CZERNY’S OP 740
The Art of Finger Dexterity
In 2002 the four-day international Carl Czerny Music Festival was presented by the University of Alberta in Edmonton under the direction of Anton Kuerti. Along with recorded performances, scholarly papers from the festival were eventually published. The papers were collected in a book titled “Beyond The Art of Finger Dexterity: Reassessing Carl Czerny” (2008). Everybody gets the point of the title, just like everybody would get the point of a collection of papers on Paul Dukas titled “Beyond The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” But actually it wasn’t until I read “Beyond The Art of Finger Dexterity” that I learned that, according to a vaguely pejorative consensus, Op 740 is Czerny’s “Greatest Hit.”
By the time I discovered the recordings and papers from the University of Alberta Czerny Festival I’d been studying Czerny for 35 years and was beginning to organize my ideas for a Czerny For Ballet Class library. Reading the Festival papers and listening to the recordings I realized that my program and approach to Czerny is the opposite of the Festival’s: for my purposes there’s nothing Beyond The Art of Finger Dexterity.
The Dexterity Agenda
Czerny’s Op 740 agenda is to train the pianist’s fingers to move with efficiency and accuracy executing challenging patterns of 16th’s and 32nd’s. This is a broader idea than the mere “velocity” of Op 299, and Op 740 has far more variety that Op 299. On the other hand, Op 740 doesn’t have the range of characters and sonorities of Op 335, but most of the pieces are longer, harder and more formally structured than those of Op 335, and many powerful and beautiful pieces stand out in the collection.
Focusing in on the general agenda of “dexterity” Czerny writes a short headnote to each study announcing a specific challenge--”The passing under of the thumb,” “Crossing the hands quietly and with delicate touch,” “The utmost velocity in chord passages,” and so forth. What I’ve come to love about Czerny’s headnotes is their deadpan neutrality about any “musical” agenda, their indifference to the music. It’s as if Czerny is saying, “Well, yes, maybe some of these pieces are enjoyable music, but that’s not the point...”
I’ve made it my point: Czerny's enjoyable music.
One-Pagers, Shortcuts, Facilitations,
As I’ve explained in my introduction to this library and specifically in my commentary to Op 299, when I began accompanying ballet classes I turned to Czerny for repertory to supplement what I was collecting from the usual sources (18th and 19th Century piano music and ballet, opera and dance music in piano reductions). I had quickly discovered that Czerny’s studies have a peculiar affinity for what ballet combinations are “about,” and of course working them up to the point that I could confidently play them in class was an excellent program for acquiring technique. The first collection which I systematically mined for repertory was Op 299. The next was Op 740.
I was at first overwhelmed by Op 740. The studies were long and dense, and most everything I could pick my way through was beyond me technically. What wasn’t beyond me seemed hardly worth learning, like #1 (which I now appreciate as a bit of drollery on Czerny’s part). But I was so keen to acquire technique that I set myself the project of learning the first page of each study of Op 740 and fashioning some kind of version I could play for class.
Learning just the first page turned out to be a good plan for someone like me tackling Op 740. To begin with, Czerny has a typical length: most of the studies are four pages long. Czerny also has a typical structure: most of the studies are in ternary + coda form. And he usually develops his material from relatively simple (structurally, harmonically, technically) to increasingly complex (structurally and harmonically) and difficult (technically). The easiest part of the study is the first page: Czerny has us learn his note pattern in basic harmonic positions (tonic, dominant, subdominant, supertonic) and, it turns out, that first page is usually the A section of his ternary form. The second page is often the start of the B section, and here Czerny moves the pattern into new inversions and related keys, and, usually, alters it to make it more demanding. But my one-pagers stop short. Which all means that my one-pagers explicitly subvert Czerny’s art as a composer and his expertise as a teacher. If you can get past this explicit diminishment of Op 740 one-pagers can be a relatively quick way to mine repertory for class.
My initial mining of Op 740 took a couple of years (while I continued to build my class repertory from more traditional sources) and then, over time, as my technique improved, I was able expand many of my one-pagers into two-pagers, and in some cases work up the entire study. When I was beginning to organize my ideas for this library (about 10 years ago) it occurred to me that I had an opportunity to do better justice to Czerny and, making use of recording and editing tools, I could present each of his Op 740 studies complete (though squared off for ballet class). But in fact the one-pager is usually just the right amount of material for a barre combination, and one of my purposes presenting this library is to show what can be done with a huge resource like Czerny.
There’s another program of editing that I imposed on Op 740, and that is facilitations. First, as anybody who studies Czerny will understand, I always slowed Czerny's tempos, sometimes drastically. But I also rewrote some of Czerny’s note patterns to circumvent certain technical demands, and this rewriting is indicated in the commentaries to the relevant studies. For me a lot of the technique of Op 740 is virtuoso, and I am not a virtuoso nor did I ever aim to be one. In other words, for me a lot of the technique in Op 740 isn’t anything I aspire to. I speak only for myself.
Op 740 1st Series
Studies 1 - 15
(click on title for commentary)