Collaborazione con la Facoltà di Musica dell'Università di Cambridge


The twenty-seven etudes and their antecedents


The publication of the Douze grandes études, Op. 10, in 1833 provided the musical world with its first conclusive evidence of the depth of Chopin's creative talent. In many ways this was an appropriate and symbolic form of announcement. The early development of the piano etude, in which Chopin played a crucial part, was intricately associated with developments in piano technique, piano composition and the instrument itself. It was to the piano that Chopin was to devote nearly all his important work. It was from the sounds and performance idioms of the piano that he drew his inspiration, this being nowhere so evident as in his etudes. Inasmuch as the Op. 10 Etudes disclosed the true quality of that inspiration for the first time, they signified a vital stage in Chopin's own development, as both composer and pianist. They mark the end of his artistic adolescence, the clear beginnings of a maturity that was resoundingly confirmed by the contents of his second collection, Op. 25, published in 1837.

“Chopin's Etudes stand alone’, pronounced Tovey in 1900; … [they] are the only extant great works of art that really owe their character to their being Etudes”. It is true that the etudes occupy a special position in the vast repertory of didactic piano music. For one thing, they stand at the apex of a transition from early nineteenth-century prototypes (generally modest in expressive scope and technical function) to the extroverted concert etudes of Liszt, Alkan and others.

(By Simon Finlow , The twenty-seven etudes and their antecedents , in The Cambridge Companion to Chopin, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994).


The nocturne: development of a new style


The year 1812 was significant in the development of the early nocturne. It was the year in which John Field published his 1er Nocturne, the first in a series of similar works which led directly to the mature nocturnes of Chopin. Hitherto Field's role as the inventor of the genre has been largely unquestioned, and it has been assumed that Chopin simply inherited a well-established formula; but the early history of the nocturne is more complex than it might at first appear. The keyboard style normally associated with the genre had already been established in France by the end of the eighteenth century, so that its use by Field in 1812 was nothing new. It is in any case questionable whether this style should be so closely identified with the genre, since many subsequent nocturnes fail to use it. It would also be a mistake to imagine that the term ‘nocturne’ was quickly accepted to mean a solo piano piece with a particular character. Jeffrey Kallberg has pointed out that the term was only defined in this way from the 1830s onwards.

In the meantime, a number of works in ‘nocturne style’ had appeared with other titles. Perhaps most striking of all in the early history of the nocturne is how slowly the genre developed. Apart from some of Field's pupils and acquaintances it seems that very few composers had any immediate inclination to follow his example, and it was only in the 1830s that nocturnes began to appear in any number.


(By David RowlandThe nocturne: development of a new style, in The Cambridge Companion to Chopin, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994).

Extended forms: the ballades, scherzos and fantasies

It is widely recognised that Chopin's music took on new dimensions following his departure from Poland in 1830. It is recognised not least by pianists and concert promoters, who have conspicuously avoided most of the music from the Warsaw years. In some ways this is a pity since, as John Rink argues, there are works of great value from the early period and they should be assessed on their merits – as some of the highest pinnacles of post-classical popular concert music – rather than measured against the inimitable products of his full maturity. What is not in doubt, however, is the qualitative change that took place in the early 1830s. It was nothing less than a major transformation of his musical style.

That transformation, however slowly prepared, was in the end rather quickly effected and the full range of impulses underlying it are as yet only partially understood. Certainly there were biographical factors beyond the usual growth to maturity – a radical change in Chopin's self-image as Warsaw's admiration gave way to Vienna's indifference; an increasing disenchantment with the proposed career of a composer-pianist; a nostalgia for, and commitment to, his native country, sharply focussed by the Polish insurrection of 1830. Whatever the underlying causality, the result was a change not only in Chopin's musical style but in his whole approach to composition, amounting in effect to an investment in the work rather than the performance.


(By Jim Samson , Extended forms: the ballades, scherzos and fantasies, in The Cambridge Companion to Chopin, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1994).


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