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The Etude

Updated on June 24, 2016

Development of Piano Performance Technique

The Étude

What is an Étude?

An Étude is an exercise for the piano or other instrument that develops various technical challenges. The Étude is intended to be demanding so as to help the musician conquer any technical difficulties they may be having in learning a particular piece of music. Some Études may have more than one technical aspect to deal with.

History of the Étude

Study pieces in the Renaissance period were called Toccatas. Toccatas are pieces with virtuosic runs and brilliant cascading passages with fugal interludes, which stem from the Italian word toccare which means to touch. Professional musicians used these as a way to show off ones technical skill on the instrument. Eventually the form was brought to Germany where it underwent its highest development culminating in the works of Johann Sebastian Bach more than a hundred years later. These Toccata's became more sectional and increased in length, intensity and virtuosity from the Renaissance version, reaching heights of extravagance equivalent to the overwhelming detail seen in the architecture of the period. The Toccatas of Johann Sebastian Bach feature rapid runs and arpeggios alternating with chordal or fugal parts. Sometimes there is a lack of regular tempo, and almost always an improvisational feel.

Another example in the Baroque period was J. S.Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier. The WTC was a study for personal use of his family to develop skills on the keyboard, which consists of Preludes and Fugues that were written in all the twelve keys. This was revolutionary for this time. Each one of the Preludes and Fugues captured a particular emotion, theme or show of sentiment, which expressed joy, anger, fear, or even terror, which was frowned upon later in the age of enlightenment (classical period).

The situation changed in the early 19th century with the development of the piano and the growing popularity of the piano as a domestic instrument. Instruction books with exercises became very common. Of particular importance were collections of ‘studies’ by Johann Baptist Cramer followed by Muzio Clementi’s Gradus ad Parmassum and then Carl Czerny with his ‘School of Velocity’. Most of these pieces concentrated on the technical side of music and were not intended for performance.

Romantic period

The romantic period brought about many changes in western society after the French Revolution. Many Europeans felt this was the dawn of a new age, with the end of the aristocracy and they hoped the beginning of a democratic state. People were passionate and emotional and they wanted to enjoy life in the here and now not in the afterlife. This was reflected in the music, the art, and the architecture. People no longer would be subservient to the aristocracy.

The piano itself underwent a lot of transformations as well. During the 1820’s the piano developed first with a metal frame, which made the instrument stronger and able to hold more strings thus producing a bigger sound. The double escape mechanism which was secured by Erard, the piano maker in Paris made it possible to facilitate faster note repetition thus facilitating more and more virtuosic works on the piano.

The Chopin Études revolutionized the concept of the Étude /Study. His Études not only dealt with technical problems but also helped to develop pianist’s musicianship skills. Each one of the Chopin Études are superb recital pieces and are regularly included in programming recitals all over the world. Chopin’s first set of Études was dedicated to his friend and colleague Franz Liszt. Liszt’s Transcendental Etudes changed the technique of pianists forever. The Transcendentals were increasingly complex in addition to having programmatic titles added in French and German. Liszt’s Transcendentals were dedicated to his first piano teacher Carl Czerny who had been a pupil of Beethoven.

Another set of remarkable Études were written by Charles-Valentin Alkan.

The 20th Century

Claude Debussy a French composer who along with Ravel developed the concepts of impressionism in music wrote a demanding set of Études. Debussy’s Études concentrate on sonorities and timbres peculiar to the piano, rather than technical points. Of particular note is Debussy’s piano suite ‘Children’s Corner’ the opening piece Doctor Gradus ad Parnassum which pays homage to Muzio Clementi’s collection of studies from the classical period.

Virtuoso Leopold Godowsky developed the theory of relaxed weight and economy of motion in piano playing, which continued with his student Ferruccio Busoni. Both of these pianists wrote transcriptions, which took piano technique to unknown levels of technical difficulty.

Other important Études of this period include pianist/composers Béla Bartok, Alexander Scriabin, Sergei Prokofiev and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Rachmaninoff’s Études -Tableaux or ‘study pictures’ are musical evocations of external visual stimulate.

The Étude continued to develop in complexity with Études by Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti while more modern in sound are closer to the old tradition in that they each concentrate on a particular technique.

Sorabji’s Études Transcendantes, take Godowsky and Liszt as their starting point, frequently focus on particular technical elements, as well as various rhythmical difficulties.

John Cage Études Australes while not didactic, are still very challenging to play, and are based on an unorthodox playing technique using a prepared piano.


Johann Sebastian Bach Toccata & Fugue

Johann Sebastian Bach BWV 910 Toccata in F #

Carl Czerny

Carl Czerny is an important figure in the development of piano technique and dexterity.  Czerny studied with Beethoven and consequently taught the young Franz Liszt
Carl Czerny is an important figure in the development of piano technique and dexterity. Czerny studied with Beethoven and consequently taught the young Franz Liszt | Source

Chopin Etude Opus 10 No. 1

Chopin / Liszt

Romantic pianists and composers Chopin and Liszt, revolutionized the Etude
Romantic pianists and composers Chopin and Liszt, revolutionized the Etude | Source

Franz Liszt Transcendental Etude Chasse-Neige

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Russian pianist / composer Sergei Rachmaninoff
Russian pianist / composer Sergei Rachmaninoff | Source

Alexander Scriabin Etude Opus 8 No. 12

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      jamila sahar 5 years ago

      many thanks for stopping by !

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      anamautahu 5 years ago

      interested hub

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