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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.

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

Etudes Op. 25, 1835-1837: [No. 13-24]

The second set of Etudes, Op. 25, was published in 1837, only four years after the original set. For reasons that are unclear, they are dedicated to Franz Liszt’s mistress, Marie d’Agoult.

Op. 25 No. 1, Ab major (Aeolian harp)

The first etude of the Op. 25 set begins with a soft, A flat major theme. The right hand plays the main melody – a beautiful, simple, one note theme. However, both the right and left hands play grace notes under the theme, as seen above. As the notes are not incredibly difficult, the aim here is to play every note with the utmost legato. At the beginning, this is simple; the grace notes simply make up an inverted A flat major chord. Later in the piece, the distances between notes get wider and jumps become numerous, making it difficult to both carry out the melody and play the arpeggiated grace notes smoothly. After undergoing numerous variations and modulations, the original melody returns and the piece seems to conclude with a series of upward arpeggios. However, surprising the listener, there is a final trill and chord in the bass that slowly fades out and finishes the piece. The programmatic title is based on two aspects of this piece. Firstly, the melody notes are often jumps from where the grace notes are, and even if they are not, they are often emphasized. This gives the melody a “plucking” nature, rather reminiscent of a harp. The grace notes also evoke the mental image of a harp being strummed. These two features are likely the source of the nickname “Aeolian Harp”.

Op. 25 No. 2, F minor (Bees)

Even though marked Presto, this is one of the softer, more lyrical Chopin etudes, with the right hand playing quiet eighth note triplets throughout. Like the Revolutionary Etude, the notes are not difficult as long as the proper fingering is learned; the primary difficulty here is the polyrhythm. The right hand, being in triplets, will naturally have its accents on every third or every sixth note. The left hand, however, does not play one note for every three the right hand plays. Rather, it is in quarter note triplets – it plays one note for every two notes in the right hand. This is similar to the situation found before the G minor arpeggios and introduction of the second theme in Chopin’s Ballade No. 1. Thus, a polyrhythm is established, and it is precisely this polyrhythm that makes this piece so difficult. Perfecting the right hand by itself is easy, and perfecting the left hand by itself is even easier. The problem lies in putting the two hands together!

When Alexander Dreyschock and Franz Liszt first met, Dreyschock tried to show off by playing the left hand of the Revolutionary Etude in octaves at normal speed. It is said that Liszt responded by sitting at the piano, hesitantly plucking out the first few bars of the right hand of this etude in octaves once or twice, then launching into a complete performance of it with the right hand in octaves at proper speed! Needless to say, Dreyschock was left rather shocked and speechless!

Op. 25 No. 3, F major (Cartwheel/Horseman)

This etude is more a study in rhythm than anything else. Interestingly, different editions of the score can be quite different for this etude. The author has in front of him two versions. One directs the pianist to play a sixteenth, an eighth, and another eighth in rapid succession, with a sixteenth-note rest, while the other directs the pianist to play a sixteenth, a dotted eighth, and then a normal eighth. These two versions end up producing completely different rhythmic nuances when played, and it is to the second one that I shall refer. So, the rhythm is as follows: there is a short note, followed by a long note, followed by a crisp staccato note. This has some interesting implications. The top note of each group of three is the main note, the one that carries the melody. However, it is not the longest note! There is also a second voice in the right hand, a note that is to be held while the first two are being played. (If this sounds very confusing, look at the score excerpt provided.) Towards the end, that note makes up the melody. Therefore, one must fully master the rhythm of this piece in order to clearly bring out the melodic line.

There are also some challenges to this etude in addition to the rhythmic difficulty. The last note of every three-note group is to be played staccato, with a slight bounce. This introduces two difficulties. Firstly, the staccato manner of playing means that the piece is not continuous; it is impossible to execute one continuous melodic line as can be done in nearly all the other Chopin etudes. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance to bring out the melody in this etude. Secondly, the piece itself forces the pianist to rotate his right hand first to the left, then to the right, then land on the staccato note. This makes expressing the melody even more difficult; the hand has to turn twice for each melody note! The “galloping” effect created by this is the source of the nickname.

