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

The Instrument and Technique

Something that may have helped Chopin meet the technical demands of this piece was his preferred instrument. The Pleyel, Chopin’s preferred piano, is often compared with the Erard favored by Liszt, both popular piano makers of their day. Some research compares the quality of sound, size of the hammers, and contrasts them both with modern instruments.1 But one key feature escapes comparison, the length of the octave.

It's quite difficult to find a reliable source for this information, but many people speak about how Chopin's Pleyel piano keyboards may have been slightly smaller than the standard modern size, with some sources mentioning a difference of a few millimeters, to even a scaled piano of 7/8th dimensions. 2 These various sizes may have facilitated his performance of the Op.10 No.1 étude, as well as many of his “stretchier” pieces, but the exact measurements on the various keyboards he used remain to be compiled.

Chopin apparently did not think it too important to have a smaller keyboard, or even a larger hand to be able to play his étude. Madame Streicher (née Friederike Muller), one of Chopin's favorite students, recalls his advice in her carefully-kept diary:

"[Chopin] bade me practice it in the mornings very slowly. 'Cette étude vous fera du bien' (this étude will do you good), he said. 'If you study it as I intended it, it widens the hand and enables you to play runs of wide broken chords, like bow strokes. But often, unfortunately, instead of making people learn all that, it makes people unlearn it.' I am quite aware that it is a generally prevalent error, even in our day, that one can only play this study well when one possesses a very large hand. But this is not the case, only a supple hand is required." 3

I must agree. in my experience with the piece, I didn't need exceptionally large hands to play or study the piece. Much more helpful was the discipline to practice with a deliberate and slow legato and to relax so that the stretches became easier at a fast tempo. But I can see where many stumble. I think what Chopin means in saying the piece makes one 'unlearn' arpeggios, is that when approached recklessly — with tension, without warming up slowly, performing it before it has time to solidify — the piece can reinforce the false idea that its demands are impossible without a large hand. It is much easier to deflect and excuse than to face the truth head-on, which is that an informed, moderate, and methodical approach can make any difficulty surmountable.

The Nickname

Another angle that interested me was the piece's nickname. Pianists today have applied convenient nicknames to refer to Chopin's études, despite the fact that none were given by Chopin himself. This étude's nickname in English is "The Waterfall Étude ", but it is also known in French as "Les Escaliers (Stairs)" and in Spanish as "La Cascada (Waterfall/Cascade)". The English name, if he knew about it, would likely upset him. We have evidence for this in an letter Chopin wrote about English High Society's musical tastes to his fellow Pole Wojciech Grzymała in 1848. Enjoy Chopin's sharp wit in the letter fragment below:

[Hamilton Palace 21 October 1848].

“Art, here, means painting, sculpture, and architecture. Music is not art and is not called art; and if you say an artist, an Englishman understands that as meaning a painter, architect or sculptor. Music is a profession, not an art, and no one speaks or writes of any musician as an artist, for in their language and customs it is something else than art; it is a profession.… These queer folk play for the sake of beauty, but to teach them decent things is a joke.... And every observation [of my playing] ends with: "leik [sic] water," meaning that it flows like water. I have not yet played to any Englishwoman without her saying to me: Leik water!!! They all look at their hands, and play the wrong notes with much feeling. Eccentric folk, God help them.” 4

Chopin surely wouldn't be pleased with the nickname we have given to his first étude. In David Dubal's Art of the Piano, the water comparisons are specifically linked to the Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, No. 1 (Minute Waltz),5 but it could also apply to many other of Chopin's works.

Footnotes

1. Edmund Frederick, “The ‘Romantic’ Sound in Four Pianos of Chopin’s Era,” 19th-Century Music 3, no. 2 (1979): 150–53.

2. For an example of this, see Seymour Bernstein discussing the topic here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0O1gyGY7ioI

3. Cited in Frederick Niecks, Frederick Chopin as a Man and Musician (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1973), 2: 177.

4. Chopin to Wojciech Grzymała, Hamilton Palace, October 21, 1848, in Chopin's Letters, ed. E. L.Voynich, trans. Henryk Opienski (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1931), 394-95.

5. David Dubal, The Art of the Piano: its Performers, Literature, and Recordings (New Jersey: Amadeus Press, 2004), 472.