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Chopin’s Etudes (Op. 10 & Op. 25) on a Listener’s Perspective

Updated on February 8, 2017

Part I: Op. 10 Études

My first obsession with classical music was the Chopin études. Back at the time, I couldn’t really understand what études are for in music performance. I was obsessed. I would play them in the loop, listening to them over and over. Aside from nocturnes by Chopin, they were the other big factor Chopin has become my favorite composer and my piano hero. My mind and my soul first agreed with each other that music among all the great things, for me, was the most beautiful and Chopin the heaven’s greatest gift to piano music. One day, my mom and I went to the local bookstore and I had stumbled upon a book, laying on its cover Chopin Études. I was thrilled as it felt like fate. It was at the time when iPads and laptops weren’t still rife that e-books were yet to be imagined as a go-to reference. I was scared that if I won’t get that only copy, I won’t ever find another one. So I grabbed and secretly paid for it. The moment I’d arrived home, I sat down at the piano and spent the next six hours without interruption lugging endlessly on that first passage of Op. 10 No. 1 – and very slowly until frustrations and determination ensued, and enforced each other. It sounded so simple to my ears and looked the same in the score. Repeated patterns. Yet, to my hands they were counterintuitive. What’s on the score, my hands couldn’t catch up. They couldn’t get them. I had to work hard for a couple of months for that particular étude and more years for the rest of them, totaling of 24 (Op. 10 & 25) plus the another three entitled "Trois Nouvelle Études." The only opportunity to keep in touch with them for me was to listen for a long time to different pianists. Some I had been anxious I wouldn’t be able to play at such the depth of their styles. Some I had felt I could do better. Yet, the real zinger forever remained to be Chopin. The beauty, the elegance, the substance and the emotional dimension had always been in his music.

For every musician, listening is a hard-core prerequisite. Nevertheless, not all listeners have to be a musician and struggle every day to overcome the physical technicalities of music. It is unfair to dismiss someone else’s opinion because they do not play. Musicians or not can partake into the art of listening and music appreciation to make their judgments. After all music is for the ears. So I offer the Chopin études by some of the best pianists and make some points why I fall in love over and over with them without slackening. It’s my own perspective that I am sharing that I hope enough to nudge my readers on listening to them and come up with their own perspective.


Martha Argerich playing Chopin Étude No. 1 Op. 10

Op. 10 No. 1 "Waterfall"

It’s nicknamed “Waterfall.” No need to wonder why. It’s an endless cascade from the low to high registers of the piano, and vice versa. It’s one of the most attractive for me. It’s so simple. Most of the works are done by the right hand, like with most etudes of Chopin. It has the combination of power and sentimentality. Whether it’s played slow or fast, it sounds amazing. When slow, it’s reflective. When fast, it’s bombastic. It makes for a good virtuosic show. It’s sure to be a crowd-pleaser as there’s really no downtime in the around two minutes it usually spans. Audience and listeners may wonder how the music is produced even more, when they see that it almost rests underneath the deft of the right hand.

Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Chopin Étude No. 2 Op. 10

Op. 10 No. 2 "Chromatique"

One among the few comedic entries in the list. It doesn’t sound as powerful as the first. It's less dark and less emotional. It’s light and easy to feel – not much of emotional involvement is needed. It may be boring at first because it lacks the blatant showmanship elements like fast and faster and loud and louder. The musical drama lies in its jocose sarcasm as if it’s childishly trying to taunt you. Imagine a picture of teasing a friend at the verge of getting piqued, but couldn’t and he laughs instead and you laugh. And you do it again. It’s repetitive. And do not be fooled though into thinking that it’s plain ordinary. It might be, but the amount of work to achieve that plain ordinariness isn’t nothing. It’s real nuts to produce that sarcasm.

Sviatoslav Richter playing Chopin Étude No. 3 Op. 10

Op. 10 No. 3 "Tristesse"

This isn’t only the most popular in the set. Also among the most popular in Chopin’s compositions. Listen to it and you’ll know why. It’s entitled “Tristesse,” a French word that translates “sadness” in English. How it achieved its fame isn’t a mystery. Classical music can sometimes be complex. Its unpredictability often gives a listener an air of confusion. But this étude is direct and makes no-nonsense in making you feel gloomy. Yes, it’s that poignant that it’s no-brainer to understand why it appeals almost instantly to anyone, even to those who aren’t into classical music. Its theme centers on despair and wistfulness.

