The Poetry Behind the Performance
Every year, many inspired tourists visit Chopin’s grave to pay their respects. To this date, his music has been performed and recorded very frequently. The Composer of Poland is known as one of the best composers of the Romantic period; ironically, he did not consider himself of this group. He was the Poet of the Piano, and the intense expression and emotion present in his music is the cause of this common belief. Anyhow, his music has fuelled the inspiration of millions of musicians and will certainly continue to do so for quite some time.
Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.
The ballade is a large-scale masterpiece. It is a form of music that Chopin, himself, invented. In this sense, it is an exceptional application of his talent. By way of the music’s highly expressive nature, Chopin communicated emotions of every extreme. He seems to have made use of lyrical and structural technique in order to craft a very powerful form of music. The ballades mark the highest level of maturity of his musical development.
A typical Chopin ballade begins with a sweet, lyrical melody. The music’s nature then becomes more forlorn, and the melody is thereby fantastically developed. The same musical material experiences a variety of changes, as the mood shifts (almost, at times, and abruptly) from elation to desolation, from fury to endurance. The ballades might sound quite challenging in terms of both musicality and technicality. They are regular among the repertoires of modern pianists.
Op. 23 – Ballade No. 1 In G Minor
James Huneker called this epic narrative “The Odyssey of Chopin’s Soul“. Chopin began his first ballade in Vienna and finished it in Paris, in 1836. He dedicated it to Monsieur le Baron de Stockhausen, the Hanoverian ambassador to France. The piece is a glowing masterpiece. The great lyrical theme, stated in three different forms, is intoxicating. The fantastic work concludes with a coda of elemental power, culminating in a chilling downward chromatic passage in octaves, which will electrify any receptive listener.
The first questioning theme is heard again, and with a perpendicular roar the presto comes upon us. For two pages, the dynamic energy displayed by the composer is almost appalling. A whirlwind it is elsewhere called. It is a storm of the emotions, muscular in its virility. That reminds of de Pachmann – a close interpreter of certain sides of Chopin – playing this coda piano, pianissimo and prestissimo. The effect was strangely irritating to the nerves, and reminded of a tornado seen from the wrong end of an opera glass. According to his own lights the Russian virtuoso was right: his strength was not equal to the task, and so, imitating Chopin, his topsy-turvy the shading. It recalled Moscheles’ description of Chopin’s playing:
“His piano is so softly breathed forth that he does not require any strong forte to produce the wished for contrast.“
Op. 38 – Ballade No. 2 In F Major
Robert Schumann dedicated his Kreisleriana (Op. 16) to Chopin. Returning the honour, Chopin dedicated his second ballade to his German companion. He composed it in Majorca, in 1838. A work of perfect proportion, it opens with a slow and magical episode that quickly turns into a tempest, presto con fuoco, a wild, magnificent outburst.
In the words of composer Alan Rawsthorne, at the end of the coda the andantino theme becomes “a whispered reminder of the very opening“, which “vibrates in the memory.“
Op. 47 – Ballade No. 3 In A-flat Major
Chopin composed the third ballade in 1841 and he dedicated it to Mademoiselle Pauline de Noailles. This piece is the essence of charm and warmth, with a sense of irony that surrounds the second subject.
Frederick Niecks, Chopin’s first important biographer, said, “A quiver of excitement runs through the whole piece. There is suffused a most exquisite elegance.” The slender second subject becomes a development section, “…one of the most powerful Chopin ever composed, and” says Rawsthorne; “one is quite staggered to look back at its winsome origins.” The coda, he continues, ends in “a blaze of light.“
Op. 52 – Ballade No. 4 In F Minor
Chopin composed the fourth ballade in 1842 and dedicated it to Madame la Baronne C. Nathaniel de Rotschild. It is generally agreed to be one of the sublime works of Romantic music. For John Ogdon, it is “the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions. It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.” Huneker calls its chief theme a “melody which probes the very coverts of the soul.” He compares it to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, while Ogdon speaks of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, inviting us to a “Romantic communion of unbelievable intensity.“
The fourth ballade remains a narrative but has an inimitable feeling of intimacy and Slavonic colouring, and demands of the interpreter a delicate rubato and a virtuoso technique. It culminates in a coda of bone-crushing technical severity.
Douze Grandes Etudes – Op. 10
Op. 10 – Etude No. 1 In C Major (a.k.a. Waterfall)
In all of Chopin’s works, only once is there a direct reference to Bach and this is it. It is, of course, traditional to start a set of pieces with arpeggios and a standard method at the beginning of any improvisation. With this etude, what lies is a very clever rewrite of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 from the Well-Tempered Keyboard. Given his idolisation of Bach, it is no surprise to find Chopin’s offering so close to Bach’s Prelude in its construction, namely a single form of arpeggiation throughout and almost a complete match in terms of harmonic shape. One must conclude, therefore, that this reference to Bach was wholly intentional.
This etude is designed to develop and stretch the right hand, specifically between fingers 2, 3 and 4. The fingering for the arpeggios is either <124> <5124> or <123> <5123> and most importantly, the phrasing of the work is dependent on this fingering. The opening section (bars 1 – 16) lie reasonably well for the hand and one would do very well to master this part first and foremost. The middle section (bars 17 – 47) is where the challenge might start; as the chromatics within the arpeggios becomes more pronounced, hence the indicated fingering becomes more of a stretch and will, at first, seem almost impossible. There is always a temptation to change the fingering to <125> <2125>, but, as remarked above, this will cause a change in the phrasing and thus destroy the unity of the work.
It should be started learning at half-speed (or even less) and made sure that each section is mastered thoroughly, BUT without the dynamics – just a uniform volume to begin with. Once satisfied with learning, then it can be started to add the dynamics and gradually increase the speed. In the final section (bars 48 – 79), it should be paid close attention to the pedal points and accented notes within the arpeggios – modulations within the arpeggios must be well-defined and in no way smudged.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 2 In A Minor (a.k.a. Chromatic)
This etude is designed to develop and exercise the right-hand’s weakest fingers – 3, 4 and 5 – and must be played sempre legato WITHOUT PEDAL throughout. As with No. 1, it should be mastered the opening section (bars 1 – 18) first before moving on to the middle (bars 19 – 35) and final (bars 36 – 49) sections.
It might be wise to start at half-speed without any dynamics and learn each section thoroughly. Then one should put the sections together and once again, without any dynamics, practice the entire work, still at half speed with 100% accuracy. Once the work can be performed through at a constant speed, then dynamics might be added and the speed could gradually be increased.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 3 In E Major (a.k.a. Tristesse or L’adieu)
This etude is one of Chopin’s most subtle exercises and is as much an exercise for the pianist’s ear as well as the hands. On a technical level, the work must be played legato throughout with very little or no use of the sustaining pedal. It should be noticed in the opening bars how each bass-line note must be held until the next, with the accent falling on the second note. At the same time, it is noted that the cross-accents in the right-hand, which are designed to clash with the bass-line accents.
What is at hand, in actual fact, are two separate melodies played off against each other and each one falls in and out of prominence sequentially. The opening section (bars 1 – 20) introduces the basic themes and you must pay close attention to the tied notes in the right hand (bars 3 and 4, for example). The middle section (bars 21 to 61) expands on these cross-rhythms and further tests the pianist’s ability to resolve these accent-clashes accurately. The final section (bars 62 to 77) is a restatement of the opening theme and contains nothing new.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 4 In C-sharp Minor (a.k.a. Torrent)
This is one of the most complex works, but one that will repay very careful and accurate practice. It should be fairly noticed how this work contains all of the technical elements of the first three etudes. The main test in this work is to pass a melodic line from hand to another, sometimes with a transition and sometimes without. As with all the etudes, this work can be divided into three sections (bars 1 – 28, 29 – 50, 51 – 82), although the division between the sections are by no means obvious. The opening 12 bars are relatively straightforward with the melodic line being passed between the right and left hands with a transition (bars 4, 8 and 12). This process is to be repeated between bars 13 to 28 without a transition. It should again be noticed how the hands in this section are moving in complementary directions. The central section builds on the basic voice-leading of the first section but this time with the hands moving in opposite directions, starting at bar 36. This will train each hand to move independently of the other and is as much a mind exercise as well as a physical one. The final section is a recapitulation of the opening theme with all elements appearing in the coda (bar 71 onwards). This etude must be played WITHOUT PEDAL throughout, except for the last four bars, where the pedal must be held down continuously for the triumphant ff climax and close.
It should be started learning at half-speed or even less and paid close attention to the phrasing within the chromatics and arpeggios (bars 3, 7, 8 and 11). By all means, it is also to be noticed that the similarity in this respect with No. 3 and how this etude builds on what has been learnt in the previous one – the melodic line must be distinct from what is going on around it. As each section is learnt, it should then be started to gradually increase the speed and add the various dynamics bearing in mind that NO PEDAL UNTIL THE END.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 5 In G-flat Major (a.k.a. Black Keys)
This etude might just seem more difficult than it actually is, but it does require a very good basic proficiency in the black key arpeggios. It is also an exercise in tone colour and counterpoint, with two distinct melodic lines being played off against each other – one in each hand.
The opening section (bars 1 – 16) is relatively straight-forward with four 4-bar phrases in the sequence tonic, subdominant and dominant and one should practice getting this opening correct first before moving to the next section. The touch must be legato throughout and careful attention must be paid to the pedal points, otherwise arpeggios will be smudged. The second section (bars 17 – 48) is where the real test of this work is to be found; this is where the white keys come into play through a series of modulations and the figuration turns into a steeplechase with each key change. It should be paid close attention to the transition from bar 32 onwards – two beautiful arabesques must be pedalled for the entire two bars each one – followed by the heavily prepared return to the tonic from the dominant from bars 41 to 48. The final section (bar 49 onwards) starts as a restatement of the opening theme, but shortened, with a transition from bar 55 to 66 into the coda (bars 67 to the end). Unlike the main body of the work, this coda must NOT be pedalled and is a test of legato playing.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 6 In E-flat Minor (a.k.a. Lament)
Unlike No. 5, this etude is more challenging than it first appears for two reasons. Firstly, the metronome marking is j = 69 and not 60 as appears in some editions. This will seem quite fast, but it is intended as a slow two, rather than a slow six. Secondly, given this somewhat fast tempo, the richly chromatic inner voice is surprisingly difficult to play evenly and quietly and with the delicate fluctuations that make it expressive without overpowering the melody. Once again, this etude must be played without pedal and is a real test of the ability to play legato and legatissimo in both hands. Section one (bars 1 – 16) exercises the left hand’s ability to play legato. In section two (bars 17 – 40) it is the right hand that must play both the melody and inner chromatics through a series of modulations. Section three (bars 41 onwards) is a shortened reprise of the opening theme with the left hand once more in charge of the chromatics.
