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  • Graham Abbott

Études are more than Studies

Names and labels can be a problem in music. As Juliet says to Romeo:

What's in a name? that which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet...

...and so with a lot of music. When is a sonata not a sonata? When it's an exercise, it seems, and an exercise could be called a study...étude in French.

This music is by Domenico Scarlatti, one of his 555 single-movement sonatas for harpsichord. But when this music was published in a collection of 30 such pieces in 1738, Scarlatti didn't call them sonatas but essercizi: exercises.

Velasco: Domenico Scarlatti (1738)

The writing of pieces as exercises, or studies, to assist the development of technique, has a time-honoured place in European musical culture. It's interesting that Scarlatti thought of these pieces as exercises, because they're played today as concert works; in fact their original titles are rarely considered. Which all goes to raise the question of how "serious" (in inverted commas) a work can be if it was designed as a "mere" (also in inverted commas) teaching tool.

In this article I want to explore this corner of the keyboard repertoire, and see how composers have taken the allegedly humble study and raised it to the level of concert music.

Scarlatti's 30 essercizi of 1738 are no different in scope or conception to his other 525 keyboard sonatas, which is why they can blend in as sonatas in the complete collection and not be noticed. The idea of writing music for study in the early 18th century didn't mean writing music that was boring and mechanical. Take JS Bach's enormous Clavier-Übung, for example. This collection of music took a decade to compile and includes some of the greatest works of their era for the harpsichord as well as the organ. The Italian Concerto, the six partitas for keyboard and the Goldberg Variations are all contained in it. Yet Übung in German - in this context - means an exercise, although no-one would ever consider these masterworks as mere "studies" in the more common sense of the term.

Music composed with a didactic intention was common in the Baroque and classical periods, but it wasn't until the early 19th century, with the growing popularity of the piano as a means of domestic music making, that teaching material aimed at the amateur as well as the professional began to flood the market. Admittedly a great deal of this was mechanical and mind-numbingly repetitive. But composers who had the talent to do so rose above this level to write studies to not only help develop technique but also - essentially - maintain interest for the listener as well as the performer. This brief study by John Baptist Cramer, for example, was published in 1804, in the first volume of his Studies for the Pianoforte. This book of 42 studies was joined by a second volume six years later, also containing 42, and they've remained a cornerstone of piano technique. [listen]

Sharp: John Baptist Cramer

Cramer deliberately based his studies on Bach's Well-Tempered Keyboard, and seeing Cramer's success, many other pianist-composers brought out sets of their own studies, including Muzio Clementi, Daniel Steibelt and Joseph Wölfl. Beethoven clearly admired Cramer's pieces, as he annotated 21 of them for his nephew to use in his lessons. Furthermore, Beethoven regarded Cramer's studies as "the best preparation for his own works". There are times in Cramer's studies when he seems to deliberately set out to imitate Bach, too, such as in this G major study from the 1804 collection. [listen]

20 years younger than Cramer, and closely associated with Beethoven, was Carl Czerny. As Beethoven's student he had unrivalled access to the composer and his music, and as a teacher he helped propel the careers of many other great performers of the 19th century including famous virtuosos like Sigismund Thalberg and Franz Liszt.

Carl Czerny (1833)

Czerny wrote a truly staggering amount of music, including a vast number of studies for the piano. He was - and perhaps still is - the most famous composer of such studies. The fact that his publications go well past Op 800 is an indication of how much he wrote.

Quite apart from the more mechanical books of studies with particular teaching aims in mind and not intended for concert performance, Czerny composed studies which prefigure the "concert study" and which are attractive pieces in their own right. This one is from his Op 740, a collection called The Art of Finger Dexterity. [listen]

It's probably worth mentioning that Czerny wrote a great deal of other music, besides his piano studies. There are piano sonatas and sonatinas, as well as symphonies, chamber music, and a large number of sacred choral works. One of Czerny's contemporaries, and another composer associated with Beethoven, was Ignaz Moscheles and he too wrote piano studies which seem to be among the first of a new genre of music, the concert study.

A study of this sort tended to be called an étude, the French word for study, even when the composer or the publication wasn't French. A study in the usual sense took one aspect of piano technique - such as playing in thirds, or trills, or wide leaps - and enveloped this in a piece which drilled this technical point. Concert études could do the same but in a way in which the resultant work was structured more interestingly, usually in some established form like rondo form or sonata form. Variation form was also popular in this context.

