“Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

Monday, January 25, 2016

Chopin Étude Op 10, No. 1, My Favorite Fingerings: But Is This Cheating?

F. Chopin
Étude  is a French word meaning study. For pianists, this conjures the horror of hours and hours spent on mindless rote repetition, as in Czerny or Hanon and their international accomplices.   Over the years—centuries, even—this has come to suggest a means to an end: do this and it is a sure bet you will be able to do that. Torture your mind and body for awhile and we, the above-mentioned gang,  promise you will develop the skills required to play actual music. I'm not a betting man. Can you sense my skepticism? I hope so.

     Chopin's études are not studies in the above-referenced sense. They are instead concert pieces designed to showcase skill; they are not a pedagogical canon. It goes without saying, of course, that any technical issue in a piece of music is a learning experience, a study, if you like. So this begs the question, when I play a concert piece called étude, am I supposed think of it as a stepping stone to some other piece that I may or may not play later on? Am I to follow the fingerings imposed by the editor—even those offered by the composer, who has a very different skill set? I'm glad you asked. The answer is no.
     This reminds me of a passage I once read in an essay by the distinguished 
Sir Donald Francis Tovey
musicologist (and pianist) Sir Donald Tovey. He wrote apropos of Beethoven's gnarly Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106, that it is a technically difficult piece and is meant to sound that way, or words to that effect—his point being that one should not seek to make it feel technically easy. Sorry, Sir Donald. If the piece must sound difficult, I will find an easy way to do that.

     The sound of Chopin's Étude Op. 10, No. 1, is that of cascading arpeggios. The difficulty, if there is one, is that the cascades cover wide open spaces, encompassing a tenth or more at the outer edges. Standard triad fingerings are not always possible for the average hand, as these fingerings often feel like awkward stretches. The over-all technical approach to this concert piece has to do with an understanding of shaping and grouping. But some judicious re-fingering can make all of the difference.
     Here are some of my favorites:
Chopin Étude Op. 10, No. 1 MM 33-39
Many more similar opportunities for expeditious fingering exist. Look for them. This is not cheating.

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