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(...) The étude has been a long-term interest of yours starting as early as your doctorate thesis. Can you tell me more about études? What is an étude?
Ah, the étude! I remember the days I hated practicing études! But then it has become one of the subjects I keep going back to.
The literal meaning of “étude” according to the Grove Dictionary of Music is “to study,” coming from the Latin root, “étudere.” An étude in music is generally understood as a “pedagogical work focusing on at least one technical or musical aspect.” It’s a teaching piece with a specific goal (mostly technique, not so much a musical one) so that the students may obtain the necessary skills or techniques for playing their instruments and other “real” pieces. An étude is differentiated from exercises10 in that it’s a complete piece of music, no matter how short.
Usually, an étude in instrumental music is a big part of the teaching and learning process with very little musical influence or meaning at- tached to it. In piano literature, however, it is more than just a pedagogical tool. There are many études that are performed on stage and required for auditions and competitions. This is very unique to pianists, and it’s largely thanks to what Chopin and Liszt did with the étude genre. Usually schol- ars regard Chopin’s études as the first of the “masterworks” in this genre. The amount of études (and the amount that are still being taught and performed) in piano literature is quite remarkable.
In the music history, numerous genres/ forms have evolved with time. Likewise with the étude. Can you tell me more about the history of the étude? How has it developed?
With the development of the piano as an instrument, the technical demands on the performer grew as well. More and more études were written so that the performers could acquire the skills needed to play demanding “real” pieces. Some of the most commonly found technical aspects in piano études are intervals, scale-based patterns (for agility and speed), arpeggio, octaves, chords, voicing, independence of certain fingers, and ornaments.
But with the twenty-four études (op. 10 and op. 25) written by Cho- pin, the piano études gained an artistic dimension. His études still focused mostly on one technical aspect, but have the purpose of being performed as a concert work. Chopin himself is known to have per- formed his études in concerts. This is the most unique aspect of piano études, and this changed the discourse of the genre. Also, writing in sets of twelve (sometimes divided into 6 and 6, too) became common after Chopin.
Then came Liszt, who continued writing concert études as Chopin did, but with many more virtuosic technical feats. His études exhibit more demanding techniques than Chopin’s and deal with multiple techniques at a time. Performers are expected to have all the necessary techniques in order to play Liszt’s études. One might say that the pedagogical aspect of études is lost in Liszt’s études.
Both Chopin and Liszt were great concert pianists who wrote for themselves to perform, and this tradition continued with Rachmaninoff and Scriabin. With the high popularity and demand of super virtuosos, the required pianistic skills became more and more complicated, and an extreme example of ultra virtuosity after Liszt can be found in the études by Godowsky.
In the twentieth and the twenty-first century, the tradition of writing concert études continued, and composers were aware of the pianistic techniques available. But another dimension was added to the piano études. Études also became something that composers are able to explore their own styles and compositional abilities with. I think this is largely because of the limited nature (focusing on one musical element, with relatively short length) of the genre. One can come up with a single idea to explore and see how far it can go. It is also easy to see a distinctive characteristic of a composer’s style in an étude. Debussy’s twelve études show these characteristics very well.
Then Ligeti won the Grawemeyer award with his six études (Book I) in 1986. This is remarkable as the award is usually given to larger orchestra works or operas, and to this day he is the sole person to have won the prize with a piece for a solo instrument. There were multiple inspirations for this set, including Conlon Nancarrow’s Studies for Player Piano, Central African music and its poly-meter, Chopin, Debussy, picture puzzles, paradoxes of ideas and perception, mathematical discoveries, and so on. The relatively simple ideas that begin his études often develop into something very complex and sometimes not so pianistic. These inspirations and resulting complexity exhibit new kinds of challenges for pianists – metric discrepancy between the hands (and the extreme independence of the hands required for executing it), unusual positions and movements needed for the wrists and fingers, extreme use of keyboard ranges and dynamics, changes without a predictable pattern, and even a technique of not playing notes (as in his étude no. 3, Blocked Keys). At the same time, his études are full of elements that allude to tradition, such as the use of major and minor triads (although not in a functional tonality), the use of a melody and accompaniment texture, melodic contour that is easy to remember and sing, the use of a certain interval, the use of talea,11 canon, and so on. His études, especially the first set, quickly became established as one of the major repertoires of the twentieth century, and appear as a requirement at various piano competitions as well as in concert programs. One could say that his études almost resurrected the popularity and importance of piano études, and many great études have been written from the late 1980s until now by renowned living composers. Bolcom won the Pulitzer Prize with his piano études in 1988. Unsuk Chin, who studied with Ligeti, wrote six études between 1993–2006. The 2016 Grawemeyer-winning composer Hans Abrahamsen produced a set of relatively short and charming études in 1998. Magnus Lindberg wrote two very pianistic études (largely based on the 3rd interval and arpeggios). There are many more in addition to these.
It is very intriguing to hear that the étude has been employed as an exercise tool for composers as well in the twentieth century. I also make visual compositions as an artist, and I often think that making a composition is not an action that is taken only intuitively, but also a technique that you make progress with through practice, especially when the composition incorporates a certain logic. To me, composing is speaking a language that demands training in order to be proficient in its own grammar and idioms. In the meantime, I would like to draw attention to the other side of composition, the audience. I can recall one moment, when I was listening to Ligeti’s étude for the first time, when his musical material suddenly became just clear to me. I attribute this to the étude’s nature of elaborating on a single idea so the idea can be clearly articulated in the music, as you mentioned above. The simpler the material is, the more effectively composers can play with it, and the easier it is for the audience to grasp it. At the same time, if the composer wanted to become skillful in the grammar of a certain material, there is no doubt that such material would be a crucial element in the composer’s other overall compositions. In that sense, the étude is a potential shortcut that guides one to the core of a composer’s work.