Op. 25 No. 4, A minor

It is immediately apparent upon looking at the score or listening that the main difficulty is in the left hand jumps, which can span up to two octaves at times! Jumps as large as these abound towards the end of the piece. This etude is nearly the only exception to Chopin’s legato style of writing these etudes; essentially every note is directed to be played staccato. This makes the left hand seem a bit like the right hand of Liszt’s La Campanella! The right hand is rather difficult, though for a different reason. The right hand carries the melody, often in chords of three or four notes, where only the top note is to be heard as the melody and held. The other notes at the bottom are often to be played staccato while the top note is held for another eighth note’s duration. Occasionally, the top note is held even longer than this while the other fingers of the right hand are still playing staccato chords! Finally, when these two difficulties are both dealt with and one is ready to play with both hands together, one sees that the melody is actually syncopated, with the off-beat right hand set to the on-beat left! The constant staccato feel makes this piece different from the rest of Chopin’s etudes, and naturally makes it more musically difficult as well.

Op. 25 No. 5, E minor (Wrong notes)

Upon hearing the piece, it is easy to tell why it is nicknamed the “Wrong Note” etude. The main theme abounds with minor second intervals, leading to a feeling that the notes are wrong. The melody is carried on like this for a while, with difficulties being large rolls and ornaments in the left hand that can get quite intricate at times. A less substantial challenge is the dotted rhythm, somewhat similar to the one found in the Etude Op. 25 No. 3. The original theme repeats once before progressing to a middle section written in E major. The new theme is made of left hand chords and octaves while the right hand swoops up and down the keyboard in an accompaniment that can span several octaves at a time. This portion is structurally very similar to the middle section of Liszt’s Transcendental Etude No. 4. This new theme also repeats once before returning to the original theme. The ending is completely different either theme: it is much stronger and very heroic, with a strong dominant seventh arpeggio upwards and ending powerfully on a G sharp. Musically, it is tricky due to the presence of “wrong” notes.

Op. 25 No. 6, G# minor (Thirds)

No set of etudes is complete without a good exercise in thirds! This etude is an exercise in executing thirds of all sorts in the right hand. While initially just a trill of two chromatic thirds, the right hand quickly progresses to turns, rapid scales up and down, and intervals of a sixth or more – all in thirds! Another major difficulty is the softness with which the right hand is to be played. An interesting difficulty is the intervals in thirds. What happens there is that the right hand plays a third using either 3-5 or 4-5 fingering, and then plays another immediately after, about a sixth down from the first and usually using the fingering 1-2. There are a few times when this happens very rapidly going down the piano in a scale; this is extremely difficult even for experienced pianists! The left hand does not pose much of a challenge to an experienced pianist, so the main difficulty is dexterously executing the right hand thirds so that they are soft yet perfectly legato. Smoothness is key here; the thirds cannot sound choppy or else the etude will not sound very good!

At this point, the etude may start to sound like a dry, technical exercise. However, Chopin is an expert at turning a dry, technical exercise into something interesting – this is why his etudes are so popular! The right hand actually serves to complement the left hand, and together, they create a beautiful, flowing melodic line. While this has the benefit of making the exercise interesting (and actually bearable), it also adds elements of musical and interpretational difficulties to the study and ultimately makes it more difficult!

Op. 25 No. 7, C# minor (Cello)

At first glance, this etude seems quite simple. There is a beautiful and slightly mournful melody, and the accompaniment consists mainly of slow chords in both hands. There are some sections with left hand sixteenth notes, but once the notes are sufficiently learned and the hand motions become natural, they are not difficult at all. Two or three left hand runs constitute the only fast parts in the entire piece, and learning the fingering makes them substantially easier; they are nothing compared to the runs found in some of Chopin’s other works. So what, then, makes this piece an etude?

