Genres Genres

Etude

I've written a couple of exercisses
(Chopin, 1829)

His études for piano are masterpieces
(Berlioz, 1849)

"His compositions for piano created a school". Such was Hector Berlioz's assessment of the Chopin oeuvre. These words are particularly apt in relation to the twenty-seven études, on which entire generations of pianists were trained. Just what constitutes Chopin's études is appreciated by those who play them: they require the greatest all-round technical fluency and also artistic maturity in forging their expression. They were already performed in salons and concert halls in Chopin's day, not only by their composer, but also by other pre-eminent pianists, beginning with Ferenc Liszt.

Before Chopin, the piano étude (exercise, study) was merely a modest functional piece of a didactic character. Its principal aim was the development of pianistic skills-from the simplest exercise to more complicated studies. The early nineteenth century brought many examples of such études, more or less brilliant, written by outstanding pianists of the times, including the well-known collections Gradus ad Parnassum by Muzio Clementi (1817), and Studio per il pianoforte (Book I 1804, Book II 1810) and 84 Etüden by Johann Baptist Cramer. These compositions occasionally appeared under the name exercices, as in the case of some pieces by John Field.

Chopin was conscious of this tradition in music didactics. Yet his études are works of a wholly different order. He began to compose them during his youth, in Warsaw, and his pianistic genius was already becoming increasingly manifest. One source of inspiration here may have been the virtuosic playing of the great violinist Niccolo Paganini. Shortly after hearing Paganini in Warsaw, the nineteen-year-old Fryderyk informed his friend Tytus Woyciechowski in a letter (1829): "I've done a large Exercice en forme, in my own peculiar way". When he left Poland, in November 1830, his first études were already completed. Over the space of ten-eleven years, in the period 1829-1840, he wrote a total of twenty-seven études in the following sets:

  • 12 Etudes, Op. 10 (1829-33, published 1833, dedicated to Liszt)
  • 12 Etudes, Op. 25 (1835-37, published 1837)
  • 3 Nouvelles Etudes (1839-40, written for the Moscheles/Fétis collection Méthode des méthodes, published 1840)

These works revealed to the world Chopin's epoch-making discoveries in piano texture, pianistic technique, sound, dynamics and compositional inventiveness. Most significant are the two great collections-the étude cycles of Opp. 10 and 25. Each work focuses on a chosen aspect of technique, for example:

With Chopin, however, the technical problem (an excellent study for the pianist!) is only a point of departure, an impulse to the creation of a unique work. The greatest difficulty becomes the greatest beauty, the exercise a poem. The listener is astonished by the wealth of sounds and the irrepressible momentum of the études, or by the tunefulness of their melodies. Through the études, Chopin defined his innovative pianistic style, wrote his "gospel of piano music" (Jachimecki). Only the greatest pianists, including Cortot, Arrau, Pollini and Perahia, have been bold enough to record the complete sets of Etudes, Opp. 10 and 25. These works paved the way for the études of Liszt, Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Ligeti.

In a word: "works that are truly poetic" (Schumann). Let us add: brilliant and visionary.

Artur Bielecki

 
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