Reflections on Chopin's Op.10 No. 1 Waterfall Etude - Part I

Frederic Chopin last photo Op. 10, No. 1 capture
 

This entry is part of a series of blogs discussing Chopin's Op. 10, No. 1 as well as some personal impressions and connections.

Playing Chopin's Op. 10, No. 1, also known as the Waterfall Étude, has been a desire of mine for many years. I remember the first time I came across it as a ten-year-old, when this piece was assigned to me in a rather large overestimation of my abilities by my former teacher.

I remember very distinctly that it was my first brush with virtuosic music, and I was quite astounded that such humble notes on a page could produce such dizzying leaps around the keyboard. However, it exceeded at the time my own abilities, and probably that teacher's as well since it was never played it for me. The piece was promptly abandoned after about three painful lessons.

In the intervening eleven years I have developed my own faculties quite a bit and now believe I am equipped to deal with the technical challenges of the piece. I would also like to share some of the more interesting information I was able to uncover about this piece.

Background

When Chopin had arrived in Paris from Poland in 1831, he quickly become famous a salon pianist. In 1833 he published his first set of études, Op. 10, which were well received. The first review was published by the French journal Le Pianiste and commented on their severe technical and interpretational demands. The anonymous reviewer insightfully stated the first étude:

"facilitates with intensity the extensions in the right hand and this in a completely new way .... But beware! Do not judge them at the first or even second reading. Behave as you do with Lamartine’s odes that you love so much. Look for the real meaning; discover the song, always graceful, but often enveloped in such a way as to make it difficult to find." 1

The acclamation of piano études as technical and poetic studies was a first for the genre, and the adoption of them into the standard repertoire has since reshaped conceptions of what the piano as an instrument is capable of.

The Op.10 études are dedicated to “son ami, Franz Lizst”, and I have heard it said that Liszt sight-read the études perfectly. Liszt's technique was, according to Chopin, optimal for playing Chopin's own études. As he attests in a letter to Hiller:

"I write to you without knowing what my pen is scribbling, because at this moment Liszt is playing my études, and transporting me outside of my respectable thoughts. I should like to steal from him the way to play my own études."2

And a first glance at Op. 10 No. 1 would seem to require the technique of Liszt: the piece demands accuracy and power throughout. Also, I find this piece unique in Chopin's output in that the dynamics of the piece remain a continuous Forte, with no relaxing into a Mezzo-Piano range, nor any careening into Fortissimo, which subsequent études do. Maybe this is a little unusual, because we know that Chopin as a pianist relied on a more delicate sound production, which in the opinion of Liszt, prevented him from producing a sound fit for a concert hall. 3

Instead, Chopin was said to not need a vigorous Forte to enhance any contrasting effects, but rather achieved it with an unforced singing tone and inimitable shading with the pedals, along an extremely supple and even technique. Perhaps the dynamic marking on the page isn't an absolute volume indicator, but rather, the idea of the continual excitement the piece must carry. Still, I think pianists should try to play according to the dynamics left on the page, at least to the best of our own abilities.

Here is the cover page of the original publication of Chopin Op. 10. I have no idea who "J. Liszt" is, nor why his misspelled name graces this cover. He may or may not be related to "Robert Schuhmann", the original dedicatee of the Ballade No. 2, based on Chopin's letter detailing the publishing of it and the piano préludes.4

1 Cited in Sandra Rosenblum, “Chopin Among the Pianists in Paris,” In Chopin and His World, ed. by Jonathan Bellman and Halina Goldberg, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2017) 271–96.

2. Chopin to Ferdinand Hiller, Paris, June 20, 1833, in Chopin's Letters, ed. E. L.Voynich, trans. Henryk Opienski (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), 170.

3Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, Chopin: Pianist and Teacher as Seen by his Pupils, ed. Roy Howatt, trans. Naomi Shohet, Krysia Osostowicz, and Roy Howat (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 274.

4 Cited in Paul Francis Kildea, Chopin’s Piano : in Search of the Instrument That Transformed Music (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2018), 54.