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Czerny's Letters on the Art of Playing the Piano

Letter I. | Letter II. | Letter III. | Letter IV. | Letter V. | Letter VI.
Three Months Later
On Expression, and Graces or Embellishments.

Have I not already told you that the zealous practise of all the finger exercises, and the quickly studying of a good many musical pieces, would soon bring you very forward? You write to me that your fingers have already acquired very considerable facility and certainty; that you now begin to study pieces of more importance, development, and difficulty; that you are already able to play, at sight, many short, easy movements, intelligibly and without stopping; and that even keys with a good many sharps or flats do not easily confuse you.

You are now arrived at the epoch where the art begins to proffer you true, noble, and intellectual pleasures, and in which the new and continually more and more beautiful compositions with which you will now become acquainted, will give you and idea of the inexhaustible riches and variety in music.

But do not neglect to still continue practising, with equal or even greater zeal, the finger exercises, and especially the scales in all the keys.

The utility of this accessory practise is infinite; and, in particular, the diatonic and chromatic scales possess peculiar properties, which even the most skillful players have yet to fathom.

I also request you most earnestly, while you are studying new pieces, not by any means to forget those already learned, not even the earlier ones.

New pieces serve but little if, on their account, the preceding ones are forgotten.

For the adroitness and expertness of the fingers, the eyes and the ears must of necessity repose firmly and fundamentally on the experience which we have already gained; while these qualities are to be enlarged and refined by new acquisitions If, for example, you forget a piece which it took you three weeks to learn, these three weeks are as good as lost. You should therefore retain, as a sort of absolute property, all the pieces you have ever learned; keep them safely, and never lend or give them away.

"Yes," say you, "if it did not take up so much time to continue practising what I have already learned, and also to study new pieces."

My dear Miss, you cannot imagine what may be effected in one single day, if we properly avail ourselves of the time.

If, with a fixed determination to excel on the pianoforte, you dedicate to it, daily, only three hours, of which about half an hour shall be appropriated to the exercises, as much more to playing over the old pieces, and the remaining time to the study of new compositions - this will assuredly enable you, by degrees, to attain a very commanding degree of excellence, without necessarily obliging you to neglect your other pursuits.

Your instructor has already accustomed you to observe, in general, the marks of expression; as forte, piano legato, staccato, &c. The more you begin to overcome all the mechanical difficulties of pianoforte playing, the greater attention you must give to this important subject - expression.

Expression, feeling, and sensibility are the soul of music, as of every other art. If we were to play a piece of music with exactly the same degree of forte or piano throughout, it would sound as ridiculous as if we were to recite a beautiful poem in the same monotonous tone in which we are used to repeat the multiplication table.

In every composition, the marks of expression, f., p., cres., dim., legato, staccato, acceler., rirard., &c., are so exactly indicated by the composer, that the performer can never be in doubt where he is to play loud or soft, increasing or decreasing as to tone, connected or detached, hurrying onwards in the time, or holding it back.

The same exactitude with which you are obliged to observe the notes, the marks of transposition, the fingering, and the time, you must likewise employ with regard to the marks of expression.

But the most difficult part of the business is always to observe the proper medium at each mark of expression; for you already know that there is great diversity in the shades and degrees of forte, piano, legato, staccato, accelerando, and ritardando.

The utmost fortissimo should never degenerate into mere hammering and thumping, or into maltreating the instrument.

Similarly, the most gently pianissimo ought never to become indistinct and unintelligible.

You possess an excellent pianoforte by one of our best makers; and you will already have remarked, that the most gentle pressure of the finger on a key produces a perceptible alteration and modification in the tone; and that we may play with great power, without any excessive exertion, and without using any unnecessary and ridiculous movements of the hands, arms, shoulders, or head. For, unhappily, many, even very good pianists, are guilty of these and similar contortions and grimaces, against which I must warn you.

Many, too, have the detestable habit, when they wish to strike a note with peculiar emphasis, of elevating their knuckles so much that the hand seems to form waves, like troubled waters.

Others endeavor to manifest their feelings by widely jerking out their elbows; or they mark the commencement of every bar by making a low bow with their head and chest, as if they were desirous of showing reverence to their own playing. Others, after every short note, suddenly take up their hands as far from the keys as if they had touched a red-hot iron. Many, while playing, put on a fierce and crabbed countenance; others, again, assume a perpetual simper, &c. One of the worst faults is carrying to excess the ritardando and accelerando, so that we are often several minutes without knowing whether the piece is written in triple or in common time. This produces nearly the same effect as it some one were addressing us in a strange, unintelligible language.

To all these faults we may accustom ourselves, in the zeal of practice, without knowing it; and when, to our mortification, we are made to observe them, it is often too late wholly to leave them off.

Do not suppose, however, that you are to sit at the piano as stiff and cold as a wooden doll. Some graceful movements are necessary while playing; it is only the excess that must be avoided.

When we have to play in the highest or lowest octave, a gentle inclination of the body is at once necessary and appropriate. When we have to play difficult passages, chords struck loud and short, or skips, the hands are and must be allowed a moderate degree of movement. As we must sometimes look at the notes, and sometimes at the hands, a slight movement of the head is, if not necessary, at least very excusable. Still, however, you should accustom yourself to look rather at the notes than at the fingers.

But the elegant deportment of polished life must always be transferred to the art; and the rule applies generally, "that every movement which conduces really and essentially to our better playing is allowed;" here, however, we must avoid all that is unnecessary and superfluous.

At present it would be too early to direct your attention to certain more refined rules of expression. In the mean time, I beg of you to observe, in the strictest manner, all that each composer, has indicated on this head in his works; and to try to execute each piece in a pure and flowing manner, and in the time indicated by the author. Towards effecting this last object, Maelzel's metronome will afford you very great assistance in most modern compositions.

The graces - namely, the trill, the turn, the appoggiatura, &c. - are the flowers of music; and the clear, correct, and delicate execution of them, embellishes and exalts every melody and every passage. But when they are played stiff, hard, or unintelligibly, they may rather be compared to blots of ink or spots of dirt.

The trill is peculiarly important; and to a pianist, the elegant, equal, and rapid execution of it is as much an ornament and a duty as the equal and pearly execution of the scales. In the right hand, at least, it ought to be played alike well with all the fingers. The equality of the trill can only be attained by lifting up both fingers to an equal height. and striking the keys with equal force. You ought to devote a few minutes daily to this particular practice.

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