According to certain scientists, it takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to become a proficient player of any instrument. The estimate is as difficult to prove as it is to disprove; however, undeniably, virtuosity cannot be achieved in any field without thousands of hours of exercise.
Playing an instrument requires physical training, mental dexterity, artistic sensitivity and understanding, along with expression and personality (and many other gifts, not all of which can be acquired through repetition). Unquestionably, however, the determination and patience necessary for achieving perfection are in themselves a “talent”, and one whose lack is fatal to all ambitions of success. Allegedly, a musician of Johann Sebastian Bach’s standing affirmed: “I was obliged to be industrious; whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well”. Though the claim is disputable, it does contain at least a grain of truth.
However, the same Bach who ascribed to painstaking diligence the merit for his masterly creation, was also an excellent and dedicated pedagogue. While we can imagine him as an exacting teacher for his pupils and for his own children, he was also intent on making the necessary practice as pleasant as possible. Training requires almost endless repetition; repetition engenders boredom; boredom produces discouragement; and discouragement may destroy the love one initially had for music. If repetition could be made fun (or beautiful), then the budding musician would enjoy his exercises and be motivated to practise more enthusiastically.
The fruits of Bach’s educational project are his numerous pieces for the keyboard and for other instruments in which the repetition of identical or similar formulae is so skillfully designed in its harmonic and contrapuntal features that it gives birth to a kaleidoscope of intertwining and fascinating musical passages. Many of the best examples of these extraordinary “exercises” are found among the forty-eight Preludes in all the major and minor keys which precede the Fugues in the two volumes of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.
Countless generations of keyboard and piano players have found in the Forty-Eight food for thought, enchanting music and excellent physical training. Among them was Frédéric Chopin who, in his youth, was fortunate enough to be raised on a healthy Bachian diet (which was still quite uncommon at his time). Bach’s Preludes represented a constant reference and model for Chopin throughout his life; as the groundbreaking studies of Ruth Tatlow have recently demonstrated, he even fashioned the numerical proportions of his own 24 Préludes on the analogous proportions of Bach’s opus.
Though no similar ratios have hitherto been noticed in Chopin’s Etudes, it is undeniable that their aesthetical and sometimes technical model is found in Bach’s Forty-Eight. As happens in Bach, their technical difficulties and mechanical formulae are not ends in themselves; rather, they challenge the composer’s creativity, along with the performer’s ability, in taking technique just as a starting point, as a pretext, on which to build magnificent works of art. As happens in Bach, the necessary repetition (which is not only an instrument for the technical improvement, but also a challenge in itself) does never result in repetitiveness; indeed, players and listeners alike are almost dazzled by the utter variety of the harmonic and melodic solutions which a seemingly homogeneous material can provide.
As happens in Bach, the very first piece of the set is an exploration of the C-major triad in arpeggio form; however, the generational and aesthetical gap between the two musicians could not be more clearly illustrated than by comparing the two works. Bach’s Prelude No. 1 from WTC I is a gentle rippling of motifs with limited extension and which could be easily reduced to a traditional Chorale harmonization. Chopin’s Etude op. 10 n. 1 is a majestic, thunderous and bold exploration of the whole keyboard – almost a statement of the young musician’s daring prowess.
This was in fact one of the reasons behind Chopin’s composition of the two sets of twelve Etudes each (op. 10 and op. 25, recorded here), as well as of the three later Etudes for the “Méthode des Méthodes” by Moscheles and Fétis. The first Etudes he wrote date from his earliest years as a young virtuoso in Poland; in 1829, at nineteen, Chopin declared (with an almost unbelievable understatement): “I have written a couple of exercises”. Through this “couple of exercises” and the many more which would follow, Chopin probably aimed at pushing the boundaries of keyboard technique, just as Nicolò Paganini had done with the violin and demonstrated in his twenty-four Capriccios. It was in fact precisely after hearing Paganini in Warsaw that Chopin wrote to his friend Tytus Woyciechowski: “I have done a large Exercice en forme, in my own peculiar way”. And this “peculiar way” of his own was to be found precisely in the overarching beauty and charm of these and of the later Etudes.
The twelve Etudes op. 10, written between 1829 and the year of their publication (1833), are dedicated to another of the great Romantic piano virtuosos – possibly the virtuoso par excellence, Franz Liszt. The later set of twelve (op. 25, 1835-7) bore the dedication to Madame d’Agoult, Liszt’s lover at that time. Though the composition of the individual pieces does not seem to have followed a pre-ordered scheme, undeniably the final redaction presents a unified whole. On the one hand, to perform them one after the other represents a further, important technical and musical challenge (due, for example, to the utterly contrasting technical demands of op. 10 no. 1 and no. 2, to name but two, or to the fascinating but tricky musical connection of no. 3 and no. 4); on the other, the sequence is so compact and seamless in itself that its variety and cohesion greatly add to the charm of the individual pieces.
