Wednesday 21 February 2018

Dead Parrot, Dread Czerny

No, this is not a picture of the daily parakeet feeding frenzy in my garden, but of a quite different species, the Carolina Parakeet, which became extinct on this day 100 years ago (worth a Google Doodle, I'd have thought?). One of only two indigenous parrot species in the United States (and the only one across its range), the Carolina Parakeet suffered a catastrophic decline in the 19th century, the result of loss of habitat (watery old-growth forest) and, probably, some kind of epidemic disease. Extinction happened remarkably fast, and the last known live bird, Incas, died at the Cincinnati zoo on this day in 1918. It met its end in the same cage in which Martha, the last Passenger Pigeon, had died four years earlier.

A slightly cheerier anniversary (though many piano students might not agree) is of the birth of Carl Czerny in 1791. Czerny was a prodigiously talented pianist and a prolific composer. As a child he was taught by Beethoven, and later had all the great man's works by heart, able to play any of them at the drop of an opus number. Czerny in turn taught and mentored Liszt, and wrote much music across many genres. But his name lives on for his didactic piano exercises and studies – 'the dread Czerny' as in Donald Justice's evocative sonnet...

The Pupil

Picture me, the shy pupil at the door,

One small, tight fist clutching the dread Czerny.
Back then time was still harmony, not money,
And I could spend a whole week practising for
That moment on the threshold. Then to take courage,
And enter, and pass among mysterious scents,
And sit quite straight, and with a frail confidence
Assault the keyboard with a childish flourish!

Only to lose my place, or forget the key,
And almost doubt the very metronome
(Outside, the traffic, the laborers going home),
And still to bear on across Chopin or Brahms,
Stupid and wild with love equally for the storms
Of C# minor and the calms of C.

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