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Etudes

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Technical Characteristics and Challenges of Etudes by Chopin, Debussy, Bolcom, and Ligeti

An Etude is an instrumental composition perceived to be difficult.  The Etude is mainly designed as a practice material used in perfecting of a given musical.. The compositions by Frederic Chopin, Op. 10 and Op. 25 are the basis of the genre now known as etude. The Op. 10 has a harmonic structure, and by use of hemiola, Chopin rhythmically creates a textual variety and interest.                                                                                                                                                                                

Claude Debussy is one of the composers who base his work on the compositions by Chopin. He even has some etudes dedicated to Chopin and is under criticism for lacking originality. Critics claim he modifies Chopin’s compositions. His etude, “Pour les sixtes,” is a classic composition that has exclusive modifications that make it unique from Chopin’s works. It has achromatic melody rather than a whole-tone one present in Chopin’s compositions.                                                  

Gyorgi Ligeti is another composer to take on some aspects of Chopin’s compositions. His works are however very unique since they incorporate African musical notes and Nan carrow music. His etude, Autome a Varsovie is an example of this uniqueness. William Bolcom is the youngest and the most recent of the four composers discussed. He incorporates jazz and ragtime music to his compositions that make his work very sophisticated. He also admits to great Chopin influence. His etude, Twelve New Etude for Piano is an example that shows how he heavily borrows from the traditional style, common in Chopin’s Op.10.

Since all these composers base their work on Chopin’s compositions, they face similar challenges and these are all specific technical problems that affect the way the performer plays the etude.

Technical Characteristics and Challenges of etudes by Chopin, Debussy, Bolcom, and Ligeti

An Etude is an instrumental composition perceived to be difficult.  The Etude is mainly designed as a practice material used in perfecting of a given musical. The etude has become a popular piano composition genre since the nineteenth century. A large number of Etudes by major composers such as Franz Liszt,  Fredric Chopin and Claude Debussy, are currently used as teaching materials.

Frederic Chopin is a significant figure in etudes and is popular for publishing a collection of twelve etudes in 1833 and another in 1837. Chopin’s etudes are suitable for concert hall since they have innovative harmonic structures and complex voice-leading that are combined to unfold a unified and hierarchical form. In his 1833 etude, Op. 10, the surface chromatic neighbor-note motion has a foreground coloristic function, but the use of chromatic chords reflects in the harmonic structure. Chopin often creates the textual variety and interest rhythmically by his use of hemiola. In the same etude, Op. 10 no.10, the performer has to play the eighth notes with both hands in synchronization. However, the right-hand eighth notes are in groups of three.

In the composition, “Chopin tonicizes A minor (mm. 31-32), eight measures before the reprise and the return to the home key (Ex. 3.3) (Wheeldon, 56). Mm. 33-34 transposes the melody of mm. 29-30 up a major second. Chopin’s alteration of a single interval in m. 34 – the ascending major third of m. 30 becomes a minor third – redirects the harmony toward a tonicization of B minor, a region much closer to the A major reprise of m. 41 (Wheeldon, 56). The etude, Op. 10, “demands quick sixteenth-note triplets in the right hand limited to the black keys, while the left hand presents melodic line in chords and octaves” (Yang, 32).

As is the case with all other of his compositions, Chopin was not so rhythmically pliant. He is strict in his adherence not only to the length of the bar, but also to the beat. The Op. 10 (and Op. 25) is the composition that established the etude as a genre (Tsong, 8).

Claude Debussy is another of the famous etude composers whose etudes are mostly “compositional”. Debussy’s compositions are in many ways linked to Chopin’s works since Debussy had a preoccupation with historical affiliations (Wheeldon, 55). He even has some etudes dedicated to the memory of Chopin and although bearing titles that refer to a single technical challenge (often resembling those addressed by Choplin), they are also musical gems (Tsong, 8). In his etude, “Pour les sixtes,” Debussy offers unusual modulations in terms of harmony. “In a D major composition, Debussy emphasizes a D major triad at the beginning of his allusion to Chopin (m.42), and at the beginning and end of its repetition (m. 43).”

Compared with the other composers, Debussy has adopted most of Chopin’s characteristics in terms of melody. For example, in the same composition “Pour les sixtes,” he incorporates a modulation twice, where he respells a G as an F within the unexpected D major, which is an allusion to Chopin’s Nouvelle etude. The intervals of Chopin’s melodic line are altered from the original descending fourths to descending tritons so that Debussy’s melody outlines a whole-tone scale. In many ways, “Like Chopin, Debussy’s passage occurs shortly before the return of the opening material and tonic key signature” (Wheeldon, 64). As a result, the following measures continue to alter the intervals of Chopin’s melodic figure, creating a chromatic melodic descent rather than a whole-tone one.