Each section should be learnt thoroughly WITHOUT any dynamics – the inner chromatics must be quiet and even throughout the piece. Once perfected the chromatics, dynamics can then be set and volume changes might be applied. It is also to be noted that there must be no rubato whatsoever, except from bar 49 onwards where there should be a slight sostenuto as the piece draws to an end, followed by a smorzando and rallentando in bars 51-52.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 7 In C Major (a.k.a. Toccata)
This work extends the lessons of No. 6 but the main lesson here is the ability to play two different melodic lines (one in each hand) consistently off-beat and at times with juxtaposed dynamic markings, i.e. crescendo in one hand and diminuendo in the other. The opening section (bars 1 – 16) introduces the basic melodies and should be mastered before moving on. It should carefully be noted that the pedal must not be used until bar 16, which is the transition into the development part. The second section (bars 17 – 33) expands on the lessons of the first section but this time with pedal; this is designed to refine the technique of modulation by way of changes in pedal points. The final section (bars 34 – 59) is again a recapitulation of the initial theme with a coda starting at bar 44, where the counterpoint (the two different melodies) is very clearly heard. Once again, except for bar 43 and bars 56 – 59, the pedal should not be used as this will smudge the arpeggios/chromatics.
As before, each section may be learnt at half speed with no dynamics. When the melodic and harmonic lines have been mastered , speed might be increased and further dynamics could be added.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 8 In F Major (a.k.a. Sunshine)
This work follows on from No. 7 as being primarily another work concerned with counterpoint. In this case, however, the principal melody is in the left hand, the secondary being embedded in the arpeggios/scales of the right hand. As with all the etudes, the work is divided into three sections – bars 1 – 28, 29 – 60 and 61 – 95 and one should approach this work by learning the first section thoroughly before moving to the middle and final sections of the piece. The right-hand figuration is straightforward with the accent falling always on the first note of each group of four semi-quavers throughout the work. The main challenge is that they must be played forte legato at speed, ascending and descending sequentially over the keyboard, and must not be in any way smudged. This is not easy, as the sustaining pedal MUST be used in order to highlight the bass melodic line. It should carefully be noted that the pedal point in each four-bar phrase must be carried over – from the first bar to part way through the second bar, and third bar to part way through the fourth – in each four-bar phrase (Bars 1 to 8, 15 to 22). The transition in bar 28 for the key-change into D minor must be practised well.
The central section (bars 29 – 60) is where the opening figuration starts to get even more challenging. The D minor lasts only 7 bars before undergoing an extended series of modulations right through to bar 60 – the return to the main theme. Chopin tends to slip in a further exercise in hands moving in opposite and complementary directions (bars 42 – 47 and 53 – 60) – this builds on the exercises in No. 4. As with the opening section, the accent always falls on the first note of each group of four semi-quavers. The pedal points should be paid close attention as it is important not to smudge the arpeggios.
The final section (bars 61 – 95) is a brief restatement of the opening theme with the transition into the coda beginning at bar 71. The coda proper begins at bar 75 and should be played piano legatissimo with almost total absence of pedal until bar 86, where the pedal must be held down until the end of bar 88. A very light is required at this point in order not to blur the right-hand arpeggios, whilst at the same time maintaining the opening tempo (note – no rubato or smorzando). Bar 89 onwards is a simple parallel motion in both hands played forte and leading directly into the final arpeggiated cadences played fortissimo, with pedal being used on the last one.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 9 In F Minor
Like No. 3, this work is very subtle in what it sets out to teach any pianist. On a technical level, it is an exercise in legato playing of arpeggios with the left hand, with the melody remaining wholly within the right hand. However, what is not so immediately apparent is that there is a secondary melody embedded within the left hand arpeggios and thus this etude is as much an exercise of the pianist’s ear in being able to bring out this secondary melodic line when necessary. This etude is also another of Chopin’s tributes to Italian opera, most clearly in the central section. The opening section (bars 1 – 16) is straightforward – four 4 – bar phrases in pairs, the latter pair providing an answer to the first pair. The left-hand arpeggios must be played legatissimo and sotto voce, the right-hand melodic line must also be legato but with a slight stress on each note. The sustaining pedal must also be used – twice per bar almost without exception – but will require a very delicate action so as not to smudge the left hand.
The central section (bars 17 – 36) is a development of the opening theme and the modulations from F minor come in rapid succession (bars 17 – 28) accompanied by quickly changing dynamics (from forte to piano and back again) followed by quick accelerando and stretto (bars 23 – 28). Bars 29 – 36 are almost pure opera – operatic sobs played forte followed by an echo played pianissimo. Tempo might be eased up the slightly for these eight bars, but not too much as the final echo doubles as the transition back to the main theme and final section (bar 37 onwards). The pedal points remain more or less constant, except for bars 27 – 28 – the ff climax before the operatic sobs – where NO PEDAL should be used.
The final section is once again a restatement of the opening theme and from bar 45 onwards the melody is doubled on the octave and must be played con forza, but still with the left hand playing legatissimo and sotto voce. The reappearance of the operatic sobs (bars 57 – 64) are effectively the coda, but it is noted this time the first set of sobs (bars 57 – 60) must be played piano with pianissimo for the echo; this makes the appearance of the octave-doubled sobs (bar 61) played forte even more intense and heightens the pathos of this work. The final bars of this work (65 – 67) must be played as quietly and as delicately as possible, with only a trace of sustaining pedal in the last two bars.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 10 In A-flat Major
This is one of Chopin’s most remarkable and challenging etudes, placing huge demands on the performer in varying a single pattern by changes of accent and touch. Chopin’s primary concern in this work is for the widest possible variety of touch that can be given to a single figuration, with the continuous changes of accent highlighting not only different parts of the figuration but also emphasising the polyphonic nature of the pattern.
The opening section (bars 1 – 16) sets forth the three basic variations with almost a constant legato bass line; off-beat with four accents per bar in the right hand against four in the left hand (bars 1 – 8); then on-beat but with six accents in the right hand against four in the left (bars 9 – 12); and finally both hands staccato with no accents and NO PEDAL.
The central section (bars 17 – 54) develops the opening theme through a series of modulations (E major, D-flat major, A major and E-flat major) with the accents in the right had either being on-beat or off-beat. This is designed primarily to test the skills learnt in the first section and it is important that these modulations are totally seamless with no alteration in the tempo, except in bar 28 where there should be a slight ritenuto as the figuration moves from D-flat major to A major. The climax of the central section starts at bar 43 and at this point it is the left hand that is playing off-beat whilst the right hand maintains a strict four beats per bar. The transition into the final section (bars 49 – 54) must be in strict time with a slight rallentando in bar 54 through the modulation back to the A-flat major tonic.
The final section (bars 55 – 77) is a reprise of the opening theme, but with several modulations embedded within the final bars, all underpinned by a dominant pedal point. The tonic appears only very briefly in this final section and is not fully re-established until bar 69, which is effectively the coda.
Each section should be learnt thoroughly without any dynamics (other than full legato throughout) and at half speed until it sounds perfectly clear. Once the work can be performed clearly from start to finish, then dynamics might be added, whilst making sure a proper metronome is followed so that one is conscious of the four beats per bar in the bass. With the dynamics in place, speed should be gradually increased.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 11 In E-flat Major (a.k.a. Arpeggio)
This work appears deceptively simple being nothing more than a series of arpeggiated chords in almost uniform three-quarter time. However, this is an easy etude to get totally wrong and as well as requiring 100% accuracy in the playing of each chord, it also requires proper use of the sustaining pedal in order not to smudge the melodic line. The rule for pedal use in this work is simple; if the left hand chords are the same throughout the bar, the pedal is to be used; if they are different, the pedal is not to be used. Similarly, the arpeggiation of the chords throughout the work must be accurate and must not in anyway affect the tempo. Both left and right hands must start and finish each arpeggiation fully synchronised. It is also to be noted that the volume throughout this work is fp or less (mostly p or pp), except for the forzando markings that appear at the beginning of some phrases. This will also make the playing of the arpeggiated chords more difficult and you will require a very light, yet firm touch.
The opening section (bars 1 – 16) is a simple two pairs of 4-bar phrases with a modulation from E-flat major to F minor. This section should be learnt first, without dynamics to begin with and WITHOUT PEDAL, because it is very important that one is also able to play these arpeggiated chords legato throughout. Having mastered the notes, then dynamics and pedal points can be added.
The central section (bars 17 – 32) expands the techniques learnt in the first section, but this time, as well as having to deal with several modulations; the transition between each modulation is dependent on accurate use of the pedal. These modulations come very quickly (C-flat minor, C-sharp minor, E-flat minor and A-flat minor) and demand several changes in pedal points between tonic and dominant. Getting these rights will make the return to the tonic at bar 26 all the more convincing and seamless. It should also be noticed how the melody moves back and forth between soprano and alto registers from bar 26 to 32 – yet another example of how complex this apparently simple work is.
The final section (bars 33 – 54) is a reprise of the opening theme, but as with all of Chopin’s works, he inserts several acciaccaturi that naturally complicate the figuration. These must be squeezed in accurately and delicately without disturbing the tempo and whilst still maintaining the legato of the melodic line. Only in the last three bars can the volume be cranked up to forte for the final arpeggiated chords – but without accelerando.
Op. 10 – Etude No. 12 In C Minor (a.k.a. Revolutionary)
Within this work, there are elements of all the other 11 etudes to be found, if only somewhat briefly. Like its siblings, it is divided into three sections (bars 1 – 28, 29 – 48 and 49 – 84) and it is the only work that is highly recommended learning from start to finish as a single entity.