One must not forget that Chopin is nicknamed “the poet of the piano.” This etude is actually much more difficult to play well than people claim. (The author knows, since he tried to learn it!) The first difficulty one will come across while trying to put the hands together is that while the melody at first seems to be in the left hand only, it is actually in both hands. In fact, at some points, the melody is rather ambiguous and one cannot be certain whether the right or left hand has the melody note. (Towards the middle and end, this becomes less of a problem.) Therefore, one must have a very good idea of what is happening musically in order to play the piece well. This etude is also an exercise in how singing and delicate one can make the tone. In this respect, it is like the other slow etudes, Etude Op. 10 No. 3 and Etude Op. 10 No. 9. This etude requires an intimate familiarity with the music, which is difficult since it is the longest of the twenty-four. A certain mastery in phrasing is also necessary for a satisfactory performance. Thus, one might call it not an etude for technique, but an etude for musicality and interpretation! It is certainly among Chopin’s most emotional compositions.

The programmatic title likely derives its source from the left hand “introduction” to the piece, as well as the importance of the left hand in expressing the theme.

Op. 25 No. 8, Db major (Sixths)

Think back to the Etude Op. 25 No. 6 and its crazy thirds. Then, take a look at this piece and see that it is composed entirely of sixths – in both hands this time! The study is parallel sixths in both hands all the way through, with no reprieve until the very end. Depending on one’s playing style, this can be either easier or harder than playing thirds all the way through. On the one hand, sixths are more “predictable” than thirds, and our hands naturally enjoy playing the fingerings 1-4 and 2-5. However, on the other hand (no pun intended), sixths are much more difficult to play smoothly due to the severely limited range of fingering, and occasionally, Chopin introduces some odd fingerings that need to be carefully studied. The main difficulty of this piece is playing scales, arpeggios, and those sorts of things in sixths while keeping the music smooth. Without proper use of the pedal, this is essentially impossible.

Chopin also managed to work an interesting melody into this piece that is more jocular than beautiful. Even so, the piece is much less musically difficult than many of the other etudes. Like almost all Chopin, dynamics and proper phrasing are still of the utmost importance.

Op. 25 No. 9, Gb major (Butterfly)

A famous pianist once said of the Chopin etudes that most of the programmatic titles are overblown and unnecessary, but this one is “… inadequate.” It is not difficult to see (or, rather, hear) why. No metaphor better describes the light, “bouncy” nature of the right hand than a butterfly. The butterfly takes flight gracefully, is buffeted by wind, but eventually makes a safe landing.

This etude is the shortest of the twenty-four, and lasts under a minute played at proper tempo. However, the challenge lies in getting to the proper tempo! The left hand features nearly incessant jumps, reminiscent of the Etude Op. 25 No. 4 in structure (but definitely not sound). The right hand has a few difficulties. The melody is created by playing a detached octave, then two non-detached octaves. This makes a four-note group, the structure of which is used during the whole piece to convey the melody. This structure also has the pianist playing rapid octaves, which can pose a challenge to the less technically experienced. Another difficulty is in the constant switching of solid octaves to detached octaves. It is much more straightforward to simply play one or the other for the whole piece! Finally, the four-note groups are intended to have an echoing effect and sound “bouncy”. The “bounce” of this etude is perhaps best emphasized by the fact that it does not sound bad when you swing the melody instead of playing it straight! However, Chopin did not write it swing, so one has to be careful to both convey a sense of the “bounce” and not let it go overboard. One can simply picture the way a butterfly flies, with its wings flapping up and down – perhaps a little ungraceful, but beautiful nonetheless.

Op. 25 No. 10, B minor (Octaves)

For the sake of discussion, I shall divide this piece into three sections, since this is one of the longest etudes. The A1 section starts at the beginning and ends with the four strong chords and transition into a slower melody. This slower melody progresses for a while and makes up the B section. Finally, the original melody in A1 repeats and rises to a dramatic conclusion, making the A2 section.

The A1 and A2 sections feature rapid chromatic octaves, ascending and descending, in both hands. Anyone who has tried to play rapid chromatic octaves for any appreciable length of time knows that it is tiring, to say the least! However, many pianists assume that this is the only difficulty of these two sections. Not quite.

