touch, in order to acquire the same degree of certainty as on the white keys.

You complain, Miss, that the studying of difficult pieces still costs you much time and labour. There is a certain remedy against this, which I may call the art of studying, and which I will impart to you, as far as it can be done in writing.

There are pupils who study such compositions attentively enough it is true, but so slow and with such frequent interruptions, that these pieces become tedious and disagreeable to them before they have half learned them. Such pupils often take half a year to learn a few pieces tolerably; and, by this wasteful expenditure of time, always remain in the back-ground.

Others, on the contrary, try to conquer every thing by force; and imagine that they shall succeed in this by practising for hours, laboriously indeed, but in an inattentive and thoughtless manner, and by hastily playing over all kinds of difficulties innumerable times. These persons play till their fingers are lamed; but how? confusedly, over hastily, and without expression; or, what is still worse, with a false expression.

We may escape all this by keeping the right medium between these two ways. When, therefore, you begin to learn a new and somewhat difficult piece, you must devote the first hours to decyphering the notes strictly and correctly in a slow time. You must also fix upon the fingering to be employed, and gain a general insight over the whole. This, in a single piece, can at most require but a few days. Then the whole piece must be played over quietly and composedly, but at the same time attentively, and without any distraction of ideas, till we are enabled to execute it without trouble, and in the exact time indicated by the author.

Single passages of great difficulty may be practised apart. Still, however, they ought to be often repeated in connection with the rest of the piece.

All this too may be completed in a few days. But now begins the time when we must also learn to play it with beauty and elegance.

Now, all the marks of expression must be observed with redoubled attention; and we must endeavour to seize correctly on the character of the composition, and to enforce it in our performance according to its total effect.

To this belongs the very important quality, that the player should know how to listen properly to himself, and to judge of his own performance with accuracy. He who does not possess this gift, is apt, in practising alone, to spoil all that he has acquired correctly in the presence of his teacher.

But I must once more remind you, Miss, that we can only study new pieces quickly and well, when we have not forgotten those already learned. There are, alas! many pupils (female pupils too, dear Miss) who play only that piece well which they have just been taught. All those acquired before are neglected and thrown aside. Such pupils will never make any great progress. For you must own, Miss, that those persons who play fifty pieces well, are much more clever than those who, like a bird-organ, can only play two or three pieces in a tolerable manner: and that the first, by a proper employment of our time, is very possible, I believe I have already said to you.

Your worthy teacher has acted very properly in early accustoming you to play occasionally before others. At first, this, as you write to me, was very disagreeable to you, and you felt much frightened in so doing, “But now,” say you, “I think nothing of it; nay, it generally gives me great pleasure, particularly when all goes off well.” And there you are quite right. To what purpose do we learn, but to give pleasure, not only to ourselves, but also to our beloved parents and our worthy friends? And assuredly there is no higher satisfaction than in being able to distinguish oneself before a large company, and in receiving an honorable acknowledgment of one’s diligence and talent.

But to bring matters to this point, we must be thoroughly sure of our business; for want of success is, on the contrary, as vexatious as tormenting and disgraceful. Above all, you must select, for this purpose, such compositions as are fully within your powers, and respecting the good effect of which you can entertain no doubt. Every difficult piece becomes doubly difficult when we play it before others, because the natural diffidence of the performer impedes the free development of his abilities.

Many half-formed players imagine that every thing will be right, if they do but step forward at once with a difficult piece by some celebrated composer. But by this means they neither do honor to the composition nor to themselves; but merely expose themselves to the danger of exciting ennui, and, at best, of being applauded from politeness and compassion, and therefore of being blamed and laughed at behind their backs. For, even with regard to amateurs, persons avail themselves of the right to blame when they have not received any pleasure; and, in fact, who can take their doing so in bad part?

Many, otherwise very good players, have in this manner, by an unsuitable choice of pieces, lost both their musical reputation and all future confidence in themselves.

When playing before others, you should particularly endeavour to execute your well-studied piece with tranquillity and self-possession, without hurrying, without allowing your ideas to wander, and more especially without coming to a stand-still; for this last is the most unpleasant fault which we can commit before an audience.

Before you commence, the fingers must be kept quite warm; you must avoid any inconvenient mode of dress; and you should, if possible, always play on a pianoforte with which you are well acquainted; for an instrument, of which the touch is much lighter or much heavier than that which one is accustomed to, may very much confuse a player.

But, besides professedly playing before others, it may often happen that you are suddenly required, in the company of intimate acquaintance, to play over some trifle to them.

It is very necessary, therefore, Miss, that you should study and commit to memory a good number of little, easy, but tasteful pieces; so that, on such occasions, you may be able to play them by heart: for it appears rather childish to be obliged, for every trifle, to turn over one’s collection of music; or, when in a strange place, to be always obliged to draw back, with the excuse “that you cannot play any thing by heart.”

I would lay a wager, Miss Cecilia, that you have been so situated; is it not so?

For this purpose, short rondos, pretty airs with variations, melodies from operas, nay, even dance-tunes, waltzes, quadrilles, marches, &c. &c. are perfectly suitable; for every thing does credit to the player which is well played.

As it is very proper to let a little prelude precede any musical composition, you must have by heart a number of this sort of pieces, in all the keys. You will find the means necessary for so doing in my Pianoforte School, as well as in many collections of such preludes.

The playing before others has also the great advantage, that it compels one to study with unusual zeal. For the idea that we must play before an audience, spurs us on to a much greater measure of diligence than if we play only to ourselves, or to the four senseless walls.

I shall therefore close this letter, Miss, with the request that you will not neglect any proper occasion of exhibiting your fine talent to the world; and I remain,

&c. &c.