Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough
Stephen Hough

Writings

Chopin and the Developement of Piano Technique

Two names are pivotal in the history of piano technique: Chopin and Liszt. Both came from a similar pianistic background - the classical calisthenics of Czerny, Hummel and Co., the meat of scales and the potatoes of arpeggios - but where the young Liszt was dazzled by Paganini's acrobatics, Chopin was dazed by the sweet melancholy of Bellini's bel canto. If Liszt, in his early opera paraphrases and etudes, seems like Samson pushing down pillars, causing the whole temple of conventional pianism to tumble in cascades of falling figuration, piano strings quivering, Chopin is more like Solomon reaching out for one of the Queen of Sheba's more exotic perfumes, nostrils quivering with the intoxicating, heady harmonies.

This analogy of 'reaching out' is not idly chosen, for it is to this that the distinct contribution of Chopin can be traced. A much quoted and classic example of Chopin's new approach to the keyboard is the first etude from op. 10 (the set is dedicated to Liszt). Here the routine, arpeggiated figuration covering the span of an octave, (and covering endless pages of piano music of the time), becomes extended by two notes to a tenth, requiring a new technique of rotation. One could say, literally, that it becomes 'more than a handful'. No longer are the fingers alone sufficient to execute this passage; the wrist and arm have to be used, and thus Chopin 'elbows' his way to a new panorama of pianism. The examples in the etudes are as numerous as they are astoundingly innovative, each piece seems to open a new chapter in an adventure of discovery, and never is a pattern repeated, such is the fertility of his invention. The 'black-key' etude (no.5) forces the player to adopt a new hand-position on the keyboard. The cramped, curled fingers favoured by an earlier generation of pianists, is not possible for extended passages on the narrow black keys; one has to develop a more fluid, flatter finger position. It is interesting to note that Chopin liked to begin his students with the B major scale (containing the most black keys) rather than the usual C major scale to help develop this hand-shape from the start. The second etude in A minor whispers its chromatic secrets between the three weak fingers, developing independence, strength, and a limber legato. In the op. 25 set of etudes this overflowing inventiveness continues. The octave etude (no. 10) presents the idea of the legato octave, the cantabile octave; the 'double-thirds' etude (no. 6) features a new 'sliding' fingering supplied by the composer; and the 'Winter Wind' etude (no.11) takes a further step in the technique of rotation, razor-sharp zig-zags shredding the keyboard into chromatic ribbons.

However, Chopin's astonishing keyboard innovations are unthinkable without his harmonic development. It isn't just that he took Hummel's writing and stretched it into more elegant shapes (although we must not forget the enormous influence of the latter, particularly evident in the Concerti); but where Hummel seems satisfied with a carbolic soap virtuosity, - clean, fresh, bubbling, with a fresh-faced exhilaration - Chopin tends to dab his passage work with rare oils and perfumes. A comparison of the development sections of the two composers' concerti is highly revealing in this context. One's first reaction is surprise at how indebted Chopin was to Hummel; but after closer examination, Hummel seems merely to be the caterpillar which, in due course, will allow Chopin to fly across the keys, butterfly - wings alighting on the sweetest flowers. The latter composer adds spices which do not just increase the flavour, but which seem almost to ferment like yeast, - the harmonic juices sinking deeply under the surface of the virtuosity and bringing to it a new identity. An example is the first Scherzo in B minor, where figuration, melody, and harmony seem to meet in an whirlwind of passion. Similar examples abound (e.g. the codas of the 1st, 2nd and 4th Ballades; the B flat minor Prelude op 28; the coda of the 3rd Scherzo) where these three qualities are like a trinity (one nature, three persons) fused with one will. It is also characteristic that these examples are quintessentially pianistic, the very living breath of the piano. Try imagining them for another instrument or in an orchestrated version and their very existence will vanish from your sight.

Due to the early influence of Bellini, a 'singing' approach to the keyboard, both lyric and coloratura, is essential in all of Chopin's music. It is never enough to 'rattle out' the notes, even in the most obviously virtuosic of his works; every phrase must come from the throat and lungs as much as from fingers and arms. Indeed, it has been said that the real difficulty in playing even the etudes lies in the accompanying material, usually given to the left hand. And this is real technique in the fullest sense of the word. Pedaling, tone-production, voicing, - here too Chopin was the great innovator. These qualities had all been required in earlier piano compositions of course, but the level of refinement introduced by Chopin seems a whole new world. For example where before the pedals had had a mainly functional use, - padding out textures and aiding legato - now they become tools of infinite nuance. Chopin's counterpoint too reveals more specifically pianistic developments. Inner voices are highlighted, not, as in Bach or indeed Beethoven, for their melodic or motivic importance alone, but more tellingly because they supply a coloured filter to the harmonic lens. We can see that these pianistic and musical breakthroughs in Chopin's output are very closely linked . He wove a seamless garment which was to pass into the hands of most composers coming after him who tried to write for the piano, but few would wear it with such style or elegance.

For a composer who wrote for such limited forces - everything he wrote included a prominent piano part - his genius is all the more remarkable. Without the benefit of Liszt's larger than life personality, - his international performing career, long life, good health, social connections, intellectual breadth, twinkling eye - Chopin was able, by the sheer quality and originality of his work, to be identified with his instrument in a consuming way. It is a marriage, and the two truly become one. When anyone plays Chopin, it is his hands which are reflected in the fall board of the piano. And in an age when the piano recital is said to be declining, or, optimistically, suffering a bout of ill-health, it is apparently the all-Chopin programme which will still bring an audience to the box-office.

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Stephen Hough