Arthur Rubinstein playing Chopin Étude No. 4 Op. 10

Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin Étude No. 4 Op. 10

Op. 10 No. 4 "Torrent"

It’s torrential showboat piano piece of music. It’s a speed étude and designed to cater agility and speed of the fingers. Hence, it tends to be played macho and aggressive, often incidental to speed. If you don’t want to get bored and after for some adrenaline rush, this guy doesn’t fail. It is a good running music to race against or set your tempo runs. Though what makes it exciting is its obvious bravado, some pianists have excellently managed to play it without much bravura, yet without lacking in intensity and technical mastery. It also sounds complex and difficult, though Op. 10’s 1 & 2 are more difficult by far degree.

Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Chopin Étude No. 5 Op. 5

Op. 10 No. 5 "Black Keys"

Another fun to listen to. It sounds like pearls bouncing on a glass dining table. It’s called “Black Keys,” wherein all the notes played are limited to the black keys. The tone is jolly, suggesting “Let’s have fun.” Yet none of it sounds easy and complacent. It’s lively throughout, which doesn’t make it hard to pay attention to. It immediately captures and delivers a jocund entertainment. It’s also imaginative of children prancing around.

Op. 10 No. 6 "Lament"

Okay, this will you lull at first, albeit to a good one. It’s slow, silent and laments throughout, so is nicknamed “Lament.” It makes a perfect suit for solitary grieving. And I think only in such cases, this will be truly appreciated. I initially thought it’s the least entertaining, the only boring of its peers. But aside from having to listen to it many times, I’ve learned to love it when I was in my darkest hours. It consoled and absorbed me. It will do the same to anybody else. It somehow manages to make you treasure your somber moments.

Alfred Cortot playing Chopin Étude No. 7 Op. 10

Op. 10 No. 7 "Toccata"

This is one I like to play and listen to, over and over. It is lighthearted, yet romantic without shuttling to the polar extremes. A perfect balance. It’s a “toccata,” and as it is, it doesn’t rely on legato runs or continuous runs. It’s choppy, but that's what evokes its loose, relaxing feeling. It doesn’t feel rigid and it feels homey. It resembles with Op. 10. No. 5, yet it's more amorous and low-key. Less stinging also to the ear, less of clanging and banging, right amounts for an easy, pleasant musical experience.

Cecile Licad playing Chopin Étude No. 8 Op. 10

Op. 10 No. 8 "Sunshine"

This was my second favorite before the rest of the études have become because of its optimism-evoking nature. It’s even nicknamed “Sunshine” étude. It has the most elegant and fulfilling beginning, which conditions a mood to a soothing, satisfying day ahead. Literally, it makes me smile once it starts. I picture pianists, while playing it, feel the same way too. Although there are some I heard performed it at a blazing speed and sounded great, I still prefer it at its moderate speed. When it’s fast the music sounds contrived and being overshadowed by its performer’s virtuosity.

Maurizio Pollini playing Chopin Étude No. 9 Op. 10

Op. 10 No. 9 (Un-nicknamed)

This sounds the darkest of Op. 10. It’s not just bleak, but its forlorn like for a prisoner with a life sentence. It’s suggestive of an acceptance of a bad fate and injustice. There’s no reward, only acceptance. And there’s no joy, only art. One has to feel somehow at a dead-end to empathize with this music, which makes it a lot of time to be fully related by a listener.

Cecile Licad playing Chopin Étude No. 10 Op. 10

Op. 10 No. 10 (Un-nicknamed)

It sounds tricky as if in denial of an overt drama and emotional picturesque, yet in the more realistic sense, it feels all sorts of it. Imagine someone shies away from being gratified or from speaking his emotions. Yet, he’s all with the goodness and humility. That’s, is the character of this piece. Self-deprecating beauty with substance, charm, and authenticity. Despite it being vivacious, it doesn’t obscure romantic canopy. It also speaks of suffering in a way that you will understand it, but not feel it. So you get back to it again for joy and pleasure.

Andre Gavrilov playing Chopin Étude No. 11 Op. 10

Op. 10 No. 11 "Arpeggio"

This is the vainest, I would say. It’s everything that’s rolling chords, delivering a fancy music. But what it really pictures in my mind is lulling a baby to sleep – a lullaby. Despite that, I also listen to it when I’m sad and when I want to feel okay or when I’m yearning for something I couldn’t explain. It possesses a consoling melody you couldn’t go wrong when you just want a good, comforting music. It’s unique too. Rolling chords used to be for accompaniment, but here it’s where the melody is coming from. It works well either by being played slow or fast.

