“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.”

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Parallel Intervals On the Piano: Sixths in Chopin's Op. 25, No. 8

A perceptive student writes: 
"The Chopin Etude op. 25, no. 8, in sixths is marked molto legato.  What are we to make of this marking?  A lot of advice given on the subject of double notes seems to suggest connecting the top notes but allowing the bottom notes to be detached.  This certainly seems more comfortable and less likely to result in some kind of injury and sooner or later even connecting the top notes brings about some questionable stretches.  Yet when I listen to recordings of great artists it really doesn't sound like many of them connect the top note.  In fact, some of them really sound quite detached and almost toccata-like.  Others seem to adapt a sort of varied approach in touch which, I must admit, sounds very interesting though not necessarily what Chopin might have in mind.  Sooner or later even connecting only the top notes brings about some questionable stretches.  I suspect that Chopin's instrument
No Stretching
would have allowed the legato for which he appears to ask but which may be injurious on our modern instruments.  So, my question to you is how we are to handle Chopin's instruction of molto legato in such a piece as this etude.  Is it a literal finger legato?  I don't see how it can be without risk of injury.  I had considered separating each sixth just slightly to at least suggest legato through consistency with use of the pedal."

My Response; You ask excellent questions. The simple answer is no, it is not a literal finger legato. And yes, it is more comfortable and less strenuous to repeat the thumb, staying as close to the key as possible, as if stroking it. As you know, legato on the piano is an illusion at best. We can
It's an Illusion
conceptualize all we want, imagining organs and choirs, but the fact of the matter is that in the physical world the piano is a percussion instrument; its sound is produced by a hammer striking a string.  Chopin took this into consideration when marking his scores. So when he gives us the instruction to play molto legato, he's telling us to select a fingering and manner of playing that is connected given the circumstances. He reportedly offered this advice: “.. mould the keyboard as if with a velvet hand and feel the key rather than striking it!”.

The closest we can come to legato on the piano is to over-hold each note until striking the next or playing in the decay of each note. This latter approach can be very effective, reducing the amount of percussion, though it produces a diminuendo. Neither of these approaches is practical in speed. So what we are left with is Chopin's advice, to stroke the key, which I take to mean we should stay close to the keys and use pedal as appropriate. Remember, too, the faster we play, the more obvious the articulation becomes, that is, the hammer striking the strings.

So, fingering and a connected feel are what we should explore. Use five and four on the tops, repeating thumb on most of the lower notes. For most of the ascending top notes, consider crossing a longer finger over a shorter one. I use the thumb on most of the lower notes. In order to feel connected, use a tiny (minuscule) rotation toward the thumb side. Consider regrouping the triplets to facilitate the above. (See example, in which the brackets show how I group some of the sixths.) For a demo of the rotation, click here: Parallel Intervals
Opening Measures of Op. 25, No. 8

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