Works that are truly poetic’ (Schumann)

‘His études for piano are masterpieces’ (Berlioz)

Before Chopin, the piano étude (exercise, study) was merely a functional piece of didactic character. Its principal aim was the development of pianistic skills-from the simplest exercise to more complicated studies. The early nineteenth century brought many examples of such études, written by outstanding pianists of the times, including the well-known collections Gradus ad Parnassum by Muzio Clementi (1817), and Studio per il pianoforte (Book I 1804, Book II 1810) and 84 Etüden by Johann Baptist Cramer. These compositions occasionally appeared under the name exercises, as in the case of some pieces by John Field.

Chopin was conscious of this tradition in music didactics.  Yet his études are works of a wholly different order. He began to compose them during his youth, in Warsaw, and his pianistic genius was already becoming increasingly manifest. One source of inspiration here may have been the virtuosic playing of the great violinist Niccolo Paganini. Shortly after hearing Paganini in Warsaw, the nineteen-year-old Fryderyk informed his friend Tytus Woyciechowski in a letter (1829): “I’ve done a large Exercise en forme, in my own peculiar way”. When he left Poland, in November 1830, his first études were already completed.

Artur Bielecki