After the first few bars of both the A1 and A2 sections, one begins to have “middle” notes that are usually to be held for one or two measures. These middle notes are what make the piece so difficult. The octaves are to be played around the middle note while it is being held. Indeed, this makes the piece so difficult that Horowitz once said that the piece is nearly impossible to play as written! Many pianists either assume that those middle notes last for a very short time or that they should be sustained using the pedal. Both should be considered as cheating, as both make the exercise much simpler than it is, and, in fact, miss the point of the exercise completely.

Even though the B section is a reprieve of sorts from the furious octaves of the A1 section, it contains two difficulties that make it less innocuous. Firstly, although the octaves are slower, they can be much farther apart. The octaves in the A1 and A2 sections are nearly all chromatic, with a few exceptions after large chords. Here, although they can be chromatic, there are also intervals of major seconds, thirds, etc. Secondly, this section is quite repetitive. It is easy to forget what has already been played and what has not. During practice, this is not a problem; however, when playing in a concert, it is inadvisable – at the very least – to play a repeat of a something that is not meant to be repeated! These two difficulties, though minor, are certainly not inconsiderable.

Op. 25 No. 11, A minor (Winter wind)

Upon hearing the first four measures of this piece, one might be inclined to believe that the piece stays this simple. Not so! Originally, the etude did not have those four bars; Chopin was persuaded to add that introduction later by a friend. Once those four bars are over, the piece becomes infinitely more difficult. Fingering work for the right hand can take weeks of solid work, as the fifth bar’s right hand is representative of the right hand of the entire 10+ page etude. The right hand is also made difficult by the fact that there are two melodies – the “top” melody is the one that creates a chromatic scale in the fifth bar (the first, third, fifth, etc. notes), and the “bottom” melody acts as an accompaniment. This would not be difficult except that every other note switches melodies! The left hand is not technically challenging, but quite exhausting to play due to the constant enormous jumps that can reach three or four octaves.

Even though the right and left hands could be etudes in themselves, this etude combines both hands into an epic study of endurance and the ability of the right hand to emphasize the upper melody. Playing either hand for thirty seconds at proper tempo is not very difficult, provided one knows the notes. Playing the either hand of the entire piece at proper tempo, however, is another story! However, in spite of this, one must not forget that there is a musical element to this piece as well. It takes a true virtuoso to brave the trials of learning the piece and the technical difficulty involved in playing it whilst playing with the impassioned emotion Chopin intended.

Op. 25 No. 12, C minor (Ocean)

The last of the twenty-four etudes bring the set full circle. In the Etude No. 1 in C major, the right hand consists of extremely fast ascending and descending arpeggios with frequent modulation. In this etude, both hands consist of extremely fast ascending and descending arpeggios with frequent modulation! However, there are numerous differences between the two, as we shall soon see.

One does not actually play an arpeggio in the regular sense. Nearly the entire piece is built on a rather fixed but interesting structure. It is easier to look at the excerpt of music above than to explain it in words! In this respect, the etude is a little like the Etude Op. 10 No. 10; it explores the use of a single structure to produce a variety of different sounds. This is one of Chopin’s stormiest and most impassioned compositions, and the rigid structure should not prevent one from playing it so.

Technical difficulties aside, this etude contains a score of interpretational difficulties. One part in particular, reproduced above, is of particular controversy in the musical community. Notice that Chopin decided to accent the notes circled in red. However, most pianists play the piece accenting the notes circled in blue, since this flows more naturally with what the melody has already been and will be. To this day, musicians disagree on the “correct” way to play this and similar passages, and what Chopin really intended them to sound like. Carrying out the melody – the first note in most measures – is not difficult once one knows the notes, but the interesting interpretational difficulty is – how does the pianist treat the rest of the measure? Some prefer to have it fade out slightly ascending and grow stronger descending; others prefer to have a mini-climax at the very top note. Either interpretation demonstrates why the programmatic title of this piece is “The Ocean”. With both tremendous technical demands and difficulties in interpretation, this is one of the more difficult etudes.

Etudes de la Méthode des Méthodes, 1839-1840 (Trois nouvelles études): [No. 25-27]

No. 1, F minor

No. 2, A flat major

No. 3, D flat major 

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