Firstly, except for two places (bars 75 and 80), the tempo must remain constant throughout and this is not an easy task (absolutely no rubato). Chopin is wholly unforgiving in the application of sudden crescendos and diminuendos that almost follow the harmonics of the bass line scales/arpeggios. Secondly, although the marking only appears once (bar 81), it is suggested that as well as playing allegro con fuoco, one should also add appassionato to this piece overall. It is a passionate and fiery work and this should be reflected in the way it is played. Thirdly, this work MUST be played throughout with NO SUSTAINING PEDAL. Nothing ruins this work more than to hear both the harmony and melody deformed with great washes of pedal.
The opening section (bars 1 – 28) is relatively straightforward, but close attention must be paid to the contradictory dynamics of the melodic and harmonic lines. For example, in bar 10 a crescendo in the right hand must coexist with the diminuendo in the left had figuration. These conflicting dynamics appear throughout the work. It is also to be noted that the operatic nature of the melody, almost like a series of sung cries of despair.
The central section (bars 29 – 48) take the opening figuration through a series of modulations that, in typical Chopin style, are extremely challenging and are somewhat of a reminder of the modulations in No. 5. They must, however, be played with no alteration to tempo and no deviation from the marked dynamics.
The final section is further development of the opening theme, but this time with a series of thirds and offbeat accents incorporated into the right-hand melodic line. Once again, this is designed to refine the techniques introduced in the first and central sections. Only from bar 72 with the transition into the coda it can be eased up slightly on the tempo, with a marked smorzando in bar 75 and a poco rallentando in bar 80. The final four bars, however, must return to the open tempo and be played ff appassionato, possibly even with a slight accelerando into the final triumphant cadences.
Douze Etudes – Op. 25
If the Op. 10 etudes were the first revelation of Chopin’s genius and transition into musical maturity, then the Op. 25 set must be regarded as the completion of this process and, in addition, stands as the landmark of Chopin’s second stage of development as the finest virtuoso pianist and composer of all time. This may sound like hyperbole, but one has only to consider the following fact: it is now over 180 years since Chopin composed both Op. 10 and Op. 25 and during all that time, despite attempts by Godowsky to rewrite them, both opuses come to the ear as fresh, original and pristine as the day they were composed. Also of equal significance is the fact that they have been and are acknowledged to be so by virtuoso pianists the world over, and will doubtless continue to be so by future virtuosic in the years to come. This is no accident on Chopin’s part in many’s view; it is a common belief that he knew exactly what the significance and longevity of his work would be when he wrote it. The Op. 25 works also mark a significant change in Chopin’s writing from style brilliant to virtuoso bravura and a creative synthesis that was to find outlet in later works like the mature Ballades, Polonaises and Scherzos.
Before embarking upon discussing each work in Op. 25 individually, it will be helpful to reflect upon those elements within each work of the opus that are common throughout, together with any similarities and dissimilarities with Op. 10. Within Op. 25 itself, one of the most notable aspects of each work, is that although each work is cast in a typical (ternary) format, with only two clear exceptions (No. 5 and No. 10), Chopin has done much to blur the divisions between each section to the point that both the primary and secondary figurations/themes are not only motivational but also structurally linked in an almost seamless fashion. This is due mainly to the tonal organisation of each etude in Op. 25 with much greater use of chromatics and chromatic progressions within the confines of a single figuration. Op. 25 No. 1 is an excellent example of this; the transition from A to B is part of both structure and figuration. If one reads notes aforementioned of Op. 10 No. 12, the observation has been made that this work is one that is recommended learning from start to finish as a complete entity; this observation can be applied to most of the works in Op. 25. Like Op. 10, the figurations used within the etudes can be described in traditional pianistic terms – arpeggios, broken chords, skips, extensions, thirds, sixths, octaves, etc. – but they are much than this in Op. 25. The originality of Chopin’s creations is the way in which he demonstrates how these basic figures can be used in musical terms as Zofia Chechliska states,
“He took over only those devices which would harmonise with his overall conception of a pianistic sound world.“
Even more pronounced therefore in Op. 25 is the concept of the integration and interaction of technical effects and surface colour and texture within large-scale harmonic structures.
In terms of similarity with Op. 10, the works of Op. 25 are ordered the way they are for one specific and obvious reason. The first three in the opus set forth the basic skills that are used within the remaining works, and like the opening etudes of Op. 10, they confine themselves to dealing with a single technical figuration. However, more pronounced than Op. 10, these three works also teach the pianist the basic theory of tone colour within the confines of a single figuration and should therefore be understood in terms of the education of the pianist’s ear and the refinement of touch. For the rest of the Op. 25, therefore, it is Chopin’s essentially colouristic approach to keyboard sonority that differentiates these works from Op. 10, and, as will become clear, whilst many of the works of Op. 25 have their genesis in Op. 10, there is an even greater and more formidable integration of style and technique that are a direct product of a dynamic fusion of separate creative impulses arising from Chopin’s prolific musical imagination. The end result in Op. 25, as in Op. 10, is a compendium of piano technique of unparalleled and unimpeachable opulence that stands both alone and above anything written by any composer both past and present.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 1 In A-flat Major (a.k.a. Aeolian Harp or Shepherd Boy)
As with Op. 10, it is customary to start a set of pieces with arpeggios and Chopin does not disappoint. Op. 25 begins with one of the most spectacular essays in tone colour ever written and it is not only an exercise in playing arpeggios, but also an exercise in keyboard touch. The origins of this work can be found in Op. 10 No. 9 and No. 11; the arpeggiated left-hand accompaniment of No. 9 and spread chords of No. 11 are combined and rewritten to produce a work of the most exquisite beauty. Along with the soprano voice (indicated by the notes written large), there is a full four-part harmonic line that is effectively the counterpoint to the main melody. The work breaks down into three sections – bars 1 – 16, 17 – 36 and 37 – 49 – but, as aforementioned earlier, Chopin goes to great lengths to blur these structural contours to the point that the final bars of one section are part of not only the transition to the next, but also an integral aspect of that next section.
The way this is done is extremely subtle and demonstrative of Chopin’s genius in voice-leading and phrase length manipulation. It should be examined for a moment bars 13 to 18, and, depending on what version of the score one has at hand, it is to be taken a close look at the first and third note in each sextuplet in the right-hand. Now, these notes should be followed until you reach bar 15; this third note in each grouping now has a separate stem – this is the secondary voice, the counterpoint melody, buried within the arpeggios – it has always been there, but has, from bar 1, remained hidden or, better still, latent. Now one ought to observe what happens in bar 16 – the notes with the second stems are now the second notes in each group of 6, but equally obvious is the fact that the large notes of the melodic line in bar 16 are no longer carried over from bar 15. Clearly, one is now in the middle of a transition and this second melodic line is taking on a new significance, fully revealed in bar 17. Chopin’s technique in these bars also shows how he manages to manipulate the phrasing between sections, making the transition almost totally invisible and seamless. Not only does the bass line change from sextuplets to quadruplets, but this secondary melody moves into the tenor line of the left hand quads on the third note. It is also to be noted how this change from 6 to 4 in the bass adds a dissonance between the right and left hand melodic lines, which in turn, increases the emotional tension of the central section. But in what is typical Chopin style, he does not resolve this tension, but merely turns away from it, for by bar 22, the left hand sextuplets return, the dissonances are gone and stability is re-established via a new tonic – A major – at bar 24. This lasts only one bar however, for in bar 25, the A major is transformed into D flat – the subdominant of A-flat major – and bar 26 marks a prolonged increase in emotional tension along with the heavily prepared return via the dominant – E-flat major – to the opening theme at bar 36. It should also be noticed also within this section how Chopin alters the left-hand figuration once again from sixths to fourths and fifths in order to heighten the pathos and dissonances before the final return to the tonic in bar 36.
The final section of the work contains a brief recapitulation of the opening theme followed by a very short coda with a new figuration starting at bar 44. This is also demonstrative of Chopin’s second ‘maturity‘; the shortened or compressed recapitulation followed by a coda containing new thematic material was to become very much the hallmark of Chopin’s later works, and although it can be argued that arabesques of parallel sixths in the coda are nothing new in terms of being ‘new thematic material‘, they are, in a sense, very indicative of Chopin’s creative development and thought processes, if only in embryonic form.
Technically, this work requires a very light touch with accurate legato technique; the right-hand melodic line, as indicated by the notes written large, are intended to rise out of the mist created by the arpeggios. The sustaining pedal must be used throughout this work and it must be precise and exactly as marked in the score. The tempo is q = 104, which may seem a bit quick to begin with, but one should start by learning this work at half speed and with no dynamics and with as little pedal as possible – legato playing must be as near perfect as possible. It should be able to be performed pianissimo throughout with just the first note in each right-hand sextuplet clearly audible. When satisfied with speed and that it can be played from start to finish pianissimo, then various dynamics can be added and pedal technique may be refined. One point that should be made clear about this work, the melodic line in the right hand, i.e. the large notes, must always be played with the 5th (little) finger, except during the coda. (This was also another aspect of Chopin style and teaching methods, he always insisted that cantabile lines be played with either the 4th or 5th finger; this put him in direct opposition to contemporary piano pedagogy, the ideal of which was to make each finger equally powerful and nimble.)
The analysis of this work may seem overly long, yet it was necessary to clarify and highlight some of the very fine details in this work, which, as one will soon discover, are to be found in all of Chopin’s mature output, and which raise his music from being merely original into a category that is best defined as ‘fine art‘ of the most superlative quality.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 2 In F Minor (a.k.a. The Bees)
This genesis of this work is to be found in Op. 10 No. 2, but this time with the added exercise of an essentially contrapuntal harmony in the left-hand triplets that combines with the right-hand figuration to produce a continuous series of delicate cross-accents and syncopations. The work divides into 3 sections – bars 1 – 36, 37 – 50 and 51 – 69 – but once again the divisions between these sections, particularly the first two, are blurred by the moto perpetuo of the right-hand and left-hand figurations.
