If you do not play the piano, I want you to hit two simultaneous keys on an imaginary keyboard – any surface will do – with your thumb and middle finger. Now hit another two imaginary keys simultaneously, this time with your index and ring finger. Then alternate those two motions, thumb-middle finger and index-ring finger as rapidly as you can. It isn’t easy. In the hands of a master pianist, this motion, clumsy and almost painful to mortals, becomes the shimmering flow of rapid alternating thirds heard in the 6th of the twelve etudes of Chopin’s Op. 25. The effect is every bit as beautiful to the listener as it is treacherous to the pianist. And therein lies the question that Chopin’s radical innovation raises; for whom are these etudes written?
Are they written for the listener as a series of emotionally charged miniatures of great beauty, here songful and there stormy, but always with a cumulative drama? Or are they written for the pianist as exercises in digital improvement, testing cruelly the limits of technical achievement and stretching the notions of what is possible at the piano?
On the one hand we have the contrast between staccato and legato playing in No. 5 in E minor, or the impossibly fast double octaves of No. 10 in B minor, just the idea of which can make a pianist sweat. But on the other we hear one of Chopin’s loveliest melodies floating over a rippling accompaniment, or surging waves of sound calmed temporarily by an easing major-key interlude.
Chopin’s two sets of etudes, the first published in 1831 as Op. 10 when the composer was 21 and the second as Op. 25 in 1836, were the first of their kind to combine so masterfully a didactic purpose with purely musical results. They teach and challenge the fingers as much as they enchant the ears.
And while there is no definitive evidence to confirm that it was the composer’s intention, the entire set of Op. 25 works effectively when played in sequence as a collective piece, leading up to the ringing declamations of the final three etudes.
For those us who are by necessity listeners rather than players, it gives us some perspective to know that the difficulties these compositions offer to the performer are such that the great pianist Alfred Cortot, in his edition of the Etudes, provided dozens of mini-exercises to help the player prepare for the etudes themselves! Don’t let a nickname fool you. No. 9 in G-flat is known as the “Butterfly,” but there is nothing lightweight about the workout the right hand must endure to create that delicate effect.
Of course, in the end, it is the gift of the virtuoso to erase the reality of lonely toil and repetition in favor of the compelling illusion of effortlessness, and in that presence we are all individuals listening before we are an audience applauding.
– Grant Hiroshima, former Director of Information Technology for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the executive director of a Chicago-based private foundation.