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© Fred Yu is the author of the following analysis of Etudes Op.10 and 25. This text is for reference purpose only and may not be used in any way or modified without permission or citation.

Click here for an analysis of Chopin etudes by Angela Lear.


ETUDES

Etudes Op.10          Etudes Op.25          Etudes de la Méthode des Méthodes

The term “étude” has long been used to describe pieces of technical, sometimes virtuosic, difficulty, focused on training and refining a specific aspect of a performer’s technique. Masters such as Czerny and Hanon wrote notorious etudes that are legendary exercises in finger and hand dexterity and strength. Although invaluable in this regard, these etudes are lacking in musical development, since most of them are merely repetitions of the same general pattern of notes. They have no inherent musicality.

Chopin’s etudes are special in this regard. Chopin was the first to pioneer the etude into an actual art form. Although all of his twenty-seven etudes for piano adhere to the basic principle of an etude – to train and refine a specific aspect of a performer’s technique – there is another element present. Each of the etudes, rather than being a dry repetitive exercise, has its own musical story to tell. Like virtually all of Chopin’s compositions, there is an emotional aspect that transcends the mere playing of notes, and takes a true virtuoso to execute well. This newly developed musical aspect of the etude persisted as a feature of Romantic repertoire; among the other great Romantics, Liszt was particularly famous for his technically intense yet passionate concert etudes.

Chopin named very few of his own compositions, almost always preferring to refer to them by opus and number. His etudes were no exception. However, due to their passionate, Chopin-esque nature, many of the etudes have nicknames given either by enthusiastic editors or zealous fans. These programmatic titles have been noted where they are present. Again, it is important to note that Chopin himself did not come up with any of these titles, and most likely even disapproved of them.

One should also note that while each of the etudes focus on a specific aspect of the performer’s technique, all are tied together by a common thread. Even though the Etude Op. 10 No. 1 is a difficult exercise in broad arpeggiated chords and the Etude Op. 25 No. 10 is a taxing study for octave technique, they share something in common. Every one of Chopin’s twenty-seven etudes, in addition to what each specifically focuses on, is an exercise designed to develop a legato style of playing. Chopin’s severest criticism of his pupils was that “S/he does not know how to connect two notes”; nowhere is this philosophy more evident than in his etudes.

Chopin has truly brought about a complete overhaul of the etude art form. He has transformed it from a dry, technical exercise into a lively, emotional story that at the same time develops the pianist’s technique. In this, they are truly Revolutionary.

Etudes Op. 10, 1829-1833: [No. 1-12]

The twelve Etudes Op. 10 were all written when Chopin was between the ages of nineteen and twenty-three – many of them before he had reached legal manhood. Despite this, many of them are tricky even for professionals, and have vexed many a brave soul. They are dedicated to “Son ami Franz Liszt” (“His friend Franz Liszt”), whom he met while performing in the salons of Paris.

Op.10 No. 1, C major (Waterfall)

The first etude of the Op. 10 set opens with a bright, broad arpeggiated theme that usually spans about three or four octaves in a single measure. Many naïve pianists (including, at one point, the author) have been fooled into thinking that this is one of the simpler etudes, for which the extremely simplistic left hand cannot completely be pardoned for. After all, what could possibly be tricky about simple arpeggios, especially for those with large hands? Chopin could tell you. Upon closer examination, this piece’s arpeggios are anything but simplistic. The stretches often cover a tenth over three notes, and this span is inaccessible to all but the largest hands. Therefore, proper fingering and wrist control is a necessity for executing this etude with the smooth legato that Chopin doubtless intended. Even so, it is an enormously taxing piece that intimidated even the legendary Vladimir Horowitz; at some parts, the suggested fingering is nearly impossible at full speed. The programmatic title “Waterfall” most likely comes from the right hand arpeggios that “cascade” up and down the piano, as well as the firm and incessant nature of the piece.

