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Chopin Etudes Opus 10 and Rondeaux - Liner Notes

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.