The main challenge with this work is that it is all too easy for the piece to fall into a false rhythm; the work is in 4/4 time, but it is very difficult for the pianist not to make it sound like six beats in the bar. The skill on the part of the pianist, therefore, is to make the first note of each right-hand triplet very slightly detached and accented without disturbing the fluidity of the piece. Not only does this require a sensitive touch, but it also requires excellent legato playing, for, except where marked, the sustaining pedal must not be used. The central section, although short, does contain conflicting dynamics that are a reminder of Op. 10 No. 12, where crescendos in one hand must coexist with diminuendos in the other. This work should therefore be considered a mind exercise in that each hand must operate almost independently of the other; the triplets in both hands must be heard, but the 4 beats in the bar must be clear to the listener along with the sometimes conflicting dynamics that serve to bring out the left-hand counterpoint melody, especially in the central section.
This work is best learnt in two halves – the opening section (bars 1-36) followed by the central and final sections (bars 37 onwards). It is also advised learning the right-hand figuration separately from the left, so that one can perfect the fingering before adding the left-hand. With both hands together, it should be practised until being up to the correct speed without any dynamics and pedal. These can be added once happy that it can be played from start to finish both piano and sempre legatissimo.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 3 In F Major (a.k.a. The Horseman)
This is another work of the most extraordinary fluidity, borne out of a synthesis of musical style and performance technique – the fusion of creative artistry and basic technical means whereby the music is produced. At first appraisal, this work appears to be divisible into three sections (bars 1 – 24, 25 – 48, and 49 – 72), and certainly for the purposes of learning the work, it is advisable to perfect the opening section before moving on to the central and final ones.
The opening section takes the primary figuration – an interval followed by two notes – which is then repeated as a variation within this first section with mordent-like demisemiquavers, followed by a reprise of the original figuration but this time harmonically altered so that it becomes a transition into the central section. This transition is very important to get right, for during the transition, the modulations from the tonic F major, effectively signal the elimination of most of the white notes from the opening figure in preparation for the establishment of a new tonic – B major. The central section, however, does not begin in the new tonic, but the first 4 bars are in effect a carry-over from the transition started in the first section. It should carefully be noted how, once again, Chopin’s blurs the divisions between these sections, thus enforcing continuity upon the pianist during performance. The same applies to the transition from the central section to the final section; the prolonged modulations from B major back to F major, in which the black notes are gradually eliminated in favour of an almost all white note figuration, demands a high level of mental concentration as well as technical skill on the part of the performer. The final section of the work sees the return of the F major tonic with a shortened restatement of the opening theme, followed by a coda consisting of the modulations that echo those of the earlier transitions between sections. The reappearance of the demisemiquavers in bar 67 recall variation of the basic figure from the opening section and allow a graceful disintegration and close of the work.
The use of the pedal is very important in this work and should only be applied where marked; this etude is as much an exercise in proper legato playing as it is in testing the ability of the pianist to highlight and resolve the delicate cross-accents and rhythms that are an integral part of the basic figuration. This is particularly important in the central section where in the right hand the accent falls on the second quaver of the figuration, whereas in the left hand, the accent is on the first semiquaver and the melodic nature of the left hand figure is most clearly heard.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 4 In A Minor
This is another work where the primary exercise is to do with touch. The relentless leaping staccato of the left hand is played off against three different kinds of texture in the right, and of equal importance, always off-beat. The work breaks down into three sections – bars 1 – 16, 17 – 36, and 37 – 65 – but as with the first three etudes of Op. 25, these divisions are by no means clear-cut as Chopin once more goes to great lengths to make these divisions as diffuse as possible.
The opening section presents the basic figuration – a melodic cantabile line in the right hand played consistently off-beat against the left hand staccato, which, it should be noted, remains unchanged throughout the work. The second restatement of the melodic line in section one is then reworked as legato and staccato in the same hand – the legato line applies only to the melody and not the scherzando accompaniment in the same hand. This is extremely challenging to get right and it is suggested to learn these opening 16 bars until they can be practically played with your eyes closed. Not only must the left and right hands work independently, but in the right hand, one must be able to combine two very different types of touch. The almost complete lack of sustaining pedal in this section should also be well noted. Having perfected this first section, one will be ready to move on to the next sections.
The central section builds on the lessons learnt in the first section by taking the figuration through a series of modulations, first semi legato (following on from the opening section) and then full legato and staccato all juxtaposed in dramatic fashion, but this time with a much wider range of dynamic markings – from pianissimo through to fortissimo, also juxtaposed. These contrasts of both touch and dynamics serve to heighten the pathos of the melodic line and reach their full fruition in the final section with the return of the opening theme. It is also in the final section where the contrasts change most rapidly, yet they must be played with absolute evenness and consistency, effectively consolidating the techniques learnt earlier in the work.
Pedal use in this work must be kept to an absolute minimum; it is simply not possible to maintain a staccato left hand with great washes of sustaining pedal in order to sustain the right-hand legato. The technique required is to gently ‘feather’ the pedal so that the dampers are only partially separated from the strings.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 5 In E Minor (a.k.a. Wrong Note)
This work has its origins in Op. 10 No. 10 and No. 11 and is one of amazing complexity, generated from a very simple motif – an interval and single note – then subjected to a wide variety of tone colours, all requiring a very different kind of touch. There are two independent melodic lines – one in each hand and both of which are clearly heard in the opening section. Chopin’s genius in this work lies not only in taking a simple motif and subjecting it to a series of variations, but also in the transformation of this motif into musical substance of unsurpassed beauty throughout the central section.
The etude divides easily into three sections – bars 1 – 44, 45 – 97 and 98 – 144 – and one should learn and perfect this opening section first. The basic motif is presented first as dotted separate groups of two (bars 1 – 20), then even groups of two with off-beat acciaccatura in the bass (bars 21 – 28), followed by legato soprano where the alto acciaccatura must be played on the beat (bars 29 – 36) – noting also in this third variation that Chopin reverses the motif – concluding with full legato in both hands and modulation to the dominant (B major) in preparation for the E major central section.
But it is in the central section (bars 45 – 97) that one sees the full revelation of the transformation of pianistic effect – the basic motif – into musical substance. The motif is extended first into groups of three, then into groups of four played off against the tenor line melody in the left hand, which itself has been carried across from the first section. It should be noticed in this section how Chopin changes the phrasing in the right-hand figuration (bars 73 – 76) in order to heighten the emotional tension before the second transformation into semiquaver section. Unlike most of the first section, this must be played full legato with pedal where marked. It might be noticed the similarity of this central section with Op. 25 No. 1 – the right hand figuration in this central section must, for the most part, be a sort of structural embroidery that supports the left-hand cantabile line. A very light touch in the right hand for this section is highly required, learning the figuration at half-speed and pianissimo, ensuring that the left hand melody is given full prominence.
The final section of this work appears to be a restatement of the original motif, followed by a very subtle transition into the coda starting at bar 109, leading to a very ostentatious preparation for the structural dominant on the last of the three big cadences, which themselves are spread over 6 octaves; It should also be noted how they echo the transition between the opening and middle sections realising how additional notes have been inserted into the figuration, along with almost independent phrasing for the right and left hand melodic lines. What is, in effect, the compression or reduction of the central section’s three-tiered structure into the confines of the initial motif – the motif itself has been transformed from an interval and a single note into a cadence and a single note. This closing section is very typical of Chopin’s mature works where he brings back the original theme as a finale, but very much compressed and with much greater articulation and plasticity in terms of phrasing. Probably the easiest way to think of it might be that every technique perfected in the previous sections are brought together with sole purpose of magnifying the inherent brilliance that can exist within the terms of a very simple figuration or motif.
It is only by paying very close attention to this sort of detail that one can learn to play these works. This etude is a supreme example of how not only each hand must operate independently, but in the final section, each finger must do so to in order for the full beauty of the work to be heard. Once again, it is as much a mind exercise as a finger exercise.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 6 In G-sharp Minor (a.k.a. Thirds)
This is another work within Op. 25 that is a development of Op. 10 No. 2, and in a similar fashion, it is an exercise in playing chromatics using the weakest fingers, but with the added complications of doing so in thirds and, in the central section, with both hands. However, there is much more to this work than the mere technical ability of being able to play the notes correctly in the right order; this is also an exercise in phrase manipulation and the ability of the pianist to resolve these anomalies totally seamlessly and convincingly. It is also an exercise in balancing two very different types of legato playing between the two hands.
The work breaks down into three main sections (bars 1 – 18, 19 – 34 and 35 – 48) with an extended coda from bar 49 through to the end. However, these divisions are by no means clear cut, for, once again, Chopin goes to great lengths to blur these divisions and in so doing, turns the work into a moto perpetuo that is very reminiscent of Op. 25 No. 2.
The fingering for the right-hand thirds is extremely important for, almost without exception, these chromatic thirds must be played fully legato and sotto voce against a very sophisticated left hand figuration that is both melody and harmony. It is suggested to learn the complex right-hand figuration at half speed and separate from the left hand for each individual section, but evenly and with no dynamics – just sotto voce and pianissimo throughout. Having perfected the right-hand chromatics, it can be then added the left-hand figuration and the various dynamics. There are several places in the score that have different dynamic markings for both left and right hand – crescendos in one hand must coexist with diminuendos in the other (and vice-versa). The sustaining pedal must be used throughout this work, but only where marked in the score and once again, its use must be delicate and discreet in order not to smudge the right-hand chromatics.