Yes, I absolutely agree that the étude is a miniature frame that lets you into the essence of a composer’s output. Because of the long and rich tradition of this genre, the étude has a few parameters – relatively short length, focus on one element (limited musical material), and virtuosity. Within these limits, composers can showcase their own musical traits in a very condensed form. If a composer has a set of études, you can observe a lot of the “fingerprints” (harmonic and melodic tendency, favored texture, favored intervals, procedure for developing a material, and so on) of the composer’s style in them.
Have you found any interesting new techniques for performers in recently composed études?
One cannot discuss “new music” without acknowledging that there was a big shift in how pitches and rhythm are organized in the early twentieth century. Music does not need to have a tonality, scales, or triads (and broken triads) as its main ingredients. Also, the complexity of meter and rhythm expanded. Composers started exploring new ways of playing the instrument (inside the piano, plucking and muting the strings, etc.). Then there was the development of electronic music and other sound medias. All of these changes contributed to the scope of the one thing that an étude can focus on. Most of the nineteenth century études focus on scale- and arpeggio-based techniques, or certain intervals that are integral to tonality (3rds, 6ths, and octaves). But the early twentieth century études (Scriabin and Debussy) started exploring the unusual intervals of 4ths and 5ths, and even 9ths. Instead of steady, consistent patterns, some composers explore fast changing gestures. The compositional techniques and primarily used musical forms and genres have also changed over time. The compositional process and procedure become more important than the pianistic techniques. Some études even explore the inside piano techniques exclusively,12 and some focus on the technique of using the pedal. I would say that the common tendency or general direction found in contemporary études is the exploration of the compos- er’s self or experimental spirit (a “let’s see how it goes” spirit).
Let’s return to Chopin. He introduced approximately twenty-four techniques through his étude op. 10 and op. 25. Among them, the most interesting ones to me are op. 10, no. 3, often called by its nickname, “Tristesse” (melancholy), op. 10, no. 6, called “Lament,” and op. 25, no. 7, called “Cello.” As in other études , the techniques in these three études can be analyzed with musical terms such as legato, voicing, left hand expression, figuration, and so on. However, due to their slow tempo, what performers practically exercise might in fact be something more like expression rather than technique, from a general perspective. These pieces don’t demonstrate the pianist’s virtuosic technique, meaning that not many pianists would include these études in their programs for com- petitions. However, it seems to me that Chopin might have wanted to say there are still techniques that a performer should refine in these pieces. Does it mean that Chopin also thought of expression as a technique? We often distinguish expression and technique, but perhaps they share much more at a fundamental level than we think. In fact, I view expression as a technique in the sense that we can develop it through exercises. Moreover, a performer’s sense or attitude can also be enhanced through practice, like a technique.
I would agree that expression is a different kind of technique (which is probably why Chopin and other composers wrote études that explore different touch, quality of sound, and “expression”). For me, being expressive is about making the sound that is the ideal version of a particular passage. It involves the right kind of tone, dynamics, timing, and voicing. These elements are related to physical gestures (the speed of the approach, the connection of the arm movements before and after the touch, and so on) that we practice over and over so that we can produce the exact sound that we look for all the time. Also it requires a deep under- standing of the performing tradition, aesthetics and styles of each com- poser, music history, and the instrument itself. Nobody has a definite answer for what is “right,” but there is a general acceptance (as well as expectation) of the excellence and performance style based on the rich tradition of piano pedagogy and performance. As a performer, I try to understand the music and imagine the ideal sound, and practice the physical elements to create that sound in my performances. This is not to ignore the emotion, feeling, or spontaneity that a performer might experience on stage, however. Those are important elements of musical expression. In the end, an understanding of the music, the performers’ physical motions, and the pursuit of specific kinds of sounds are all connected. To me, really great performers are the ones who deliver all of these elements in a profoundly organic and personal way.
In études, “exercise” and the “final” are coexistent. I have been fascinated by this duality in études. I don’t believe in perfection that can be achieved in reality and at the present time. Yet I have to still trust that perfection exists somewhere far in the future, so I can move forward toward it. For me, all the “finals” are rehearsals, or studies, or études.
Perfection is something that performers try to achieve in all types of works, not only in études. I prefer performing a program or a piece of music multiple times because by doing so I might have a better chance at achieving its best version. Also, each time the performance is a different, if not more perfect, experience. As études started as practical works that would “perfect” the skill of performers so that they could perform other works better, it seems that the process of getting to the final stage is an inevitable goal. However, this process exists in other genres of music, too, and practicing, rehearsing, and performing are all part of seeking the perfection that we may or may not ever achieve.
10 “Exercises in piano literature are motivic ideas repeated and transposed multiple times” (Jihye Chang).
11 “According to the Oxford Dictionary of Music, it is ‘a medieval term usually understood to denote a freely invented rhythmic configuration, several state- ments of which constitute the note values of the tenor of an isorhythmic motet.’ In Ligeti’s case, it is a rhythmic pattern that is repeated with varied pitches” (Jihye Chang).
12 “For example, playing the strings directly, muting the piano strings, using harmonics, and so on” (Jihye Chang).