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Study Guide - Chopin's op.25

If the Op.10 études 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 on my part, but one has only to consider the following fact: it is now over 170 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 virtuosi in the years to come. This is no accident on Chopin’s part in my view; it is my 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 brillant to virtuoso bravura and a creative synthesis that was to find outlet in later works like the mature Ballades, Polonaises and Scherzos.
Before I embark upon discussing each work in Op.25 individually, I think it is 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 ABA (ternary) format, with only two clear exceptions (nos.5 and 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 motivically 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 you read my notes for Op.10 No.12, I made the observation that this work was one that I would recommend 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 études 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 Chechlińska 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 études 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.
Opus 25 no.1
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 Nos.9 and 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 I wrote 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. (I propose to explain how this is done more fully and it would be helpful if you have a copy of the score to hand, so that you can see for yourself exactly what I mean.) Examine for a moment bars 13 to 18, and, depending on what version of the score you have, take a close look at the first and third note in each sextuplet in the right-hand. Now, follow these notes until you reach bar 15; in my edition, 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 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. Also note 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. Notice 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 you should start by learning this work at half speed and with no dynamics and with as little pedal as possible – your legato playing must be as near perfect as possible. You should be able to play this pianissimo throughout with just the first note in each right-hand sextuplet clearly audible. When you are satisfied with your speed and that you can play the work from start to finish pianissimo, then you can start adding the dynamics and refining your pedal technique. One point that I should make 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.)
My analysis of this work may seem overly long, but I felt that it was necessary to clarify and highlight some of the very fine details in this work, which, as you 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.
Opus 25 no.2
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- and left-hand figurations.
The main difficulty 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). I would also advise learning the right-hand figuration separately from the left, so that you can perfect the fingering before adding the left-hand. With both hands together, practice until you are up to the correct speed without any dynamics and pedal. Add these once you are happy that you can play the work from start to finish both piano and sempre legatissimo.
Opus 25 no.3
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. Note carefully how, once again, Chopin’s blurs the divisions between these sections, thus enforcing a 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.
Opus 25 no.4
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 études 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 difficult to get right and I would suggest that you learn these opening 16 bars until you can practically play it with your eyes closed. Not only must the left and right hands work independently, but in the right hand, you must be able to combine two very different types of touch. Note also the almost complete lack of sustaining pedal in this section. Having perfected this first section, you 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.
Opus 25 no.5
This work has its origins in Op.10 Nos. 10 and 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 you 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) – note 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. Notice also 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. Notice also 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. You will require a very light touch in the right hand for this section; learn 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; note also how they echo the transition between the opening and middle sections. But notice also how additional notes have been inserted into the figuration, along with almost independent phrasing for the right and left hand melodic lines. What you have, in effect, is 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 is 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 étude 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.
Opus 25 no.6
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. I would suggest that you 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, you can then add the left-hand figuration and the various dynamics. In my Mikuli edition, 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 virtuosi 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- and left-hand figurations. Having learnt Op.10, you will have the technical skills to play this work; the aim of this étude therefore, must be seen in terms of the refining and perfection of the pianist’s ear.
Opus 25 no.7
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 synthesized, 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- 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, 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. You 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, you will need to be very adept in ‘feathering’ the sustaining pedal in order to maintain the legato in the soprano voice. Another obvious difficulty 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. Note also 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 you 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.
Opus 25 no.8
This is the penultimate work in Op.25 that has its foundations in Op.10 Nos.2 and 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 (1-8), followed by a 4 bar transition (9-12), which precedes an 8 bar central section (13-20), leading to a 7 bar recapitulation (21-27), concluding with a 9 bar coda and close (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-bars thus bringing forward the close of the phrase from the end of bar 28 (where it should be) to the beginning of bar 28. Notice also 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 doesn’t – 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 Nos.2 and 11, Op.25 Nos.2 and 6, there are no real surprises in this work. I would suggest learning 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 your 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- and right-hand figurations.
Opus 25 no.9
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 (1-8), followed by an 8-bar response and transition (9-16), leading to an 8-bar central section (17-24), followed by an 8 bar recapitulation (25-32) and 4 bar resolution and transition (33-36) into the coda (37-51). As far as learning this work is concerned, I would counsel you to master the opening section first, for this is where the real test of this work lies; you must perfect right-hand figuration with its two distinct melodic lines, along with the motif reversal in bars 5-7. Notice the slurred notes in the soprano and alto voices – these must be accurate and well defined; note also how these slurs change with the motif reversal. Also note 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. Note also in these sections that the stress marks (>) in the left-hand figuration of the first section are also absent; you 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 notice 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’s not just the fact that he did something much better than Liszt or Schumann ever did – it’s the clear consummate ease, skill and finesse with which Chopin did it that sets his music apart from all others.
Opus 25 no.10
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 Rachmaninov 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. But what 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. Note carefully the pedal points and use only where directed. Note also the gradual separation of the left- 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 your legato playing must be near perfect. Learn these sections slowly and then gradually build up speed – that is the only advice I can give.
The central section (bars 29-103), like Op.25 No.5, sees the transformation of a banal and violent figuration into musical substance of great beauty. In my edition, 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. Note also the similarity of this central section 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.
Opus 25 no.11
This work, the so-called ‘Winter Wind’ Étude is the true successor and parallel to the Op.10 No.12 ‘Revolutionary’ Étude, 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 (bar 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 – not an easy task.
You will need a great deal of physical stamina to play this work (also No.10 and 12); Chopin makes no allowances for human frailty and limitations, and this work is just about as punishing as anything he ever wrote. It’s interesting also to note that apart from the slow études, this work is also the longest – a full 50 seconds longer than Op.10 No.12. Little wonders it is so difficult!
Opus 25 no.12
It is said that Horowitz once remarked that Op.10 No.1 was the most difficult of Chopin’s études. Personally, I think he was wrong, for it is this work, in my estimation, that is the most difficult out of Op.10 and 25. This work 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- and right-hand figures, the formal conception of the humble étude 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 étude; delicate cross-rhythms and syncopations, off- 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. I would even go so far as to say 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.) I would suggest 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 your speed increases, as they are, for the most part, always at either the top or the bottom of the sweeping arabesques. However, pay very close attention 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 (but there are others, which I am sure you will recognize).
-Malcolm Kandzia
Jan 7, 2016
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