One has only to hear Pollini, or any other virtuosic playing this work to realise that it is not so much the technical skills that are important, but more the application of two very different kinds to tone colour to the right-hand and left-hand figurations. Having learnt Op. 10, one will simply have the technical skills to play this work; the aim of this etude therefore, must be seen in terms of the refining and perfection of the pianist’s ear.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 7 In C-sharp Minor (a.k.a. Cello)
Like Op. 10 No. 6, this work acts as a kind of ‘slow movement‘ for Op. 25 cycle of works and stands as one of Chopin’s supreme examples of how the paradox of the unlikely combination of Baroque counterpoint and Italian opera is fully resolved; the two influences are perfectly synthesised, giving each a new kind of power and meaning. This work is one of the rare examples of Chopin using thematic material written by another composer – in this case from Bellini’s Norma. It is also remarkably fugue-like in the interplay between left-hand and right-hand melodies; the sumptuous left-hand ‘cello’ melody is occasionally interrupted in order to sound a functional bass note, or using the occasional grace note (acciaccatura) along with the sustaining pedal to hint at one. For the most part, the countermelody in the right-hand follows and responds to the main cello tune, by often beginning the phrase with a literal imitation before taking a totally separate path. However, it should be clear from the score that a role-reversal takes place in the central section of the work, where the right hand melody takes the lead with the most subtle and exquisite soprano coloratura and the left hand assumes a tension-building decorative function. There is little else in Chopin quite like these sweeping rhapsodic left-hand ornaments – sometimes unstressed, sometimes cadential – as in the astonishing fioritura of bars 27 and 28.
When it comes to learning this work, there is really not much point in trying to break the work down into sections, but the divisions are as follows: first section – bars 1 – 20, second section – bars 21 – 44, final section – bars 45 – end. One may find it useful to perfect individual sections using these divisions. On a technical level, the right-hand melody is played almost exclusively with the 5th (little) finger and because of this; one will need to be very adept in ‘feathering’ the sustaining pedal in order to maintain the legato in the soprano voice.
Another obvious challenge with this work is the fact that the right-hand harmony – the almost continuous quaver intervals/cadences that are effectively the alto and tenor voices – must be played either piano or pianissimo almost without exception, and must in no way ‘drown out‘ the soprano and baritone (cello) melodies. It should also be noted how the rubato in this work is built into the figurations with the use of eighth and sixteenth notes in the two melodic lines, so one must try to avoid any wild fluctuations in tempo apart from those marked. No less surprising in this work is the sophisticated and, at times, complex phrasing, not only with sections, but also between the hands; this is very clear in the central section, where the left-and right-hand phrases are almost totally independent, where a close in one hand is carried over in the other (bars 28 – 40). Like No. 2, this work should also be considered a mind exercise in that each hand must operate almost independently of the other, yet in perfect synchronisation.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 8 In D-flat Major (a.k.a. Sixths)
This is the penultimate work in Op. 25 that has its foundations in Op. 10 No. 2 and No. 11, but this time combined and transformed by way of parallel sixths in the right hand, played against a complex left-hand figuration of parallel thirds, fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths and octaves. As with the earlier works, this produces a moto perpetuo of the most stunning clarity and intensity, with enhanced linear textures and incidental harmonic and melodic sparkle that are a direct result of the interactions between Chopin’s technical and artistic skills; in other words, in this work one can see how the technical and artistic elements are always spawning and influencing foreground events.
Once again, as with so many of the Op. 25 works, there are no clear divisions between sections, but a full prose description of the work’s construction can be expressed thus: an 8 bar opening section (bars 1 – 8), followed by a 4 bar transition (bars 9 – 12), which precedes an 8 bar central section (bars 13 – 20), leading to a 7 bar recapitulation (bars 21 – 27), concluding with a 9 bar coda and close (bars 28 – 36). The surprising and most obvious aspect of this description of the work’s structure is the way that Chopin manages to conceal such an obvious numerical anomaly in terms of the work’s phrasing, without any sense of tension or irregularity – the moto perpetuo is maintained until the very final closing cadence. The key to what has happened lies in bars 23 – 26; what Chopin does is effectively compress the normal 4-bar phrase into 3-bar thus bringing forward the close of the phrase from the end of bar 28 (where it should be) to the beginning of bar 28. It should also be noticed how the change in the left-hand figuration in bar 24, along with the detailed pedal markings, help to conceal the change in phrase length. It should sound ‘wrong‘, but it does not – one has only to listen to any decent recording of the work; it is this sort of artistic and technical skill that was denied to many, if not all, of Chopin’s contemporaries. Other examples of this sort of numerical discrepancy can be found in the Scherzos and Ballades, most notably the central section of Ballade No. 3.
With the skills acquired as a result of learning Op. 10 No. 2 and No. 11, Op. 25 No. 2 and No. 6, there are no real surprises in this work. It is suggested to learn each 4-bar phrase individually as far as bar 20, and then learn the final sections (21 – 36) as a separate entity. The pedal markings are remarkably similar to the schema found in Op. 10 No. 11, in that where there is no new bass note; keep the pedal depressed for the entire left-hand triplet or sextuplet. However, the pedal must NOT be used for bars 13 to 18 in the middle section, so legato must be near-perfect. Unlike No. 6, however, this work requires an absolute evenness in tone between left and right hand; there should be no difference in volume or touch – the dynamic markings apply equally to both left-hand and right-hand figurations.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 9 In G-flat Major (a.k.a. Butterfly)
The basic motif for this work is sculpted out of the primary elements found in Op. 10 No. 5 and Op. 25 No. 4 – a profusion of black notes with leaping staccato in the left hand, a very subtle blend of staccato and legato playing in the right-hand figuration along with a complex web of delicate motif reversals in both hands – combined to produce yet another work of exceptional clarity, cogency and brevity – a mere 57 seconds when played at the correct tempo of q = 112. Like No. 8, this work also requires very accurate and articulate pedalling, which is not at all easy given the almost unbroken staccato left-hand figuration; the pedal must only be used where marked. Also like No. 8, the divisions between sections are by no means clearly defined – this is another work that is best described as a moto perpetuo – and requires a very high level of concentration in execution.
The precise divisions between sections are as follows: an 8-bar opening section (bars 1 – 8), followed by an 8-bar response and transition (bars 9 – 16), leading to an 8-bar central section (bars 17 – 24), followed by an 8-bar recapitulation (bars 25 – 32) and 4-bar resolution and transition (bars 33 – 36) into the coda (bars 37 – 51). As far as learning this work is concerned, the opening section should be mastered first, for this is where the real test of this work lies; one must perfect right-hand figuration with its two distinct melodic lines, along with the motif reversal in bars 5 – 7. It should be noticed that the slurred notes in the soprano and alto voices – these must be accurate and well defined; noting also how these slurs change with the motif reversal. It should also be noted that no pedal must be used in this opening section until bar 8. The next two sections refine and perfect the basic skills as set out in the opening section, but this time with the added complications of the sustaining pedal and a complex chromatic progression that lead to the recapitulation of the opening theme at bar 25. It should be noted that in these sections that the stress marks (>) in the left-hand figuration of the first section are also absent; one will require a firm yet light touch in the left hand throughout this section. The recapitulation and transition into the coda contain nothing new in terms of the figuration, but noticing how in the coda (bar 37 onwards) how Chopin reverses the left-hand motif (the reversal takes place in bar 37 itself) and in so doing, changes the pedal point to a dominant one in preparation for the close of the work and, once again, introduces an arithmetic anomaly in terms of phrase length; left- and right-hand phrases are at first out of synchronisation at the beginning of the coda, only to be re-synchronised at the very end with the change in pedal point in bar 45. Once again, it is this sort of detail within Chopin’s music that set his works apart from those of his contemporaries; it is not just the fact that he did something much better than Liszt or Schumann ever did – it is the clear consummate ease, skill and finesse with which Chopin did it that sets his music apart from all others.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 10 In B Minor (a.k.a. Octave)
This is the last of the Op. 25 works whose technical origins can be found in Op. 10 No. 2; initially a moto perpetuo based on a complex chromatic progression, but transformed into parallel octaves in both hands with the principal melody embedded within the chromatic octave figuration, indicated by the notes with separate stems. There is also a distant similarity with Op. 10 No. 1 and its striding left-hand melodic line. This work should also be viewed as a direct descendant of Op. 25 No. 5 in the way that the opening figuration is transformed into musical substance of the supreme magnificence in the central section. There is nothing in the whole of the piano repertoire that is quite as punishing and sadistic for the pianist as the opening and closing sections of this work. Not even Liszt or Rachmaninoff ever wrote such a prolonged and violent chromatic sequence of octaves for both hands. The melodic line does not start until bar 5, so the first 4 bars are effectively an introduction.
The mezzo forte monophonic rumble of the first two triplets gives way to a crescendo of towering proportions with off-beat accents (bars 3 – 4) that finally lead seamlessly into the statement of the first theme and the embedded melodic line. It should carefully be noted the pedal points and use only where directed whilst realising the gradual separation of the left-hand and right-hand figurations in bar 19, leading to an eventual divorce of the two chromatic lines, most clearly heard in bar 22, followed by a reunion of the two hands in bar 25. For a work of such violence, the beauty and pathos are only too obvious. The same is true of the final section of the work; in true Chopin style, it is very much compressed into just 16 bars, but contains all the elements of the opening section, and, like Op. 25 No. 5, contains more of the contrapuntal detail of the central section (bars 114 onwards) within the octave chromatic progression. Note also within this final section, no sustaining pedal must be used, so legato playing must be near perfect. These sections should be learnt slowly and then gradually built up speed. The central section (bars 29 to 103), like Op. 25 No. 5, sees the transformation of a banal and violent figuration into musical substance of great beauty. This section must be played with almost no sustaining pedal and is therefore a test of legato playing. Both melodic lines are brought together from a monophonic setting into a fully harmonised and polyphonic setting and are very much a reminder of the operatic nature of this work – a beautiful duet between soprano and tenor. The similarity of this central section should be noted with Op. 10 No. 3 and Op. 25 No. 7, the way in which the hands must operate almost fully independently of each other, yet in perfect synchronisation. This is yet another of Chopin’s mind exercises – teaching the hands and fingers to work independently yet in concert with each other.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 11 In A Minor (a.k.a. Winter Wind)
This work, the so-called ‘Winter Wind’ Etude is the true successor and parallel to the Op. 10 No. 12 ‘Revolutionary‘ Etude, though in this work, the functions of the hands are inverted. The left hand has the stirring march-like theme, its dotted rhythms being a constant reminder of Op. 10 No. 12, whilst the right-hand sweeps across the keyboard to create a dramatic counterpoint to the main theme, and like Op. 10 No. 12, is so much more than just a mere accompaniment.
