Wednesday, 12 November 2014

CEP #4 - The Sadness(?) Etude

Op.10 No.2 - Update

Last time we left off I was in the middle of studying Chopin's Op.10 No.2 etude, the one with the "perpetual motion" scales in the upper register.

Over a week has passed now, and I am glad to say that a lot of progress has been made. However, despite this I am still not completely fluent in the piece. It turns out that there are a whole host of little tricks and difficulties in the piece, which, however much I practise, always seem to catch me out. 

Where are the difficulties? 

For example, pretty much the entire middle (B) section is incredibly difficult. Here are the first four bars of the section:

The right hand is tricky enough due to the way it constantly twists and turns up and down the keyboard, unlike the first bars of the piece, for example, where it's just one long swoop up and down: 

But what makes this part even tricker is the left hand, which is constantly changing position. For me, playing this section hands separately does not present great difficulties, but playing it hands together is a nightmare, and almost always makes me stops in my tracks.

Later on in the B section, we get these awkward shifts in the right hand:

Very tricky to get right. It's just one of those "this-could-go-horribly-wrong" moments.

But what is, probably, the trickiest aspect of this piece is overcoming the 'strain' in the right hand you get from playing it, especially after playing No.1! I'm not sure if you can call it 'strain', but I find that by the time I get to the end of the piece, my 3 right fingers in my right hand sometimes appear to fail to respond to nerve firings!

This could be a problem with the way I'm playing the piece, or it could be simply that I haven't practised it enough. 

Whatever it is, I think I should take a one or two week break from the piece. I've found in the past, with all the pieces I've learnt, that after endlessly practising a section of music over and over again, I have to give myself a longer break before I get results. I guess this is just a natural 'delay' present in the brain's learning system. 

So anyway, I won't release a recording of this etude for at least a week. In fact, I think this will probably be a more likely occurence in the future, since I am expecting that, as I study more of the etudes, I will be 'layering' the study periods on top of each other, in the sense that I will be moving on to other etudes before 'perfecting' previous etudes. So, rather than giving out recordings of new etudes periodically, I will probably remain silent for a longer time before releasing a few etudes at once (approximately). Or not. Either way, I don't want to make any promises about the release dates of any of the "in progress" recordings - what's important is that, ultimately, I will be able to record all of the etudes played fluently, regardless of how I go about learning them.

With that said, let's take a look at the next, and possibly my favourite, etude.

Etude Op.10 No.3

Op.10 No.3 is, along with Op.10 No.12, one of Chopin's most famous and popular piano pieces. The melody is instantly recognizable to most.

However, I'm sure that most people who have heard the piece aren't aware that this a piano study. And rightly so! Nos 1 and 2 are certainly 'studies', that's quite clear, but No.3 sounds like anything but an etude on first hearing. It's much, much calmer, for one, but also includes an absolutely sublime melody. Chopin himself has apparently stated that, in all of his time as a composer never has he stumbled upon such a beautiful melody (although I'm not sure whether he said that when he composed this, or later on when reflecting over his work).

This etude is often nicknamed "Tristesse", which means "Sadness" in French. 

But, personally, I don't see anything sad about this piece!

Many of us imagine stories when playing or listening to music. In my case, I don't 'conjure up' such stories very often, but in the case of Op.10 No.3, this is certainly not true.

For me, this is above all a very nostalgic piece. What I see when I listen to this piece is images from childhood. Not my childhood, but a childhood (I suppose it's a kind of 'reflection' of everybody's childhood). 

In the A section I see a child playing in a field full of trees and grass, laughing, the summer sun high up in the sky. The child is happy, as happy as can be, with not a worry in the world.

Then the B section comes along (bar 21):

The child's older sibling is suggesting they go explore into the woods. "But our parents say we can't go there!" But the sibling insists! Eventually, they end up exploring, and stumble upon a cave or some sort of bunker. They decide to enter, then...

bar 32

 "HUH! What was that?!"

