Ballade No.1 in G Minor, Opus 23

Ballade No.2 in F Major, Opus 38

Etudes, Opus 10

Ballade No.3 in A flat Major, Opus 47

Ballade No.4 in F Minor, Opus 52

Etudes, Opus 25

By Lawrence Budmen 

Although the term "Ballade" usually suggests a poetic or dramatic narrative, Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) viewed his ballades as purely musical narratives. The four Ballades were composed between 1831 and 1842. These works are the product of a superb craftsman and an inventive musical intellect. Within the four pieces there is an astonishingly varied musical palette. The First Ballade (1831-35) alternates two lyrical, passionate themes. The Second Ballade (1832-34) is dedicated to Robert Schumann. A strong sense of contrast ensues between a lilting theme and the stormy musical motif that interrupts it. Here Chopin introduces new concluding material as well as a poetic reference to earlier themes. Chopin introduces new ideas in the stormy coda but with a sense of musical inevitability. This is Chopin - the poet, the Romanticist, the pianistic visionary! 

Chopin's "Etudes" occupy a major position in the works that he composed between 1829 and 1839 - the era of the composer's first artistic maturity. His Etudes are very different from the numerous pianistic studies of Clementi and Czerny. Those exercise pieces were meant to help students and aspiring pianists achieve the technical facility needed for more serious repertoire. With the publication of Liszt's "Transcendental Etudes" the meaning of the term changed. Liszt combined technical studies with pieces of poetic invention. These new "etudes" would serve as the model for Chopin. His first set of "etudes de concert" (Opus 10) was composed in 1829 (nos. 8-11), 1830 (nos. 1,2,5,6, and 12), and 1832 (nos.3, 4, and 7). The entire group was published in 1833 and dedicated to Franz Liszt - the father of the modern etude. The 12th study came to be known as the "Revolutionary Etude" and, in a sense, that title may be applied to the entire set. Each etude presents and explores a technical problem. This is approached through a single theme (stated in a kind of exposition). Etude number 2 features scales to be played by the weak fingers of the right hand; number 5 is for the "black keys" alone; number 6 features fingerings that lead to complete independence of each finger; and the "Revolutionary Etude" includes unexpected positions for the left thumb. In these pieces, Chopin sought to present the essential elements of his keyboard technique and pianistic innovations. Yet Chopin's sense of poetry is never far behind. (The Polish melody of the Third Etude is music of sentiment and nostalgia.) The French pianist Alfred Cortot's observation that the Ballades were the embryonic beginnings of Impressionism is equally applicable to the Etudes. 

The 12 Etudes of Opus 25 were published in 1837 and are dedicated to Liszt's companion Countess D'Agoult. Numbers 4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 11 were written in 1834. The remainder date from1836. This set takes keyboard technique even further than the preceding cycle. Number 10 involves octaves for two hands (borrowed from Liszt). In number 9 Chopin again exclusively users the black keys. Number 11 includes relentless deluges of notes. (That Etude has the large scale proportions of a sonata movement.) In number 4 Chopin uses a device which jazz pianists have adapted as a "stride bass." As ever drama and sustained melody are never far behind. Of the dreamy Etude No.1 Schumann wrote "Once the Etude has come to an end, you get the impression of seeing a happy scene which appeared in a dream fly away, a dream you want to hold onto in a half-awakened state." Chopin's Etudes are, in fact, Romantic musical poems. The composer used the technical exercise as a stimulus to creative inspiration and revolutionary invention. A great performance of these formidable studies is a tribute to the genius of Frederic Chopin! 

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