There is no easy way to learn this piece, except to start at the beginning at half speed and learn each 8 bar phrase thoroughly, but initially without any dynamics – just plain forte. The fingering is extremely important in the right-hand figuration, and in similar fashion to Op. 10 No. 1, will feel extremely uncomfortable, particularly in the central section of the work. The modulations within the right-hand figuration will also require a great deal of practice so that they are totally seamless. There must be no hesitations or variations in tempo at any point within this work – and this is not easy given that the volume is, with only two exceptions (bars 44 – 45 and 64), forte or fortissimo throughout. The sustaining pedal must be used in this work, but it requires a very fine technique and must only be used where marked in the score. The right-hand arpeggios/chromatics must be clearly defined and in no way smudged or blurred, yet the left-hand theme must resonate against the right-hand figuration.
One will need a great deal of physical stamina to play this work (also No. 10 and No. 12); Chopin makes no allowances for human frailty and limitations, and this work is just about as punishing as anything he ever wrote. It is interesting also to note that apart from the slow etudes; this work is also the longest – a full 50 seconds longer than Op. 10 No. 12.
Op. 25 – Etude No. 12 In C Minor (a.k.a. Ocean)
It is said that Horowitz once remarked that Op. 10 No. 1 was the most difficult of Chopin’s etudes. This seems relatively untrue, for it is this work given the dynamics that is the most difficult out of Op. 10 and Op. 25. This work though is, on close scrutiny, a very clever rewrite of Op. 10 No. 1, and whilst one might comment on the essential simplicity of the left-hand and right-hand figures, the formal conception of the humble etude have been expanded and combined with plangent technical resources to produce a work of the most awesome cogency. Whilst Op. 10 No. 1 may have been the inspiration for this work, there are, once again, elements of other Op. 25 works within this etude; delicate cross-rhythms and syncopations, off-beat and on-beat accented notes, and, of course, a full four-voice contrapuntal line that is both harmony and melody, a constant reminder of Chopin’s love of the music of Bach. It would even be eloquently put if it is said that this is Chopin’s reinvention of the fugue in Romantic guise.
As with No. 11, there is no easy way to learn this piece, except to sit down at the keyboard and learn each pair of 4 bar phrases in turn. The figuration, whilst not very difficult, does require a very high level of concentration of the part of the pianist, with a profusion of repeated notes within each semi-quaver quadruplet that moreover are not matched between the hands. (Another example of the hands working separately, yet in perfect synchronisation.) It is suggested starting at half speed (or even less) with both hands, playing mezzo forte throughout and omitting any accented notes. Oddly enough, the accents will happen quite naturally as speed increases, as they are, for the most part, always at either the top or the bottom of the sweeping arabesques. However, a very close attention should be paid to those places where accented notes should NOT be struck; this is particularly noticeable in the right-hand figuration, where they do not necessarily match the left-hand accented notes.
The modulations in the central section (bars 20 – 46) are extremely difficult and happen very quickly one after the other, yet they must be executed in strict tempo and with no hint of awkwardness. The same applies to the modulations in the final section of the work – they must be totally seamless and in time. The use of the pedal in this work is critical; strangely enough, the rule for using the pedal is very similar to Op. 10 No. 11, namely, if the figuration is constant in a single bar, use the pedal for the entire bar, otherwise release and re-apply for each change in figure, e.g. bars 7 and 8. Note also that sometimes the pedal must be held for longer than one bar; this is where the figuration has been extended by Chopin as a means of manipulating the phrase length, e.g. bars 23 – 24, 27 – 28, 71 – 72.
An impromptu is a short piece of instrumental music that is reminiscent of an improvisation. This means that these works exhibit a certain character of spontaneity. The music shifts from one idea to another without any necessary calculation or caution. These properties give rise to a certain air of carefree latitude, the musical consequences of which are exquisite.
Op. 29 – Impromptu No. 1 In A-flat Major
The first impromptu’s brilliant introduction is supported by its playful harmonic structure. The piece is a whirl of movement: its colourful nature is extemporaneous in its melodic shifts.
One such shift then falls, as the previous mood subdues. It becomes sombre and expressive. Several trills then introduce a recapitulation of the beginning. The movement is restored, leaving everything in a clear resolution of chordal solidity.
Op. 36 – Impromptu No. 2 In F-sharp Major
The second impromptu is a work of larger scale. Its beginning exhibits less movement: it is a work of humble chordal serenity. The middle section demands more attention. It is a cry of pride and achievement. The development is a difficult technical passage. More movement is used to show a learned curve from concrete statements. It washes the previous ideas cyclically, moving up and down repeatedly until it reaches a climax.
When executed properly, this passage is very graceful and elegant. The conclusion of the piece resembles the introduction in its tranquillity, yet the finishing cadence displays a flash of new confidence.
Op. 51 – Impromptu No. 3 In G-flat Major
Chopin’s third impromptu is a shining presentation of extempore beauty. The music is of utmost melancholy, demanding of the interpreter an improvisatory character notwithstanding a technical mastery of some difficult passages.
The left-hand melodies are smooth and peaceful, as the piece reaches its climax. The conclusion is a demonstration of great, firm negotiation.
Op. 66 Post. – Impromptu No. 4 In C-sharp Minor (a.k.a. Fantaisie Impromptu)
Chopin completed this work in 1835, before he worked on the other impromptus. However, it was not published until after his death. It has since become a masterpiece of great fame.
The opening is a wash of minor colour with a gloomy melody. As the music progresses, the mood shifts to agitated anger and escalates until it reaches a most impressive climax. A quiet, expressive account then follows moderato cantabile. The tender melody forgets all tribulations formerly concerned. A presto recapitulation follows, leaving no room for resolution. The ending is a dashing spectacle of burden, which dissolves into a soft, major conclusion.
The nocturne is generally credited to John Field, an Irish composer and pianist, who published his first three nocturnes in 1814. These romantic character pieces are written in a somewhat melancholy style, with an expressive, dreamy melody over broken-chord accompaniment. The majority of Chopin’s nocturnes adopt a simple A-B-A form. The A part is usually in a dreamy bel canto style, whereas the B part is of a more dramatic content. In distinction of melody, wealth of harmony and originality of piano style, Chopin’s nocturnes leave Field’s far behind. The similarity of Chopin’s nocturnes to Bellini’s cavatinas (such as Casta diva from Norma) has often been noticed, though there is little evidence of direct influence in either direction.
They sound to have been shy, serenely tender emotions which Field charged them to interpret, supplanted by strange and foreign effects. Only one genius possessed himself of this style, lending to it all the movement and ardour of which it was susceptible. Chopin, in his poetic Nocturnes, sang not only the harmonies which are the source of our most ineffable delights, but likewise the restless, agitating bewilderment to which they often give rise.
Op. 9 – Nocturne No. 1 In B-flat Minor (Larghetto)
The first of Chopin’s works to be published in France, Germany and England were these nocturnes (Op. 9), which appeared over the period of December 1832 to June 1833. They were composed – in part – in Vienna and completed in Paris. This first work immediately confirms the character of the nocturne.
The irregularity of the rhythmic patterns is one aspect of Chopin’s style of ornamentation that continues to find varied expression in later works such as Op. 27 No. 2. This piece was composed in 1830 / 1832 and published in 1832 / 1833; it is dedicated to Marie Pleyel, the wife of publisher and virtuoso pianist Camille Pleyel.
Op. 9 – Nocturne No. 2 In E-flat Major (Andante)
This nocturne resembles the style of Field’s Nocturne No. 9 in the same key. The left hand figuration is similar, and both have cadenza-like passages toward the end.
This is one of the most famous nocturnes of Chopin’s. It was composed in 1830 / 1832 and published in 1833; it is also dedicated to Marie Pleyel.
Op. 9 – Nocturne No. 3 In B Major (Allegretto)
This nocturne is obscure and rarely performed. It is an exercise in lyricism and delicacy. Its development is paradoxical in its torrential gracefulness.
It was composed in 1830 / 1832 and published in 1833; it is also dedicated to Marie Pleyel, a lovely pianist of the period.
Op. 15 – Nocturne No. 4 In F Major (Andante Cantabile)
The introduction of this night piece is calm and serene. This peace is followed by a stormy F minor central section, which purges sudden doubts and worries. A recapitulation follows, appeasing the anxiety and restoring the tranquillity.
It was composed in 1830 / 1831 and published in 1833 / 1834; it is dedicated to Ferdinand Hiller, a German composer, conductor and musical director.
Op. 15 – Nocturne No. 5 In F-sharp Major (Larghetto)
Although this Nocturne is fairly popular, this song is not so well known as the very famous nocturne in E-flat major. It has many more technical difficulties and requires more technique and a greater range of dynamics.
Arthur Hedley said this nocturne was composed in 1832, after Chopin’s arrival in Paris. It was composed in 1830 / 1831 and published in 1833 / 1834; it is also dedicated to Ferdinand Hiller.
Op. 15 – Nocturne No. 6 In G Minor (Lento)
In this Nocturne, it is the irregularity and unpredictability of the phrasing that demands attention. It is wistful in its outer sections, with a hymn-like passage at its heart, marked religioso. To enhance the purity of this passage, Chopin deliberately refrained from using the sustaining pedal. The expected return to the opening, however, is replaced by a new idea, also somewhat modal in character. This seems to approach a cadence in D minor, but the concluding chords bring the music back to G, with an archaic 4-3 suspension and Picardy 3rd.
It is doubtful whether any consistent example of such harmony can be found of earlier date unless the third movement, “in the Lydian mode“, of Beethoven’s string quartet – Op. 132 – is included. A story goes that Chopin, upon seeing Hamlet, composed this nocturne and named it, On the Graveyard. After being asked later the reason for which he did not publish this title, Chopin answered:
“Let them guess…“
This work was composed in 1833 and published in 1833 / 1834; it is dedicated to Ferdinand Hiller.
Op. 27 – Nocturne No. 7 In C-sharp Minor (Larghetto)
This nocturne was composed in 1834 / 1835 and published in 1836; it is dedicated to Countess d’Apponyi. It is also known as Les plaintives. It is clouded in a dark atmosphere, full of suspense and inner tension.
