The Standardization of a Genre by Johann Sebastian Bach

The origin of dance music for keyboard instruments is a foggy one.  The only thing that historians can seem to agree upon for sure is that yes, in fact, some kinds of music can be organized into suites, and styled after dances, and the agreement ends there.

The time of the suite lasted from the 14th century to the mid 18th century.  Since the suite’s heyday was so early on in the history of music, it is probably safe to say that if a writing on the topic of where and when the dance suite left the ballroom and came to the keyboard ever existed, it has been lost to antiquity now.

The suite existed for keyboard instruments like the harpsichord and clavichord for years.  The term suite first appeared in the mid 16th century, however, the style of the suite and the order of pieces included was not standardized for at least another 100 years.  Many different styles of dance were featured throughout Europe in suites and were actually danced to.  By the time of the standardization of the suite, however, the dances had been limited to four standards with a few others that could be added for variety, and no longer were these dances actually danced to, but were played as stylized dances – that is, in the style of a particular dance, but meant to be listened to as the primary source of entertainment, not as the accompaniment.

It is mostly Johann Sebastian Bach’s doing that the dance suite became standardized in Germany, and for most of Europe.  He has written two sets of suites, the French Suites and the English Suites.  There are 12 suites in all, six in each set.

Interestingly, Bach never actually titled his suites.  While fragments of music appear in a notebook he gave to Anna Magdalena as a gift in 1722, and he then turned these fragments into full-fledged suites by 1725, it is unclear whether his suites were ever meant for public performance.  It is also unknown who first called the French Suites “French.”  Some argue that the English Suites actually have more of a French style than the French Suites do.  There is some evidence, however, that the French Suites were called that by the Bach family, and that the suites were actually written for Bach’s piano students who had completed his Two and Three Part Inventions but were not ready yet to play the Well Tempered Clavier.

Bach’s suites follow the pattern of Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, X and Gigue, where X is usually two or sometimes three or four different dances, sometimes Menuetts, Gavottes, or even Bourrees.  All the dances are played in binary form, that is, there is an A section that gets repeated and a B section that gets repeated.

The Allemande is one of the more popular of the dance styles, and in Bach’s suites, serves as a prelude to each suite (other composers actually included a prelude before their suites officially began).  It is quick and in a duple meter, and, in the majority of the French suites, has an improvisatory air.

The Courante is another quick movement, this one, however, is in triple meter.  The Courantes of the French Suites seem to feature more ornamentation that suggests an attempt to imitate one of the instruments that also plays dance music – the lute.

The Sarabande is in triple meter, and while the Courante and Allemande have French origins, the Sarabande originally comes from Spain.  Sarabandes can be played fast or slow, but Bach seems to appreciate the slower approach.  If the first two dances of each suite are a call to the dance floor, each Sarabande is Bach’s way of saying, “hey, why don’t we slow things down a bit and catch our breath.”  The beat moves, but at a stately, reserved pace.

The Gigue is a quick movement, usually in duple time.  It is the piece that wraps up the suite, and makes the final statement.

Over the course of his six suites, Bach also features Menuetts, Gavottes, Loures, Bourrees, a Polonaise, Airs and an Anglaise.  With the exception of the Bourree in G Major and in E Major, most of these pieces maintain a slower, steady tempo.

The French Suites were written and used mostly as pieces for Bach’s students, and it is clear to see why.  The pieces are shorter than what one might have come to expect from a suite, or from any of Bach’s music.  The average dance is no longer than 2 minutes, with many coming in under the 1-minute mark.  The technical level required to learn any of the individual dances also is not that high and while they do present a challenge, it is not a hurdle that the intermediate pianist can’t get over eventually.

Also, the harmonic structure of the pieces is easier not just for the student, but also for the listener.  Each of the pieces, even those written in minor (the stereotypical sad mode) is light and airy.  True to the suite form, each set of dances stays within one key, with very little modulation to any other key, major or minor.  Each suite plays around in it’s own key (d minor, c minor, b minor, E-flat Major, G Major and E Major) and doesn’t stray too far from the path by venturing to a neighboring key or relative minor or major, allowing the ear to recognize each key and become comfortable with it.  The thematic structure and rhythmic patterns stays relatively simple and uncluttered as well.

While many factors have gone into the development of the dance suite as a musical art form over the ages, and we may never know the exact details of who did what when and why, it is clear to see that Johann Sebastian Bach’s influence was an important one in the shaping of the suite style that we have today.

Carl Czerny – Uberteacher

Czerny – any pianist knows that name, but who was he?  What inspired him to be the teacher that he was?  Which of his teachers was he more influenced by, and how much of his theoretical and pedagogical worth come from his own findings rather than development of his teachers’ ideas?