Op.10 No. 2, A minor (Chromatic)

Structurally, this etude is very similar to the one preceding it in that nearly all of the technical difficulty is in quick, accurate, and legato right hand action. Unlike the first etude, however, the focus here is to achieve evenness and strength in the third, fourth, and fifth fingers of the right hand. This is accomplished by using these fingers to play a perpetual chromatic scale up and down the keyboard for the duration of the entire piece. At the same time, the first and second fingers of the right hand play chords along with the left hand. No false impressions here; it is laborious enough to play a clean, smooth chromatic scale using the normal fingering! This etude is also made harder by the intended legato playing and the fact that the entire piece is to be played very softly. The difficulties here, then, are multifarious: the pianist has to not only play chromatics using the weakest fingers of the hand, but also play them smoothly, softly, and evenly! Overall, this makes for one of the more difficult etudes. The source of the programmatic title is immediately obvious upon listening or looking at the score.

Op.10 No. 3, E major (Tristesse)

The popular Etude Op. 10 No. 3 is set apart from many of the other Op. 10 and Op. 25 etudes most noticeably by its tempo. While many of the others in these two sets are whirlwinds of notes, this one is calmer and much slower. It is also, however, incredibly emotional and musical. The primary technical focus here is playing in three voices. The right hand plays the melody and the left hand plays accompanying notes. However, there is a third sixteenth-note accompaniment “between” the melody and bass, played by both hands. In the middle of the piece, the difficulty shifts to fast playing of chromatic fourths, which could pose a challenge to pianists who could otherwise handle this piece with ease.

What makes this particular etude notable, however, is not its technical difficulty. It is the nostalgia, the wistfulness, and the emotion that flow through the music. Chopin is rumored to have proclaimed about this etude that “In all my life I have never again been able to find such a beautiful melody.” It is also reported that while Chopin was playing this for a student, he suddenly began weeping and cried “Oh, my homeland!” This etude is one of the best expressions of Chopin’s nationalism and the love he felt for his Poland.

While the piece is undoubtedly very emotional, many musicians believe that it is poorly nicknamed. Tristesse, which translates to sadness, is a misnomer, to say the least. The etude is not simply “sad”; it is an expression of nostalgia and Chopin’s love of his homeland. It has firmly established itself as one of Chopin’s most popular and best loved compositions.

Op.10 No. 4, C# minor (Torrent)

In direct contrast to the slower and calmer etude before it, the Etude Op. 10 No. 4 opens with a sharp chord followed immediately tumultuous sixteenth-note runs in both hands. There are several major difficulties associated with this piece. The sixteenth-note runs make up the melody. The difficulty with this is that the piece switches which hand does these runs every few measures. Therefore, the melody switches from the right hand to the left hand and back, many times. There is also a certain amount of difficulty present in playing the sixteenth notes softly but still very rapidly and fluidly. The pedaling of this etude may also pose a problem. The etude’s nickname is the “Torrent”. Just the right amount of pedal must be used to achieve this effect. If one uses too much, the piece sounds like a sluggish river; on the other hand, if one uses too little, it sounds very choppy and detached. To top things off, for its speed, this is one of the longest etudes of the 24. Fortunately, the piece is not as challenging musically as some of the other etudes, but one might find that one has a great deal of trouble in transferring the musical ideas from one’s hands to the keyboard! The etymology of the nickname is immediately apparent upon listening to the piece.

Op.10 No. 5, Gb major (Black keys)

One of the more popular Chopin works, this etude has the right hand playing rapid triplets while the left hand plays the melody in chords. This would be easier to accomplish, however, if the right hand notes were not completely on black keys! Chopin also included more dynamic indications in this etude than most others, though this can be attributed to its relative brevity; at only four pages, the etude lasts about a minute and a half played at proper tempo. The greatest technical difficulty of this etude is getting the right hand to flow. Without a firm yet fluid hand motion, the right hand will either be missing some of the intended legato feeling or some of the intended vivace feeling. (The tempo indication is written Vivace.) Due to the very fast right hand being played entirely on black keys, it is quite easy to get notes wrong. Even though the piece is intended to be played legato, there is a certain crispness to it that foils attempts at oversimplifying the pedaling. Too much pedal makes the right hand sound very messy, while too little makes the left unnecessarily choppy.

There is actually one white key in the right hand. About three-quarters of the way through, the piece temporarily slows down and the right hand plays the chord D-flat, F, and B-flat!