The children run away, but return. They get scared once more, until eventually, they both discover the monster, who begins chasing them, and they run away screaming! (bars 46-54)

Finally, they arrive home, and are greeted by their worried parents, who comfort them (bar 54):

and back we go to section C, where everything has returned back to normal, and the child is playing in the fields again. Only this time, the ending is slightly different. It is the nostalgia the composer feels as he remembers the blissful ignorance and complete happiness of his childhood, which is represented by the beautifully moving I-iv chord sequence:

Of course, this is just my story -  everybody has their own, and some don't even think of a story. But, for me, the fact that the piece is able to conjure up such vivid imagery is a testament to Chopin's creative genius.

Anyway, enough with the sentimentalisms. Let's take a closer look at the technical challenges of the piece.

As I have said before, many people who do not know much about classical music would not even consider that this beautiful piano piece which they hear in fragrance commercials and Chopin documentaries is, in fact, a study for the piano. 

My reason for this is simple yet paradoxical: This etude is a study in how to take an etude and make it sound as if it weren't an etude!

Here's the idea. Generally speaking, when we imagine a piano piece with a melody, we imagine that the melody is in the right hand, and the accompaniment is in the left hand. Of course, it's not often like this in terms of classical piano literature, but when it comes to, for example, arranging pop songs or folk tunes for piano, this is often the model the arranger goes for, because it will feel and sound the most natural.

In etude Op.10 No.3, the right hand is definitely playing a melody. But it is not the only thing the right hand is playing. 

Take a look at the first few bars of the etude. There are 4 voices in the bulk of the piece - two in the left hand, two in the right hand. The voicing in the left hand is fairly trivial - you can almost render it as one voice, if it weren't for the quarter notes on each beat, which must be held down.

The right hand also has two voices. In the Schirmer edition (and my Alfred edition), however, the lower voice is shown in the bass clef in the first two bars, but you can see more clearly how the voicing works in bars 3-4. The upper voice is the beautiful melody! It almost becomes lost amidst the convoluted mess of the score, because not only are there four voices playing at once but they're all very 'dense'. The bass quarter notes are sonically dense, as is the upper left hand voice, and the lower right hand voice plays constant 16th notes a few pitches below the melody. 

Thus, the aim of the etude is to render the upper voice of the right hand as an expressive melody whilst taking care of the other 3 voices arranged between both hands. It becomes a bit of a game in dynamics and expression when performing. If done correctly, the piece (or at least parts of it) should sound like a natural "right hand melody, left hand accompaniment" piano piece. Like not an etude at all! 

The technical difficulties in places like bars 38-41:

or the 'screaming' section are, I think, distinct from the overarching difficulty of the piece. Personally, I find these short sections the most technically demanding, especially bars 38-41, which is a bit of a hand-twister. 

But it is important to understand that, when it comes to the sections where you have to play four voices, although it is relatively easy to press the right notes at the right time, it's the rendering of the dynamics and exression which is the really difficult part. And what makes it especially difficult is that this is easy for the pianist to overlook, yet it's obvious to the audience when they listen that you're having trouble with playing the piece expressively.

When I started practising this etude oh-so-many years ago, I didn't take this idea seriously at all (but then I was very young then!). I just wanted to learn to hit the right notes. Now, when I return back to this piece, I realise that this is obviously the wrong approach to take. There's much more going on here.

So yes, I do have a headstart when it comes to practising this piece. I can play sections A and C pretty much fluently. But I think there's still a great deal to be learnt about expression...possibly an infinite amount.

So I've started practising this piece a few days ago now. I'm pretty much studying the "hand-twisters" from the ground up. As for the rest...well, it's pretty much a journey of discovery. Let's see how expressive and controlled I can be with the outer section of my right hand!

'Till next time!

P.S. Here's Lisitsa playing No.3. Looking at the hands, you sometimes get the sense that you don't know where the melody's coming from, as if it's a separate track added on top of Lisitsa's playing. This is what makes the etude pretty remarkable, IMO.

P.P.S. Notice the similarities between etude no.3 and etude no.2. Namely, in the focus Chopin places on the outer right hand. In No.2, it was more about finger gymnastics, but here, it's about bringing out an expressive melody.