Carl Czerny was born in 1791 in Vienna.  A child prodigy on the piano, he made his first appearance at the age of 9 playing a Mozart piano concerto.  The gifted youngster studied with composers and performers who were, perhaps, as eager to teach him as he was to study with them.  Over the course of his musical development, Czerny had the privilege of studying with Antonio Salieri, Johann Hummel and Ludwig van Beethoven.

While it would be an interesting topic to research and write about, Salieri is not quite as influential on piano pedagogy as one may first think, given his wealth of students that include Meyerbeer, Moscheles, Schubert, Liszt, Beethoven, Hummel, Sussmayr and others.  Many of them went on to be talented pianists and composers, but it is Czerny who has left a more lasting thumbprint on the piano world, even though he has fewer “big name students” to his credit.

Picture this:  It is a story about a composer, a student, and an instrument still in it’s baby stages, the piano.

Beethoven, for whatever reason deep inside of him, has become enchanted with the piano.  He prefers it over the harpsichord or clavichord for its ability to play long legato lines, singing passages, and to be expressive through the use of dynamics and phrasing, methods unavailable on other keyboard instruments.  While the kinks have not yet all been worked out in the mechanics of the instrument yet, Beethoven realizes it’s potential.

Beethoven also has the chance to teach a young Carl Czerny, but only for a few years.  The two part on very good terms.  At the very least, the impact of Beethoven’s music is quite apparent – by the time Czerny dies, he is a master of almost every single piano work Beethoven as written, and it is directly through his influence on his students Leszetycki and Liszt that the tradition of fine Beethoven playing methods continues into the 19th century, and beyond.

It is probably also a bit of the sympathy that Czerny may have had for his former teacher’s affliction with hearing loss that may have inspired him in his life’s work.  Because of Beethoven’s illness, he was already completely deaf by the time the piano underwent the major changes that brought it light years closer to the instrument we know today.  While he was able to take advantage of some of these advancements (his later works feature notes previously not available on earlier pianos with a smaller range) he was not able to aurally appreciate them.

When Czerny began teaching and composing, he appears to have taken the same approach to his teaching style as Beethoven did with his music.  Much in the same way that Beethoven’s music runs the gamut of emotion, form and style, so does Czerny’s teaching methods.  He believed that there was not just one way to teach a person how to play the piano because no two pairs of hands were ever alike, and also, no two people were alike.  He approached each new student with a fresh start, and would tailor the lessons to the students’ specific needs.

The pieces he is most famous for, which almost any piano student may recognize are his The School of Velocity and The Art of Finger Dexterity.  Although he would not prescribe a set schedule of when a student should study what, he certainly had a variety of technical exercises at his fingertips when and if he needed them for a student.

Czerny is, of course, most famous for his enormous output of creative works of piano music.  He has composed more than 800 opuses in addition to countless more unpublished works, with works ranging from his most well known technical studies to symphonies, religious texts, string quartets, and sonatas.  He also wrote over 300 pieces without opus numbers, these being variations on themes by some of the “ancients” like Mozart and Haydn, and also his contemporaries, Beethoven, Mayerbeer, Mendlesson, Spohr and Verdi, and others.    Much of his work was done for the benefit of his piano students; these variations may be no exception.

Czerny spent the majority of his life teaching and composing, having given up on the performing aspect of his career.  He lacked the showmanship that was required by audiences of the day to sustain a career giving concerts, and also did not like to travel.  Instead, he stayed at home, became a bit of a recluse and worked on composing and teaching.  It is said that at one point he taught 12 hours a day, every day.  He would also work on multiple pieces of music at a time – he would write out an entire page of one work, then, while he was waiting for the ink to dry, he would move on to a different composition.  His approach to composition was sometimes pragmatic and methodic.  He could easily compose pieces just by applying this style of passage work in this key here, then this cadence pattern, then transpose it, etc, much in the way musical composition was almost like writing out a mathematical equation for Baroque composers.  In fact, he even had assistants whom he would give instructions to in this manner, and they would write out his ideas for him.

This may make for bland writing in comparison to the more passionate and deep, soul searching pieces being written by other composers more in the Romantic vein, and it showed.  He received less than stellar reviews from Robert Schumann.  He was respected by Chopin, though the man did not think highly of his music.

When you analyze Czerny’s musical works from the standpoint of a composer, one may agree that his large body of work lacks the expression or depth of emotion of other composers of his day.  However, when you reanalyze his work from the standpoint of a teacher, it takes on a whole new meaning.

His lasting impression on the music world is of great benefit to piano players everywhere, and when used properly, his many technical studies can be a fantastic teaching tool on the instrument most loved by him and by his teacher, Beethoven.  If Czerny has left a lasting thumbprint on the music world, perhaps it was Beethoven who guided his hand there in the first place, more so than any of Czerny’s other teachers or contemporaries.