Chopin’s Etudes Opus 10 mark the beginning of the modern school of piano playing. His contemporaries - exponents of the style brillant vogue of the early 1800’s such as Hummel, Moscheles, Weber and Czerny - wrote complex and varied sequences of scales and arpeggios, but which were nonetheless based on the Classical piano technique of Mozart and Beethoven, itself already based on the harpsichord techniques of the Baroque period, although they pushed it to the limits of playability. The hands stayed in the classic five-note position, the thumb rarely ventured onto the black keys, and leaps over a tenth were hard to find.
At the same time, the piano had evolved enormously, from Mozart’s delicate wooden structure into one capable of holding its own in a major concert hall, with increased carrying power and an extended tonal palette. The piano was ready and waiting for the one who would crown it the “king of instruments”.
From the beginning, Chopin’s playing displayed an acute sensibility to the new tonal potentials of the piano; he was the first composer who listened to the instrument and designed a technique specifically for its strengths, most notably taking into account the reinforced sympathetic vibrations of the strings and the sounding board which demanded a more judicious use of the harmonic overtone series. Unlike his predecessors’ closed chords and dense passagework, Chopin’s arpeggios are wide in the bass and closed only in the treble (perfectly exemplified in the Etudes Nos.1 and 11), compounding the natural resonance of the instrument.
As with the studies of his contemporaries, each Etude focuses on a specific technical detail, transparently evident in the listening. But in contrast to the emotionally meaningless physical exercises of a Czerny, the development of an Etude of Chopin is guided by the musical demands of the figurations, inspired at every moment by the physical and aural qualities of the instrument. In this way, Chopin elevated the Etude, as he did with Mazurka and the Polonaise, into the realm of abstract music.
The true importance of the Etudes lies not in their technical originality or difficulty, but in the tightly interwoven correspondence between the technique and the musical expression; Chopin did not believe, as certain pillars of the Romantic movement were to proclaim, in the separation of intellect and emotion. The impact of the Etudes was immediate and far-reaching. Almost all the major pianist/composers since Chopin have followed his example in writing Etudes - Liszt, Schumann, Debussy, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, etc. More indirectly, the Etudes showed the way to a fantastic world of technical and expressive possibilities at the piano. Liszt was the first to grasp their importance, and their direct influence on his own writing is evident in the comparison between the skeletal first-versions of his concert études and their fleshed-out form following his meeting with Chopin.
A detailed inventory of the Etudes is hardly necessary anymore, their importance in the repertoire having been established for over one hundred fifty years; today’s teenagers toss off the entire set at piano competitions! A few specific details are worth noting, however. They were evidently conceived as an integral work, linked by a cycle of fifths and related major and minor keys; the set begins and ends in C, pivoting around a pair of Etudes in F major and minor and meandering as far away tonally as G-flat major. The series from Etude #5 through #9 are linked through identical initial and final notes.
Interestingly, the technical problems that the Opus 10 Etudes attack are not those which obsessed the contemporaries: trills, parallel octaves, thirds and sixths, etc. Those would be addressed more fully in Opus 25.
Opus 10 was a distillation of what made Chopin’s approach unique, a pianism that contrasted sharply from the reigning style. His technique first of all was very personal, created for his particular hand structure - long fingers, allowing an expanded stretch, and splayed outward towards the two extremes of the keyboard. His technique, and especially that of his early, style brillant period, delimited by the Etudes and including the Rondeaux, is peculiarly wide-spread and anchored by a thumb that was as much at home on the black keys as on the white. There is surprisingly little use of the traditional hand-over-thumb rotation for arpeggios, but rather an ingenious use of a “crawling” technique that nevertheless spans the entire keyboard.
In order to better appreciate both the technical inventiveness of the Etudes as well as their expressive intensity, there is no better foil for than the Rondeaux. If the former can be considered technical exercises elevated to an abstract musical form, the latter are an abstract musical form used as a platform for high virtuosic display. They have no pretensions beyond the simple, joyful exploration of the piano. Only the Variations can equal the Rondeaux in that regard.
The fact that Chopin wrote four Rondeaux - a mystic number in the Chopin œuvre that applies as well to the Ballades, the Scherzi and the Impromptus - makes their study all the more appealing. In addition, a Rondeau was Chopin’s choice for his introduction to the musical world, Opus 1. Although the work of a fifteen-year-old, there is already a clear sense of maturity, and a definite mastery of the technical aspects of the keyboard writing, despite the lack of what we now recognize as Chopin’s language. The work certainly bears the major traits of style brillant, which obsessed the young composer: quick, light ornamentations, flowing arpeggios, dazzling sequences of sixteenth notes. Chopin gives special attention to the harmonious shape of his melodies, which saves the work from being only a meaningless showcase.
The second Rondeau, à la mazur, combines Chopin’s technical explorations with his search for a distinctly nationalistic language. The insistent presence of the raised fourth degree and the constantly varying rhythmic motifs, characteristic of Polish folk music, are perfectly integrated into the technical figurations, many of which would be developed into the Etudes, notably the extended use of the black keys (No. 5), the parallel writing of the two hands (No. 8) and the particularly active left hand (No. 12). Considerably more ambitious in its structural development, Chopin’s personal style and humor are unmistakable here.
The Rondeaux in C major dates from around the same period as the Rondeau à la mazur, although certain doubts about its success kept Chopin from seeking its publication. The slow, operatic introduction reminds one of its later cousin in Eb, and the contrapuntal writing in the Rondeau makes the material unusually rich. Although the tempo is fast, there are certain similarities in texture to the Etudes Nos. 3 and 6, as well as passagework later found in Nos. 8 and 12. Chopin later rewrote this Rondeau for two pianos and performed it with friends on a few occasions. The two-piano version is structurally identical, the writing being equally distributed between the two players and healthily fortified, with an attractive cantilena line added as an accompaniment in two passing sections.
The last Rondeaux was written in Paris, most probably at the behest of his publisher for something destined for the large public. Contemporary with the more serious Etudes as well as the dramatic First Scherzo and the first sketches of the First Ballade, it shows that Chopin could nevertheless revert back to his style brillant days and make a grand spectacle. An imposing introduction precedes the Rondeau proper, impressive in its large harmonic berth and chromatic daring, and containing some of Chopin’s most virtuosic writing, in which one hears traces of Etudes Nos. 1, 4, 5, 7 and 8.