Op.10 No. 6, Eb minor

Like the Etude Op. 10 No. 3, this etude is not completely about speed and feats of superhuman virtuosity. It proceeds at a rather slow pace – the tempo indication is Andante. The melody is very plaintive and mournful and is completely in the right hand. The left hand, however, has some practice in playing two different voices. The first voice consists of one or two bass notes or chords per measure. This is not very difficult. The second voice, however, consists of a thoughtful sixteenth-note progression that continues throughout the entire piece. Rather than being an accompaniment, it is almost like a second melody. The progression is only slightly technically challenging to play; the only major technical difficulties are the unusual positions that the left hand must occasionally assume. The numerous accidentals make this portion of the piece extremely difficult and time-consuming to learn, however! Chopin’s purpose with this etude was to develop a good sense of playing two melodic lines at once with grace and musicality in both. For this etude to sound musically pleasing, one must also clearly express the beautiful flowing main melody of the right hand. It is doing this above the sixteenth-note progression that is the challenge.

Op.10 No. 7, C major (Toccata)

This rather eccentric-sounding etude has some interesting right-hand difficulties; the left hand is rather simple, playing single eighth notes throughout. However, the right hand is in perpetual motion, characterized by rapidly changing intervals ranging from a minor third to an augmented sixth. No two intervals of comparable size are ever next to each other, which make execution at proper tempo a special challenge; a third is almost always followed by a fifth or a sixth. This is made difficult by the fact that the large interval is not on the same melodic line as the smaller one. The two notes of the smaller interval are often completely below the two notes of the larger one. Another difficulty lies in the treatment of the repeated notes in the intervals; occasionally, the top note of the third is the bottom note of the larger interval immediately proceeding (or preceding) it. Interpretation is made particularly tricky by the technical difficulty, and the programmatic title comes from the rapid progression of intervals that can cause the piece to sound rather like a very detached toccata if not played with legato. Due to the somewhat odd melody and the difficulty of getting a clean sound, it is unfortunately not one of the most popular etudes.

Op.10 No. 8, F major (Sunshine)

The Etude Op. 10 No. 8 starts off with a brief right hand trill which gives way to rapid sixteenth-note runs soaring up and down the keyboard during the entire piece in the right hand, with an ebullient melody in the left. The obvious technical difficulty here is in the right hand, as the rapid sixteenth notes present quite a challenge. Even though the melody is in the left hand, the right hand is designed to complement the melody in some parts, so careful dynamic control is necessary for the piece to sound good. There is also the ever-present difficulty of playing rapid sixteenths evenly, occasionally softly, and, of course, with legato. This etude is also somewhat of a test in endurance, as Chopin’s right hand sixteenths are relentless and incessant until the very end. (It should be noted, however, that the endurance required to play this is nowhere near the endurance required to play the Etude Op. 25 No. 11!) As with some of the other etudes in the Op. 10 set, the left hand is extremely simple compared to the right.

The bright, uplifting melody makes this etude much more accessible than some of the others; one might picture a singing bird, gliding freely in the open air, swooping gracefully a few times before gently landing on a tree. The piece is not difficult to interpret, but the pianist will almost certainly run into trouble getting the piano – especially the right hand – to sound the way he or she wants it to.

Op.10 No. 9, F minor

This etude is one of the most lyrical of all the etudes, with a beautiful, haunting melody reminiscent of one of Chopin’s darker nocturnes. The right hand plays the melody in single notes and small chords, and then in much stronger octaves, neither of which are tremendously difficult technically. Passage work for the left hand is more difficult. It is similar to the left hand found in the Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1, though faster and more technically difficult. The rapid arpeggiated stretches often reach a tenth or more. As the piece progresses, there are numerous jumps, though these are not very difficult in comparison to those of some of the other etudes! The difficulty is that the left hand must be handled extremely delicately and precisely in order to give the piece its haunting undertones. The last few measures of the piece also require special attention, as they are very gentle and delicate in both hands, and it is tricky to obtain the exact effect one wants.

Even though this is not among the hardest etudes, one must not forget that each of Chopin’s etudes has an interpretational difficulty. This difficulty is prominent in this one. From the very beginning, a very dark melody rings out. The melody is more reminiscent of silent despair and struggle than of any open conflict. Our hero does not burden others with his fight; he chooses to weep to himself silently. As the piece progresses to the climax, his struggle grows harsher and more violent. It threatens to consume him entirely. Eventually, the piece fades away to nothing, and our hero ultimately falls.

