If the piano hadn’t existed in the early decades of the 19th century, Frédéric Chopin would have invented it. Trite though it may sound, the Polish composer and the keyboard were made for each other. As a pianist he was known for the delicacy and lightness of his touch, for the poetic atmosphere he created. As composer his life work was devoted to creating music for his instrument – essentially solos but also two concertos and a few other piano-with-orchestra works. (His treatment of the orchestra was rudimentary and only significant if treated seriously by a conductor.)
Chopin’s compositions for piano solo were the stuff of history. He created a style in which the piano was the medium for song and for a whole new world of sonority that resulted from many ingenious elements, among them the fanciful, exquisite ornamentation he applied to his bountiful melodic inventions; the masterly use of the sustaining pedal; tempo rubato (the holding back and pushing forward of speed, with its resulting emotionalism); the unique, wide-spread accompaniment figures that carried the harmonic substance. Musically, Chopin established a harmonic language based on chromaticism that was to have enormous influence on later composers, particularly Liszt and Wagner.
Of all of Chopin’s “small” works (one puts small in quotes because most of his short pieces are large in effect), the Etudes have probably had the most far-reaching influence on pianism. An etude is defined, in part, as a piece designed to aid a student in the development of technical ability. In composing two sets of works so titled, twelve in each, Chopin did not so much aid technique as demand it. And to distance himself from most other etude writers, he made of his creations amazing and ravishing tone poems.
The writing of the Etudes spanned a period of about eight years; Opus 10 appeared in 1833, Opus 25 in 1837. Three more Etudes were composed in 1839.
Robert Schumann (also born in 1810), who heralded Chopin with the deathless words, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius,” said “I have had the advantage of hearing most of the Etudes played by Chopin himself, and quite à la Chopin did he play them!”
Opus 10 begins with the attention grabbing right hand’s far-reaching arpeggios, with their daring-for-their-time stretches that demand the utmost wrist flexibility. Even in this fearsome technical context, Chopin manages to engage in harmonic discovery. There are two lyric Etudes, Nos. 3 and 6, for melodies need special production attention. The famous “Black Key” Etude (No. 5) does its charming work above the white notes; the ferociously demanding double-note Etude (No. 7); two minor-keyed pieces – the impassioned No. 9 in F minor and the so-called “Revolutionary” Etude, No. 12 in C minor, the one that vitalized the old film The Picture of Dorian Gray.
An even dozen Chopin miracles!
Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic’s Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.