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Chapter Fourteen - The Fall and Rise of “Considerable Talent”: Carl Czerny and the Dynamics of Musical Reputation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 March 2023

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Summary

According to the 2001 edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary, Czerny was “a composer of considerable talent.” Although, as we will see below, this evaluation represents a considerable rise in Czerny's fortunes, it nonetheless comes off as far from an unconditional affirmation or a battle cry calculated to fuel the composer's further revival. Indeed, it leaves a great deal unclear: is it the product of studied and even-handed evaluation or an expression of surprise, or even damningly faint praise? If, in the famous words of Pierre Bourdieu, “taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier,” what are the stakes of this remarkably ambiguous formulation? There is of course no simple answer to this question; the significance of the label will depend as much on the reader's understanding of the nature and goal of musical activity as on any objective evaluation of the composer. And that is precisely why the historical development of Czerny's reputation merits exploration: not because, according to a crude application of Bourdieu's scheme, we can measure gains in social status accruing to those who have valued or dismissed this particular composer, but rather because exploring a cross section of responses to Czerny's activity as a composer from his lifetime to the present can contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the diverse and changing criteria that have grounded critical evaluation during the past two centuries.

From the perspective of that history of critical responses, the reassessment offered in this collection is revealed as only the most recent in a chain of judgments that have continually sought to make sense of Czerny in light of the changing conditions of musical life. That history will also make clear that critical judgments neither come into being nor function independently of one another or of a network of other values. As literary critics have recognized for some time, the rise and fall of artistic reputations is contingent; in the words of Barbara Herrnstein Smith, value, including that of a work of art (and, I would add, of the creator of that work) “is an effect of multiple, continuously changing, and continuously interacting variables or, to put this another way, the product of the dynamics of a system.”

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Beyond The Art of Finger Dexterity
Reassessing Carl Czerny
, pp. 229 - 244
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2008

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