Op.10 No. 10, Ab major

This piece is built on a very interesting structure. The left hand is not too difficult, playing eighth notes with two longer, held notes every measure. This is all there is to the left hand. The right hand, however, reveals one aspect of Chopin’s musical genius. Its structure is nearly unvarying; a single eighth note followed by an interval that is almost always above this note. The structure is built on arpeggios, which make the right hand somewhat simpler – it is relatively easy for the fingers to find their place. Despite this simple structure, Chopin has managed to weave in two not inconsiderable difficulties. Firstly, accents. Although the structure of the piece is very similar throughout, the rhythm and phrasing vary greatly. The piece can be divided into three sections based on this: even though each section has the same structure note-wise, they are phrased very differently; a different part of the rhythm is accented in each section. The second difficulty is the wide range of tones that Chopin intended the pianist to use. Notwithstanding that the right hand is structurally similar throughout, there is a wide variety of sounds and tones that Chopin intended for it to express. The pianist must use the same structure to create an extremely wide range of tones and sounds.

Therefore, despite its seemingly simple construction, the piece is very musically difficult. However, this difficulty is more than compensated for by the lively, charming melody that results from a good performance!

Op.10 No. 11, Eb major (Arpeggio)

The first thing one notices about this etude is that nearly every note is in a rolled chord! The main focus, then, is immediately apparent. In both the right and left hands, rolled chords of three or four notes abound. As often as not, these rolled chords are enormous, up to a twelfth in both hands! Since these (sometimes huge) chords are in extremely rapid progression, the etude develops wrist control and finger dexterity. It is literally impossible to roll such large chords with such speed without proper wrist technique. Another difficulty is that even though the melody is usually the top note of each chord, it is sometimes in the middle. Chopin does not mark when this is the case; the pianist is left to determine this for him/herself. This presents a twofold difficulty: One must understand the piece well to know when this is the case, and without considerable skill in rolling chords, expressing a melody as a middle note is all but impossible. Finally, it is of interest and importance to note that the tempo indication is Allegretto, not Agitato. A playing of the piece should not be the product of an extremely taxing effort and lots of pain. The melody is gentle, not brutal; one should picture a serenely flowing river, not ocean waves crashing onto rocks.

Op.10 No. 12, C minor (Revolutionary)

The Revolutionary Etude holds its place as one of the most eminent and well recognized of all of Chopin’s compositions. Beginning with the first dramatic chord all the way to the impassioned conclusion, this piece is an outpouring of emotion. It is immediately apparent that most of the technical difficulty is in the left hand, with rapid runs and frequent turns. However, this difficulty is perhaps easier to resolve than those in many other etudes, as finding a comfortable fingering wins half the battle with this piece. (If, by any chance, one wishes to seek a greater challenge with this etude, perhaps one could do what Alexander Dreyschock did – learn to play the left hand in octaves, without losing any tempo!) Other difficulties include polyrhythms and cross-rhythms that are used more and more to convey a sense of conflict and struggle towards the end of the piece. After the problem of knowing the notes is resolved, one must inevitably move on to the problem of interpretation, which is always important – but especially so in such a famous piece. At a young age, Chopin’s first music teacher taught him to respect the works of the old artists – namely, Bach, Mozart, and Haydn, among others. Chopin had a particular distaste for most of Beethoven’s work, yet it is impossible to imagine that he was not familiar with it. Many of Beethoven’s stormiest compositions, such as his Pathétique sonata, are written in C minor. Surely Chopin knew that C minor was the stormiest key of them all in Beethoven, and – perhaps unconsciously – he expressed this in the Revolutionary Etude. The piece reportedly emerged after Chopin heard of Poland’s failure in its rebellion against Russia. Chopin was unable to participate due to his poor health, and when he heard that the rebellion failed, he cried, “All this has caused me so much pain. Who could have foreseen it!” During this time period, he produced some of his darkest and most passionate works, such as the Scherzo No. 2 and this etude.

In the beginning, after a strong chord rings out, the left hand runs relentlessly and the melody is further developed in the right hand. Given the context of the piece, one could liken the opening chord to a gunshot. The ensuing tumultuous left hand and impassioned right hand could then be interpreted as a hero fighting a battle in a war. After a hard struggle, the piece ends quite as chaotically and dramatically as it began, yet in C major, leaving us with a sense of ambiguity – we are not sure if our hero prevailed or perished, but we do know that he fought bravely with both body and spirit.

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