Felix Moscheles: Ignax Moscheles (c. 1860) - the artist was the son of the composer

Moscheles published two books of studies as his Op 70 in 1827. These, like Bach's 48 preludes and fugues, cover all the major and minor keys. They were an immediate hit and their influence was enormous. Chopin's études (more about these in a moment) were clearly based on them but took the genre far further and in so doing put Moscheles's efforts into obscurity after a time. Mendelssohn was very enthusiastic about the Moscheles set, and when he encouraged him to write more such works the result was the Characteristic Studies, Op 95.

These are perhaps among the first true concert studies, designed to train the technique, yes, but they do so much more. They are programmatic, with titles like "Wrath", "Reconciliation", "Contradiction", "Terror" and so on, so they require dramatic and emotional expertise as well as technical skill. Furthermore they work as a complete set in concert, with a number of the studies linked by short modulation passages to make them flow as a single unit. Moscheles himself performed the entire Op 95 set in public, and they were soon taken up by luminaries such as Liszt. This is one of them, called "Bacchanale". [listen]

Equating "the utility of a technical exercise with musical invention equivalent to other genres" (to quote Grove) was finally achieved in the studies of Chopin. His Op 10 set of études appeared in 1833, and the Op 25 set four years later; each contained twelve pieces. Chopin proved himself able to take a technical need - for example double thirds in this example from Op 25 - and couch it in music of such harmonic sophistication that the line between technical study and concert work is completely hidden. [listen]

Wodzińska: Frédéric Chopin (1835)

By Chopin's own estimation, the first pianist who was able to do justice to his Op 10 studies was Franz Liszt, to whom they're dedicated, and it was Liszt himself who took the concert étude to unprecedented heights of technical and emotional demands. Most famous among his studies are the twelve Transcendental Études, dating from 1852, but these have an extraordinary history.

In 1826, when he was 14 and already one one of the most fearsomely talented pianists of all time, Liszt composed a set of twelve studies (or exercises) which were published as his Op 6. (They're now known as S136 in the Searle catalogue.) They take about 25 minutes in all and show that he knew his teacher Czerny's studies very well. This is the fourth étude from the set. [listen]

Eleven years later Liszt returned to these early studies and completely recomposed them. In the process he tripled the duration of the set to around 75 minutes and ended up with characteristic pieces of phenomenal difficulty. These were published as Twelve Grand Études (now known as S137). This is the opening of the fourth étude, the reworked (and much longer) version of the study we just heard, with a thundering melody added over the top of the rising patterns of the earlier incarnation. [listen]

Fifteen years later still, in 1852, Liszt returned to these studies and completely revised them yet again. In response to the heavier action of the latest pianos, he lightened some of the textures and tightened some of the longer pieces, making a set of twelve studies lasting a bit over an hour when performed complete.

In the final version, the studies were given descriptive titles and the fourth study now became known as "Mazeppa", based on the legend of the Ukrainian Cossack leader made popular in Liszt's day in the epic poem of Byron. It was given a hugely virtuosic introduction before the melody added in 1837 is heard.

The whole set of 1852 was called Twelve Transcendental Études and in most cases Liszt reduced many of the technical demands of the 1837 version (such as removing all stretches greater than a tenth). "Mazeppa", however, is apparently more difficult than its earlier version. [listen]

Franz Liszt (1858)

Studies of this scale and complexity really transcend - pun intended - the original purpose of a study, which was to focus on and work through a particular aspect of technique. Every one of Liszt's Transcendental Études presents a myriad of technical demands, and their programmatic titles require the pianist to think dramatically and emotionally in a way which goes far beyond just training the fingers.

The same can be said of the studies of the French composer Charles Valentin Alkan, a Paris-based contemporary and colleague of both Liszt and Chopin. His piano music - and almost all his music is for the piano - rivals that of Liszt in its complexity and technical demands, and he wrote two important sets of studies. The Op 35 of 1848 comprises twelve studies in all the major keys and they range in length from less than two minutes to more than ten. The first six are not programmatic while the second six move more into the descriptive type of study. This is the second étude of Alkan's Op 35. [listen]

Charles Valentin Alkan

Alkan's companion set, the twelve studies in all the minor keys, Op 39, appeared nine years later in 1857 and it's on a vast scale, completely different to the major key set. Lasting more than two hours when played complete, Alkan's Op 39 seems to take Bach's Clavierübung as its model. After three stand-alone studies with programmatic titles, the next four make up a four-movement "symphony" for solo keyboard. The following three are described as a "concerto" for solo keyboard where the first movement alone lasts half an hour. The eleventh étude is described as an overture, while the last is another stand-alone piece with a programmatic title. It's an incredible conception with enormous technical demands made on the pianist. This is the third étude from Alkan's Op 39, called "Scherzo diabolico". [listen]

Alkan's output of studies also includes the Three Grand Études written around 1838 which make use of the hands separately, just one example of composers writing in particular for the left hand alone, but also, on occasion, for the right.