The middle part is leading into a more triumphant mood, as the chordal section expands a moment of temporary glory. Niecks, an important Chopin biographer, considers these nocturnes (Op. 27) the best.
Op. 27 – Nocturne No. 8 In D-flat Major (Lento Sostenuto)
This Nocturne begins with a serene melody of hypnotic beauty, floating over a sea of D-flat major harmony. Its development heightens the sense of drama, and the piece closes in waves of melting nostalgia.
It is indeed supreme in its class of Parisian salon pieces, if not more. It was composed in 1834 / 1835 and published in 1836; it is dedicated to Countess d’Apponyi.
Op. 32 – Nocturne No. 9 In B Major (Andantino Sostenuto)
Artur Rubinstein had always ended this nocturne in major:
“In the Debussy edition of Chopin, which I like, the B major nocturne ends with a major chord. In Chopin one shouldn’t discuss such things. Chopin changed his works constantly. […] I play the major chord because the minor chord weakens the ending: it weakens the whole theme.“
Chopin composed this work in 1836/37 and published it in 1837; it is dedicated to Madame la Baronne de Billing.
Op. 32 – Nocturne No. 10 In A-flat Major (Lento)
Compared with previous nocturnes, the tempo in the middle section remains the same and only the figuration changes. The degree in contrast is thereby reduced. It is a beautiful work of dreamy melody and majestic harmony.
This nocturne was composed in 1836 / 1837 and published in 1837; it is dedicated to Madame la Baronne de Billing.
Op. 37 – Nocturne No. 11 In G Minor (Andante Sostenuto)
Also known as Les soupirs, this nocturne is not technically demanding. The middle section is a strange chorale-like intermezzo in plain chordal writing.
It was composed in 1838 / 1839 and published in 1840.
Op. 37 – Nocturne No. 12 In G Major (Andantino)
The elegant theme, in parallel thirds and sixths, is presented in a surprising variety of keys, so that little sense of overall tonality remains. The middle section is a peaceful lullaby. Guiomar Novaes said:
“I find in those nocturnes that you emphasise reflection, nostalgia, serenity, and a certain deep feeling.“
It was composed just a few weeks after arriving at Nohant, in July of 1839. It was published in 1840.
Op. 48 – Nocturne No. 13 In C Minor (Lento)
This one reaches beyond the accepted domain of the nocturne: its virtuoso piano writing is reminiscent of the ballades. Robert Schumann reviewed both nocturnes of Op. 48, but his admiration was tinged with certain reservations.
This piece was composed in October 1841 and published in 1841 / 1842; it is dedicated to Laura Duperre.
Op. 48 – Nocturne No. 14 In F-sharp Minor (Andantino)
A seemingly endless melody is played with restless triplets in the left hand.
It was composed in October 1841 and published in 1841 / 1842; it is dedicated to Laura Duperre.
Op. 55 – Nocturne No. 15 In F Minor (Andante)
These nocturnes of Op. 55 were not greeted by the superlatives that the early nocturnes attracted. Guiomar Novaes:
“You play the second notes of the basses a little staccato, letting the pedal up. Rubinstein holds the pedal for each two bass notes.“
This work was composed in October 1843 and published in 1844; it is dedicated to Jane Stirling, a devoted pupil.
Op. 55 – Nocturne No. 16 In E-flat Major (Lento)
This nocturne lies at the apogee of its form. It is an application of the greatest depth, containing a melody of infinite natural quality. Its development and flow are breathtaking.
This nocturne was composed in October 1843 and published in 1844; it is again dedicated to Jane Stirling, a devoted pupil.
Op. 62 – Nocturne No. 17 In B Major (Andante)
A work of elaborate ornamentation and elementary simplicity, this piece suits the definition of charm. It is demanding in terms of both technique and musicality. For Kleczynski, the nocturnes of Op. 62 were evidence of an enfeebled creative power. Niecks, however, considers these nocturnes “not worth dwelling upon“.
It was composed in October 1846 and published in 1846; it is dedicated to Mademoiselle R. de Konneritz.
Op. 62 – Nocturne No. 18 In E Major (Lento)
This work was composed in October 1846, and it is the last nocturne that Chopin published during his life in 1846.
He dedicated it to Mademoiselle R. de Konneritz. Leichtentritt described it as “lacking the features of great artistry.“
Op. 72 – Nocturne No. 19 In E Minor (Andante)
This nocturne lies clearly within the Field tradition. Its haunting melody rides the harmony of a most macabre scale.
It was composed in 1827 and published in 1855. Chopin dedicated it to Mademoiselle R. de Konneritz.
Op. Post. – Nocturne No. 20 In C-sharp Minor (Lento con gran espressione)
This nocturne uses themes from the F minor concerto – Op. 21. Tamas Vasary:
“If you didn’t know about the reminiscence, you would still have the impression that both works live in the same emotional climate.“
Orazio Frugoni suggested to a student having trouble with this nocturne that she spend some time at night by the cathedral in Siena:
“Yes, it’s very romantic. As human beings, we get these impressions that feed our creativity; if not, we simply shouldn’t be artists.“
This work was composed in the spring of 1830 and published in 1875.
Op. Post. – Nocturne No. 21 In C Minor
This nocturne was published in 1938 (TWMP, Warsaw).
It was composed in 1837 and published in 1938.
The preludes are for several reasons very much related to the etudes of Op. 10 and Op. 25. While composing them, Chopin had a conception similar to Bach with the Well Tempered Clavier: like his predecessor, Chopin put all preludes into an order of tonalities, however with a difference; in the Well Tempered Clavier all tonalities rise chromatically, while Chopin put his preludes into an order that follows the circle of tonalities. It is known that Chopin studied thoroughly the works of Bach before writing his preludes. He admired a lot the perfection of form and harmony in Bach’s music. In spite of this example, however, Chopin created something completely new. Originally the French word “prelude” means nothing more than “introduction“, but in this form Chopin let the 24 preludes develop into independent pieces of music.
They are very beautiful and are worthy of the closest study and pains, not with a view of perfecting any stereotyped manner of playing each one, but of discovering the various methods which may be employed to bring out their beauty. Half the attraction of a beautiful woman lies in the various dresses she wears. She may be in blue to-day, in grey to-morrow, and in pink the day after, and with every change she appears more beautiful. So it is with the preludes. Each has a large wardrobe of different dresses. One might then simply suggest to simulate this case with the phrase such as
“Do not, then, always dress them in the same colours.“
Chopin’s preludes are compositions of an order entirely apart. They are not only, as the title might make one think, pieces destined to be played in the guise of introductions to other pieces; they are poetic preludes, analogous to those of a great contemporary poet, who cradles the soul in golden dreams, and elevates it to the regions of the ideal. One might simply term the preludes strange. They are sketches, beginnings of etudes, or, so to speak, ruin, individual eagle pinions, all disorder and wild confusions.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 1 In C Major
This is an arabesque of the finest colours. Vladimir de Pachmann:
“The first one is in a style that reminds one very forcibly of Schumann.“
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Reunion. It was composed in Majorca in January 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel and Johann Kessler.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 2 In A Minor
Some say this prelude was composed in Stuttgart. The Polish pianist Jan Kleczynski (1837 – 1895) preferred to play the first prelude two times, and then skip this prelude, because he felt this prelude was too bizarre to play. Vladimir de Pachmann:
“The second is, I think, somewhat poor and I remember that Liszt himself once told me that he thought it a little weak.“
It was composed in Majorca, Nov/Dec of 1838 and published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Presentiment of Death.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 3 In G Major
This work was composed between 1836 and 1839; it was finally published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Vladimir de Pachmann:
“The third, though it has not a very high meaning, is a delightful little prelude. The melody is so smooth that it reminds me of oil floating on water, while a sort of zither accompaniment is running.“
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Thou Art So Like a Flower.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 4 In E Minor
Walter Gieseking recommends pedalling during the opening of this prelude:
“The right-hand upbeat is very important. Pedal first on the second note and hold the same pedal into the first measure.“
This prelude was played by organ at Chopin’s funeral. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Suffocation. It was composed in Majorca, in November and December 1838 and published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 5 In D Major
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Uncertainty.
It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839. It is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 6 In B Minor
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Tolling Bells.
It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and finally published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 7 In A Major
Dencausse Federico Mompou (1893 – 1987) composed a Variaciones sobre un tema di Chopin based on this prelude.
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Polish Dancer. It was composed in 1836, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 8 In F-sharp Minor
Some say this one was composed in Majorca during a thunderstorm. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Desperation.
It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No.9 In E Major
This prelude uses 48 different chords! Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Vision.
It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839; it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 10 In C-sharp Minor
This work was composed in Majorca in November and December of 1838. It is a little cappricio. Vladimir de Pachmann:
“In the tenth Chopin seems to me to point at and imitate his master, Hummel.“
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Night Moth:
“A night moth is flying around the room there! It has suddenly hidden itself (the sustained G Sharp); only its wings twitch a little. In a moment it takes flight anew and again settles down in darkness – its wings flutter (trill in the left hand). This happens several times, but at the last, just as the wings begin to quiver again, the busybody who lives in the room aims a stroke at the poor insect. It twitches once… and dies.“
It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 11 In B Major
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Dragon Fly.
It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839. It is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 12 In G-sharp Minor
This one could have been an etude as well. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Duel.
It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 13 In F-sharp Major
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Loss.
It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 14 In E-flat Minor
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Fear.
“This is a torturous, frustrated piece. It wants to go in a certain direction, starting as if to go forwards. Then it falters and falls back. It is a very chromatic work, alternating between minor and major. At the end one falls on the tonic without a preceding dominant. You are here but have no solution. This is the atmosphere I find; therefore I do not play it quickly because I would lose this torturous, frustrated, faltering, contradictory quality.“
It was composed between 1836 and 1839 and published in 1839, it is dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 15 In D-flat Major
This work was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Raindrop.