Van Cliburn playing Chopin Étude No. 12 Op. 10

Op. 10 No. 12 "Revolutionary"

This étude had the deepest, darkest, and most despairing inspiration. Chopin composed it as his battle cry for his hometown, Warsaw, Poland, when being invaded by the Russians. He, being in France, was anxious with his family’s fate. He was helpless and all that he had was his talent. To express his grief, he wrote this étude that challenges the left hand. And so the music has full of rage, yet there’s always that tinge of not being able to do anything despite the immediate and strong urge to do so. It’s apparent and impossible not to be empathic with Chopin. Like him, you would just wish you could do something.

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Part II: Op. 25 Études

While I was obsessing with Op. 10 Études of Chopin, I was unaware there’s still another set. When I had known, I was high-strung and thrilled as I thought they would offer me the similar great experience I had with their predecessors. It was no mistake that they fed me unwavering musical brilliance and a lot of artistic point of views as such with the Op. 10. What struck me though was Chopin’s limitless originality and delicateness. In these compositions of his, he demonstrated more fanciness, completely new to the ears. He incorporated more of emotions and translated them into music. Hence, he came up with these as more permeable into the sub-conscious. They deliberately touch the heart and make our souls feel more visceral. Such a humbling experience to realize that such beauties are possible to exist. With their God-like purity, one couldn’t help but be mesmerized.

Lang Lang playing Chopin Étude Op. 25 No. 1

Op. 25 No. 1 "Aeolian Harp or Shepherd Boy"

Undoubtedly, of all the études, this is the most heavenly. It would feel like being surrounded by angels. Try closing your eyes while listening. What makes it so is its singing, hovering, water-like melody. Its pure romanticism needs not be explained further. It’s exalting, ecstatic, and reflective. I think it’s a good study or meditative music as it’s not distractive. It makes you feel like you’re a good man or that there’s goodness in the world no matter what. It’s so much spiritual that to hear pianist butcher it makes me think that they’re doing a disservice to it.

Vladimir Ashkenazy playing Chopin Étude No. 2 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 2 "The Bees"

The music in this étude is gloomy. It’s not voicing out suffering, but only letting the listener know that such mood is not to escape away from. Though the mood is bleak, it’s fine at the point. (Not that I’m saying the music is fine. Of course, it’s beyond fine; it’s excellent.) But the music is breathing, hence it’s living. So in that longing atmosphere, it tells that it’s fine being there, and it doesn’t want to do anything. It’s how it’s living its spiritual life. It gives the same lesson to us. Some can take not being happy but doesn’t mean for them a miserable, unsustainable cul-de-sac. Even if their lives aren’t their ideal, it doesn’t mean that they are empty. There’s always an inspiration throughout the gamut of human emotions.

Daniil Trifonov playing Chopin Étude No. 3 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 3 "The Horseman or Cart Wheel"

It tickles my ear and gives me smiles and shivers. Although some pianists have the tendency to overdo it, when played right, it’s chilly, which won’t give you much of a schmaltz. Because it’s bang-filled exciting and with its right romanticism, it makes a good mood warm-up to listen to or to start something. That skittish right-hand playing is awesomely evocative perfectly accented by the base. It isn’t that emotionally charging, yet it still got the substance and style unique of Chopin. It sounds like an adult cajoling a child, or someone patching things up in a funny way. And in the end, there’s a relief.

Leif Ove Andsnes playing Chopin Étude No. 4 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 4 "Paganini"

The base here is particularly striking and in a good way. Yes, the melody is predominantly right-handed, but my ears can’t help but notice more the left-hand work. It seems like the left and the right hands are chasing and teasing each other, and the left-hand is trying so determinedly to win the hand of the right-hand, which seems implacable. But obviously, they like each other, only that they couldn’t meet yet. It’s sad and wistful, but the music doesn’t want to show it up explicitly. It’s imaginative of appearing fine, despite within isn’t.

Boris Giltburg playing Chopin Étude No. 5 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 5 "Wrong Note"

This étude is my first favorite of Op. 25. Sheer elegance in the middle part and stylistic outer movements. Yet no matter how good the structure of the music is, without a melody that touches the heart, it’s only music based on the definition. The uniqueness of Chopin was that he had always the ability to weave emotion into the musical structure and come up with unprecedented technical difficulties. So most of his compositions were never paralleled. This serves such a perfect example. It’s unique, yet doesn’t come a stranger, because it immediately moves. It’s romantically intertwined with technique. Despite being an étude, it doesn’t count intimidating.