Gyorgy Ligeti is another composer who has adopted some etude styles from Chopin. According to Tsong, “Gyorgy Ligeti is the most important composer to follow in the tradition of Choplin for more than fifty years” (9). In his etude “Automne a Varsovie,” he demonstrates the influences of Romantic hemiola that was characteristic of Chopin. He adds some rhythms from Central African music, and the music of Nancarrow. The etude begins with a constant sixteenth-note pulse that continues, with one exception, throughout the piece. The melodic lines superimposed over the sixteenth-note figures progress at various rates (at five sixteenths notes per melody note at the beginning, and later at three, four, and more). The effect of this is simultaneous melodic lines progressing at different rates is superimposed rhythmic grids. The most distinguishable feature of Autome a Varsovie is its profusion of descending chromatic lines (Townsend, 36).

The etude by Ligeti combines melodies associated with grief and suffering with specific writing techniques of the etude genre. “In combining the lament with a genre perfected by Chopin, the greatest Polish composer in history, Ligeti has captured his feelings of sympathy for the Polish people” (Townsend, 45). Rhythmically, Ligeti does not strictly maintain the three-phase grouping that features in the etude and he significantly extends some phases. Melodically, modifications of the initial octave-doubling with occasional seventh-doubling occurs in various ways. Melodic lines appear as harmonic three-note formations spanning octaves or sevenths. Then melodic strands appear in single notes (without octave doubling), which are sometimes reinforced with dyads and triads.

William Bolcom is both a composer and a pianist and is the most recent of the named four composers. His is popular for “Twelve New Etudes for Piano” that he compased between 1977 and 1986. “In terms of style, Bolcom is one of many late twentieth-century composers whose music can best be described as eclectic, often characterized by willful disparities and disruptive stylistic features” (Yang, 28). He composed the Twelve New Etudes for Piano with interaction between vernacular and classical styles. It has many characteristics of ragtime and jazz, such as rhythmic and harmonic elements including the typical stride accompaniment, alternating bass notes with offbeat chords, and use of ninth chords with appoggiaturas occurring alongside traditional nineteenth- and twentieth- century piano techniques. Large leaps in a fast tempo, extremes of dynamics, intricate pedaling, clusters, lateral tremolos, forearm glissandos, and objects involving direct contact with the strings (inside piano technique) are all piano techniques Bolcom involves in the etude.

Bolcom’s Twelve New Etudes for Piano fits into the traditional style of the concert etude, where pieces are meant for performance, fulfilling both didactic and artistic purposes, which is also common with etudes by Debussy, and have preceded from Chopin’s two sets of etude, Opp 10 and 25, each with twelve pieces. “…Bolcom even mentions the composer as an influence” (Yang, 31). Unlike Chopin’s works, Bolcoms Twelve New Etudes for Piano includes programmatic titles. It has a complex rhythmic feature and there are many problems, which a performer must sort carefully. There are no time signatures or bar-lines, and a steady eighth-note is broken up with rhythmic chords and a rhythmically complicated melody (Kang, 36).

Bolcom uses an extremely large dynamic range spans and the pianist must distinguish these dynamic levels sufficiently, requiring an exaggerated practice under tempo to achieve the specified dynamic effects and timbres. The shifts of dynamics are so frequent that a performer must negotiate keeping intensity while playing cleanly. When compared to all other composers, Bolcom clusters are demanding to play because they occur abruptly in a fast tempo and they require differing intensities to achieve a dramatic effect.

Some major challenges with the etudes based on Chopin’s principles (works by Bolcom, Debussy, and Ligeti) are the specific technical problems of each in the score: No. 1, “Sweeping gestures of hands, forearms, [and] the body. Freedom of movement”; No.2, “Recitative style, rubato; finger-changes for smoothness’ sake; smooth passage of line between hands”; No. 3, “Leaps. Distorted mirrors. Lateral stretches between fingers”; No. 4, “A steady, rhythmic ostinato vs. varied irrational rhythms”; No. 5, “The lateral tremolo. Mercurial chages in color, attck, and rhythm”; No. 6, “Absolute contrast in dynamics and tone”; No. 7, “Free-falls into piano keys; size of tone, without banging.” No. 8, “Lateral hand-jumps and stretches. Use of practically no pedal”; No. 10, “Use of the pedals. Wide leaps and dynamic contrast. Trills”; No.11, “Dynamic contrast (in the piano-section least naturally apt), with a strange ad ghostlu humor,” and No. 12, “Contrast of timbres, mostly by means of pedal. Orchestral sonorities.” (Kang, 32).

It is clear that Chopin forms the basis for etude compositions for most of the other composers. Some composers, like Ligeti try to deviate from Chopin’s original work but still end up taking vital aspects of their compositions from Chopin. Others like Debussy literally follow in the footsteps of Chopin, while Bolcom is a creative composer who tries to make sophisticated etudes, but still bases them to the etudes by Chopin. The challenges that they face in the compositions are almost similar since the etudes have a common foundation.

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