“There is one that came to him through an evening of dismal rain – it casts the soul into a terrible dejection. Maurice and I had left him in good health one morning to go shopping in Palma for things we needed at our ‘encampment‘. The rain came in overflowing torrents. We made three leagues in six hours, only to return in the middle of a flood. We got back in absolute dark, shoeless, having been abandoned by our driver to cross unheard of perils. We hurried, knowing how our sick one would worry. Indeed he had, but now was as though congealed in a kind of quiet desperation, and, weeping, he was playing his wonderful prelude. Seeing us come in, he got up with a cry, and then said with a bewildered air and a strange tone, ‘Ah, I was sure that you were dead.‘ When he recovered his spirits and saw the state we were in, he was ill, picturing the dangers we had been through, but he confessed to me that while waiting for us he had seen it all in a dream, and no longer distinguishing the dream from reality, he became calm and drowsy. While playing the piano, persuaded that he was dead himself, he saw himself drown in a lake. Heavy drops of icy water fell in a regular rhythm on his breast, and when I made him listen to the sound of the drops of water indeed falling in rhythm on the roof, he denied having heard it. He was even angry that I should interpret this in terms of imitative sounds. He protested with all his might – and he was right to – against the childishness of such aural imitations. His genius was filled with the mysterious sounds of nature, but transformed into sublime equivalents in musical thought, and not through slavish imitation of the actual external sounds. His composition of that night was surely filled with raindrops, resounding clearly on the tiles of the Charterhouse, but it had been transformed in his imagination and in his song into tears falling upon his heart from the sky.”
Sand does not specify the key or number of the prelude written on this occasion, and, although the D-flat major prelude is usually given the informal title, Raindrop, the story could in fact apply to any of the melancholy preludes with a repetitive figure (A minor, E minor, B minor, as well as D-flat major).
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 16 In B-flat Minor
If one plays this prelude in the desired whirlwind tempo, presto con fuoco, one will find that the prime difficulty of this prelude is not the obvious difficulty of the right-hand 16th notes, but the follow-through motion required to play the three-note left-hand groups all in one sweep.
The sixteenth is a great favourite. It is la plus grande tour de force in Chopin. It is the most challenging of all the preludes technically, possibly excepting the nineteenth. In this case, presto is not enough. It should be played prestissimo, or, better still, vivacissimo.
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Hades. It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 17 In A-flat Major
This piece is a little romance, in which Chopin introduces some harmonies not previously found in other compositions. This one was the favourite of Clara Schumann and Anton Rubinstein.
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, A Scene on the Place de Notre-Dame de Paris. It was composed in 1836, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 18 In F Minor
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Suicide.
It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 19 In E-flat Major
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Heartfelt Happiness.
It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 20 In C Minor
It was composed between 1836 and 1839, published in 1839, dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Chopin originally ended this piece at bar 9. Based on this prelude, Rachmaninoff composed his Variations on a Theme of Chopin. These variations scare off even the best of pianists – they last more than a half of an hour and they are both technically and musically demanding.
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Funeral March.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 21 In B-flat Major
This work was composed in Majorca, in November and December of 1838. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Hans von Bulow called it, Sunday.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 22 In G Minor
This piece was composed between 1836 and 1839. It was published in 1839, dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Vladimir de Pachmann:
“In the twenty-second Prelude, Chopin created energetic modern octave play. It was the first prelude of its kind in the world.“
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, Impatience.
Op. 28 – Prelude No 23 In F Major
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, A Pleasure Boat. Vladimir de Pachmann:
“In the twenty-third Prelude pretty well all the editions indicate short legato passages. Chopin never played such passages. He sometimes introduced a long legato passage, but never short ones of a few notes only.“
It was composed between 1836 and 1839. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel.
Op. 28 – Prelude No. 24 In D Minor
This piece was composed between 1836 and 1839. It was published in 1839 and dedicated to Camille Pleyel. Vladimir de Pachmann:
“In the twenty-fourth the amateur would do well to remember that the whole beauty of this prelude is generally spoilt by the left-hand notes being banged. These should be masked the whole time and should never be allowed to drown the right hand.“
Hans von Bulow called this prelude, The Storm.
It is an uneasy attempt to provide an answer on how exactly one could perform these pieces in a well clear form. It would be eloquently put if one would state that Chopin himself put his own signature in each and every composition of his, in which case it would be fair to say that one would end up simply trying to replicate them with an unfortunate unsuccess, which is distant from the elegance he portrayed back in the era he lived.
During the last couple of years, which will soon elapse since Chopin’s death (1849) rather extensive amount of literature on the interpretation of his music has been produced. Today Chopin’s genius is generally admired and his music is widely popular; the number of both interpreters and avid listeners is growing, giving reason to believe that Chopin music-related problems are thoroughly known. Hence the question arises whether discussing the interpretation issue can be justified.
And yet, the two International Chopin Piano Competitions held in Warsaw in 1990 and 1995 failed to produce first-prize winners, previously unheard of occurrence in the entire history of the Competition. The growing number of pianists participating in the Competition does not ensure a high standard of performance. Increased interest in the Competition shown by young pianists all over the world is not a good enough guarantee that they will be searching for the spirit of Chopin’s music or taking the right direction to this end. The passage of time puts Chopin’s epoch further back, making it increasingly difficult for those to learn more about it and to deepen our understanding of it. New cultural phenomena of the present day tempt us into “altering” and “improving” Chopin’s music, often attributing to its qualities, which, essentially, it does not have.
It is commonly known that the way Chopin’s music is played undergoes constant change, with each new generation, or even each individual pianist, drawing out the richness of the music and making a particular choice of those elements of its form and expression which suit them most and which they like to emphasise in their interpretations. However, the point is that this choice should be confined exclusively to the attributes of Chopin’s genius and to his totally unique and distinctive personality which reflected the most characteristic features of the culture and custom of the day.
For a better understanding of the above, it might be a good idea to try to think what the art of interpretation actually is (in the general meaning of the term, not only as regards Chopin) and what rights and limits govern it. According to lexical reference sources, the word/term “interpretation” (from Latin interpretario) means “explanation“, “clarification of” or “commentary on” something, and also “the way of re-creating a text, performing a piece of music, a play.” It should be noted that from among many equivalent terms the relevant entries in all dictionaries record “explanation“, “clarification” and “commentary” as well as “the way of re-creating“, as if indicating its most crucial sense.
For the purpose of deliberations, “clarification” requires that interpretation should be clear and distinctive as to its form and content, while the interpreter is expected to have several qualities which make this “clarification” possible. “Explanation of” and “commentary on” something require the interpreter to understand perfectly well and fully realise the form and content of the composer’s idiom (the style of expression of the creator whose work he is going to interpret) in order to be able to “explain” it to the listener and comment on it. Intellectual power and extensive knowledge of music are critical here. “The way of re-creating” is an expression that broadens the term “interpretation” to include a sphere of irrational realities: creative imagination, artistic intuition, emotional quality and openness to transcendence. It touches upon both aesthetics and psychology, drawing the attention to the re-creator’s (interpreter’s) spiritual potential.
Although simplified, the above analysis might enable the one to gather some idea about the structure of the phenomenon called the art of musical interpretation. This art comprises fine craft, intellectual ability and musical knowledge as well as the interpreter’s creative potential, his performing temperament and spiritual culture, all of which are the hallmark of a genuine talent.
The complex structure of the art of interpretation, the multitude of its elements and the possibility of its many configurations, result in a hard-to-predict number of “interpretative versions” of one composition. Furthermore, it can not be ruled out that new “mutations” will be produced in consecutive interpretations of the same piece by the same performer. While a piece of music, a composer’s style, and the characteristic features and qualities of his work remain unchanged in the historical sense, the way it is performed does not change with time and that change depends on the interpreter’s cultural background, sensitivity, imagination, knowledge and intelligence. It should also be noted that the stylistic convention of the composer’s epoch, being an aesthetic reality, definite and constant, is influenced by historical circumstances and contained within aesthetic boundaries. The art of interpretation means using this basic material (the notation of a piece and its entire background) to the largest possible extent and taking the liberty, as such is the nature of its role, of transgressing those boundaries. This, obviously, is an intellectually controlled process. The undisputedly invaluable gift of artistic intuition that interpreters boast, together with their creative inspiration, sometimes genuinely brilliant, which generally enrich the act of creative interpretation, must nevertheless be subject to intellectual verification (knowledge of the elements of the epoch’s stylistic convention and of all available sources.)
The artistic-interpreter, having entered the area of free choice, completes in a way the presentation of the composer’s image. He explains, places accents, lays out lights, arranges shades, and comments on the composer’s work. He also presents himself, showing the colour of his epoch. By doing so, he becomes the co-creator.
It may, at this point, seem appropriate to note that there is no model interpretation of a piece of music. How unimaginative would be the belief that a composition, in the years or centuries of its artistic existence following its creation, should remain a “fossil” embedding the composer’s ideas and passed on as such. An art work (especially one of a genius) is a living substance whose spirit cannot be destroyed and which acts on people-in some cases for centuries-with its unceasingly attractive content. The vitality of an art work can be seen in the fact it is perceived and interpreted anew and in a variety of ways by people living in different times and cultures.
Let us, however, firmly emphasise that each entry by the interpreter into that area of allowable freedom of choice, sometimes even expected by the composer, requires of him the ability to organise it by means of musical knowledge and performing ethic and culture. The music as recorded by the composer, the score, cannot serve as a pretext for the interpreter to produce his own, totally free idiom. It is only when the interpreter identifies self with the composer’s ideas, when one draws in mind a clearly defined, perhaps even verbalised, emotional program of, and psychological motivation for the piece, where every note is qualitatively specified, fully understood, unique and indispensable, that the desired and laudable objective can be achieved: the presentation of a transcendent reality using means which, while limited, are comprehensible, convincing and aim at transcendence.
The true art of interpretation does not exist without high calibre artists. True art accepts only those who are great in talent, spirit and mind. It also demands that they have a great virtue, humility, arising not from the awareness that the role of their art is to serve. Loyal service to art creators, making absolutely certain that their ideas are presented faithful, leaving nothing to chance, is the performer’s ultimate responsibility. All known treaties on the art of interpretation written in past centuries and everything that has been written on the subject in recent times have one thing in common: they emphasise the importance and responsibility associated with the role of interpreters. The role rewards performers with an exceptional honour-participation in the process of giving the ultimate shape to one of the most beautiful domains of human creation, of being its complement.