Georges Cziffra playing Chopin Étude No. 6 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 6 "Thirds"

This is the most elegant and sexiest of this second set of études. It is delicate and sensitive. You feel like your falling off the cliff any moment it’s ruined by someone’s playing. And you should be because there’s that chance of it being screwed up as it holds the candle for being the hardest of these études. Surprisingly, it sounds grandly simple. It doesn’t ask a showy virtuosity and so I think it’s humble. (Or fastidious?) It is something to be really tamed as its music should be a balance among the intellect, the artistry, and the control. A balance between the physical and the abstract.

Alfred Cortot playing Chopin Étude No. 7 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 7 "Cello"

No more else comes to mind whenever I hear this étude, other than sorrow and repressed rage. Of all the "slows" in the set, this is my most favorite. It’s tragically emotional, spine-tingling and gooseflesh. I think it will make for a good showmanship, despite that its speed doesn’t hurry. A tear-jerker, too. So if you want to cry, or want to give yourself a solemn evocation of your repressed emotion, turn to this one. And even if you’re only for a wonderful music that possesses a wistful and suffering substance, while at the same time has got power, this pleases.

Valentina Lisitsa playing Chopin Étude No. 8 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 8 "Sixths"

Rhythmic, agitated and lively. It sounds like less fiery than the Op. 25 No. 10. Of all the études, this stood out the least. Maybe because it resembles with Op. 25 No.3, which I really like. Nevertheless, it doesn't bore me. It's ordinarily excellent music that hovers each other, one tone after another, producing a musical canopy as in with the Op. 25 No. 1 and Op. 10 No. 1. Unlike the two, though, this rests on the softer spectrum. It sounds simple yet dense, ironically. There's a balance, and it's the key why it isn't boring despite its typical Chopin romanticism.

Josef Hofman playing Chopin Étude No. 9 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 9 "Butterfly"

It’s a short burst of whimsy and playfulness. It’s among the few in the list, that are light to listen to, that do not ask the listener to invest more than he can handle, or not ready yet to handle. It’s fun, brilliantly blunt and concise. A pianist who’s playing it looks like he’s joking, which is the art this music encapsulates. For it to be given justice, it has to sound cool, simple and natural, without exaggeration. Like any other music, it got to be pure. Unlike them, a player has to be witty as the music itself suggestively instructs. It’s a good icebreaker and eases the mood.

Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin Étude No. 10 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 10 "Octave"

It’s music through the monstrous octave attacks at the keyboard. A battering prowess that encapsulates a typical of Chopin’s unique romanticism – wait for it in the middle. It’s scary at its outer parts like a soundtrack in a situation you’re being chased in the beginning and in the end. Anticlimactic in the middle, where it’s soothing and nostalgic, one can’t help but hum along with it or sway. It’s a complete short piece, like a mini sonata, analog of a meal that has an appetizer, a main course, and a desert, only that you get the same for an appetizer and for a desert. Yet, still satisfying.

Sviatoslav Richter playing Chopin Étude No. 11 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 11 "Winter Wind"

Thunderous étude named as “Winter Wind” by its composer. It’s obvious why. Any pianist would storm down the piano and struggle to produce that musical bravado and exemplify a jaw-dropping virtuosity. It initially starts peaceful and not long after it travails into an epic and dark nostalgia that roots from and storms loneliness. More than that it is played mightily, it must be tumultuous while remains to be an emotional powerhouse. It’s rock heavy and wistfully dense that anyone will most likely indulge. Breathtakingly passionate and sincerely heartwarming. It’s a conflation of super strength and superbly deep emotion, that together bring peerless substance.

Vladimir Horowitz playing Chopin Étude No. 12 Op. 25

Op. 25 No. 12 "Ocean"

Last entry, and it’s like Op. 25 no. 11 in terms of intensity and depth. It’s nicknamed “Ocean” as like with the Op. 10 No. 1, it’s also music through cascades, yet it’s more characteristically courageous and more electrifying. It’s said that Chopin written it together with Op. 10 No. 12 to express his anguish and helplessness when Russia was invading his home country Poland, and we hear again his outcry to touch us. I personally consider this among the most sorrowful, second to Op. 25 No. 7. And I like its effect to my ears and I admire how it alters or enforces my mood. It doesn’t make me happy, but it heightens my spirit.

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