More Than Mere Exercises
In Chopin’s 27 Études, technique and music become one
By BYRON JANIS
PUBLISHED IN THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ON NOVEMBER 15-16, 2008
It was May of 1829 and Frederic Chopin was 19 when he went to hear the great Niccolo Paganini perform his first concert in Warsaw. He was called “a wizard, ” “the devil incarnate,” “super-human,” “a violinist without equal” wherever he performed. Chopin was mesmerized by his playing — Paganini’s technique was positively acrobatic. What could he, Chopin, compose for the piano á la Paganini, something different that would echo what he had just heard? A few months later, he wrote to his best friend, Titus Woyciechowski, that “I have written a big, technical exercise — in my own way.” Shortly afterward, he wrote again: “I have composed a few exercises. I would play them well for you if only you were here.”
These two études (Exercise 1 & 2, he called them) were the beginning of his 27 Études (“Studies” in English) that were to become the cornerstone of every gifted pianist’s repertoire. They are extremely difficult, and he must have been thinking of Paganini — or Liszt, “The Paganini of the Piano,” the only one Chopin felt capable of playing them. In any case, he dedicated the first 12 “to his friend Franz Liszt.” Later, on hearing Liszt play them, Chopin exclaimed, “I wish I could steal the secret from Liszt of how he plays my études!”
In “Exercise 1” an extra-large extension of the right hand is required to play the difficult, widely spaced arpeggios that race up and down the keyboard throughout. Chopin’s hand was small but extremely flexible, otherwise he could not have played this étude. Could his sleeping with wine corks between his fingers have helped his stretch? It could have, judging from my own finger-stretching devices (though not with wine corks!).
“Exercise 2” especially demonstrates his highly unorthodox but effective way of fingering, which he considered a vital aspect of piano playing. Chopin found that each finger produced a different color. “Don’t try to make all your fingers equal in strength. Each one has its own job to do.” Searching for ways to improve evenness and legato, he often crossed his longer fingers over each other, slid the same finger from one note to the other, crossed his thumb under his fifth finger — all sending shock waves among pianists, particularly as it did the trick! After hearing the first 12 études, the acerbic German critic Ludwig Rellstab gave a highly exaggerated but rather amusing account of their difficulty. “He who has sprained fingers will be able to straighten them out with these études,” Rellstab said, “but he who has healthy fingers should be careful not to play them until surgeons are nearby.” The pianist-composer Ignaz Moscheles thought differently: “He who has a small soul should not attempt to play these études.”
Chopin’s fascination with Paganini continued. In 1831, he attended every one of his 10 concerts in Paris. Paganini comes up again in 1834, when Mendelssohn writes his mother, “He [Chopin] produces new effects (pedaling for example) like Paganini on his violin and accomplishes wonderful passages such as no one could formerly have thought practical.”
The second 12 études were dedicated to Countess Marie d’Agoult, Liszt’s mistress — why still remains a bit of a mystery. They are even more beautiful musically and even more technically challenging. The last three studies, “Trois Nouvelles Études,” were commissioned by an 1840 publication, “Methods of Piano Playing.” For some reason, they seem to be performed less often.
In the 19th century, composers, pianists and teachers wrote exercises providing practice material for developing stronger techniques. Chopin’s approach was radical and revolutionary. He wrote his own extremely difficult “exercises” but then did something very different. He merged them with music only he could have written. Magically, the technique and music became one. Exercises could now be performed in public. Each étude has a specific, technical difficulty that continues from beginning to end without a moment’s respite. If practicing them over and over doesn’t increase your endurance, nothing will.
The word “legato,” used often by Chopin here, is regrettably a marking that is too rarely fully applied. It means the bonding of one note to the next, almost as if they were glued together. Its use is the best way to emulate the human voice and make a percussion instrument not only sing but “speak” — a unique perspective of Chopin’s.
In the famous “Revolutionary Étude,” Opus 10 No. 12, the left hand is marked “legatissimo,” extremely legato, which makes it sound like a musical partner to the passionate, right-hand theme, not just a mechanical accompaniment. Perhaps legato should always be marked legatissimo — it would get the pianist’s attention and then we might have a real legato!
Chopin resented his pieces being given names. “Let them dream what they want.” But publishers knew it increased sales, so every étude was named (not by Chopin): “Tristesse,” “Butterfly Étude,” “Winter Wind,” and so on. Chopin said about “Tristesse” (Sadness), “Never in my life could I again find such a beautiful theme.” Technically, the difficulty is to play both the theme and its accompaniment with one hand. It became so popular that it was made into a song, “So Deep Is the Night,” which can even now be heard on YouTube.
The highly original and experimental mind of Chopin gave birth to the “Black Key Étude” — where, for the first time, the right hand plays only on the black keys from beginning to end. Incredibly, with changing harmonies, he creates a theme despite all that virtuosity. The great violinist Jascha Heifetz, whom I had the good fortune of knowing very well, walked into the room where I was practicing this étude. He asked, “Would you just play the left-hand accompaniment?” I thought, “Is he going to try to play that very difficult right hand on the piano?” But, instead, out of his pocket came an orange, which he held in his right hand. “Ready?” He rolled the orange back and forth over the black keys, sounding almost like the real thing — almost! We were in hysterics. I thought, maybe this étude should now be called the “Orange Étude” — though I am not sure Chopin would have agreed.
Reproduced with permission of the WSJ