After the death of Beethoven in 1827, the piano sonata was to many composers, for some time, to be an unapproachable form. Beethoven seemed to have said all that could be said in that field for now. The writing of études, which became very popular at exactly this time, may very well have been a reaction to this, providing an opportunity for composers to explore a genre which hadn't been dominated by Beethoven.

Certainly Robert Schumann noted in 1839 that "...we cannot abstain from the writing of études", and Schumann himself made major contributions to the form. Perhaps his best-known piano études are the Symphonic Études, Op 13, but more characteristic of his time are the earlier études based on the violin caprices of Nicolò Paganini. Paganini was internationally famous as a violin virtuoso and his caprices inspired many arrangements throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th. Schumann's études based on Paganini are the six of his Op 3 and a further six of his Op 10, dating from 1832 and 1833 respectively. It's clear that he intended these to be instructional as well as concert works, as he provided exercises and directions in the preface to Op 3 for the pianist to practice so as to better grapple with the demands of each piece. This is the final study in the Op 3 set. [listen]

Robert Schumann (1839)

As a disciple of Schumann and a gifted pianist in his own right, Johannes Brahms would have known the older composer's études, and in due course he composed some of his own which are also based on music by other composers. The five studies based on music by Chopin, Weber and JS Bach are crowned by a gigantic study written in 1879. Lasting more than a quarter of an hour and designed for the left hand alone, it's an arrangement of the Chaconne from Bach's second partita for unaccompanied violin. [listen]

Johannes Brahms (1889)

By the late 19th century, and into the early 20th century, piano études had become a standard part of the pianist's concert repertoire. With a nod to their didactic value, and focusing on particular technical accomplishments, concert studies became integral components of a concert program, as they still are to this day.

The major pianist-composers of this era, including Scriabin, Rachmaninov, Debussy and Stravinsky, all made contributions to the étude repertoire, among many others.

Alexander Scriabin

Alexander Scriabin's output includes the Three Études of his Op 65, dating from 1912. Quite apart from each study being a stand-alone piece, the three are clearly designed to be performed as a set, with the end of the third étude recalling part of the first and thus creating a unified whole. [listen]

The two sets of Études-tableaux which Sergei Rachmaninov produced around the same time are among his most important works for solo piano. They were written after the second set of preludes and are a significant advance, in terms of composition, on the earlier works. Both sets contain nine studies, the vast majority of which are in minor keys. Op 33 dates from 1911, while Op 39 was written in 1916-17. The title Études-tableaux could be translated as "pictorial studies", suggesting that they follow in the long line of characteristic or programmatic studies going back to Moscheles a century before, but teasingly Rachmaninov chose not to make the "pictures" or meaning of each piece public.

Sergei Rachmaninov (1921)

The Op 39 set was the last substantial piece Rachmaninov composed before leaving Russia and they are daring, dramatic and phenomenally difficult. This is the first of that set, marked Allegro agitato. [listen]

Our survey of piano études finishes with two French composers, starting with Claude Debussy whose piano music is central to the repertoire. In 1915, three years before his death, he wrote two books of études, each containing six pieces. In these works he takes us right back to the origins of the study, noting carefully in each case what technical issue each study is intended to train.

Claude Debussy (1908)

The first is even titled, rather tongue in cheek, as "Five Fingers: after Mr Czerny" while the others in book one develop playing in thirds, fourths, sixths, octaves and the use of the eight fingers. The second book extends into other areas: chromatic notes, repeated notes, chords, and so on. As you can imagine, these are no dry-as-dust technical exercises. Debussy manages to write music which not only trains the pianist but also delights the audience. These pieces are as at home in the concert hall as much as the practice room, and it's possible to enjoy them with no knowledge whatsoever of their didactic purpose. Here is the third study of book two, designed to practice repeated notes. [listen]

Olivier Messiaen (1937)

Born in 1908, just a decade before Debussy's death, Olivier Messiaen is nowadays remembered primarily as an organist as well as a composer; it's often forgotten that he was also highly skilled as a pianist. His Four Studies in Rhythm were written in 1949-50 and they each explore complex rhythmic groupings. The first and last, called "Island of Fire" 1 and 2, are - in the composer's words - dedicated to the territory of Papua New Guinea, a reflection of his fascination with non-western culture, music and - especially - birdlife. I'll end with the first of these études in which the themes are "characterised by the violence of the magic-rites of this country". The pianist in this recording is the composer's second wife, Yvonne Loriod. [listen]


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in February, 2016.

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