Virtually none of the major technical challenges of Chopin’s time are left untried: the large spans of op. 10 no. 1, juxtaposed to the extremely fatiguing reliance on the weakest fingers in no. 2 (which is seemingly innocent enough with its light and simple A-minor sound); the polyphony and expressivity of no. 3, followed by the fiery Presto con fuoco of no. 4, one of the most breath-taking pieces of the set; the mastery of the slippery black keys in no. 5, whose brilliancy is efficaciously complemented by the sombre and doleful chromatic harmonies and polyphony of no. 6; the repeated notes and hidden melodies of no. 7, which open up on the generous and broad arpeggios of no. 8 (and this pair, once more, becomes even more difficult when performed in succession); the anguished and looming broken phrases of no. 9, with its large left-hand tremolos, to which the broken chords of no. 10 represent a perfect musical response; the gentle arpeggiations of no. 11, whose enchantment is brutally (and magnificently) interrupted by the thunderous left-hand figurations and heroic calls of no. 12, the so-called “Revolutionary”.
Similar ideal and aesthetical patterns (though by no means analogous technical or musical solutions) are found also in op. 25. The first piece, nicknamed by Schumann “Aeolian harp”, is an exquisite exploration of broken chords resulting in an almost hypnotic game of lights and shades; and what no. 1 did to harmony, no. 2 does to rhythm, by superimposing rhythms in three and in two which create an ungraspable fluidity of movement. A Chorale-like polyphony, disguised as a brilliant and almost joking Allegro structured on quick wrist turns characterizes no. 3, while no. 4, “Agitato”, focuses on rapid staccato movements on which singing legato melodies occasionally resurface. No. 5, with its lopsided signature rhythm and its harmonic interplay, progressively reveals an elegant tune, which one should actively seek in the midst of its scherzando liveliness. At its heart, an entirely different section in E major is a passionate plea surrounded by garlands of arpeggiated triplets and quadruplets. No. 6 begins as a mere musical vibration: its technical emphasis on the thirds offers to Chopin’s genius the opportunity for an enchanted labyrinth of chromatic harmonies. The pianist’s ability to treat consistently and expressively a polyphonic texture is tested once more in no. 7, with its layers of singing tunes and accompanying harmonies. The technique of the sixths is investigated in no. 8, where the technical difficulty encourages an iridescent interplay of chords and tunes; by contrast, no. 9 is relatively and deliberately simple, almost naïve, but charming and ironic at the same time. No. 10 is a large and very demanding piece on the octaves, which must be played powerfully and energetically in the outer sections, expressively and legato in the middle part in the major mode. The justly famous no. 11, with its iconic fanfare call and its deluge of sextuplets, was the bête noire of many of the greatest pianists of the twentieth century, while others delighted in facing boldly its extreme difficulty. The set is closed by no. 12, which purposefully corresponds to op. 10 no. 1: they are both based on large arpeggios covering the keyboard’s full compass, they are both in C (major in the case of op. 10 no. 1, minor here), and they are both magnificent pieces built on ample waves of sound.
The opportunity of hearing the twenty-four Etudes in a row, as happens in this Da Vinci Classics CD, constitutes therefore a fascinating musical itinerary, which is seldom heard in concert but which both thrills and touches the attentive listener. The sheer virtuosity they demand is only a step for the artist’s goal, enchantment; and, at the end, one can only endorse Hector Berlioz’s famous statement: “[Chopin’s] Etudes for piano are masterpieces”.
Album Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Soraci, Pietro (Pianist) born in Catania, Italy, showed his extraordinary natural talent in playing the piano since he was three years old, gaining the interest of the national press and televisions. He performed first when he was eleven, with the Orchestra of Bellini Opera Theater. He graduated with the highest score, cum laude, and honored with a special award of appreciation. After experiencing different approaches to the piano music and techniques through the contact with some of the major teachers he was awarded of several prizes in national and international piano competitions and in particular he was recognized as the best Italian pianist by the international piano competition “Frederic Chopin” in Varsaw (Polen) in 1985. Currently, he performs all over Europe and Italy by the main Music Institutions and Concert Seasons both as soloist and in ensembles. Moreover he is full Professor for the major degree in piano music by the Conservatorio di Milano “G. Verdi”. Has recently undertaken (by Da Vinci classics) the complete opera recording of Bach keyboard on critical edition with Barenreiter patronage.
Frédéric Chopin: (b Żelazowa Wola, nr Warsaw, 1 March 1810; d Paris, 17 Oct 1849). Polish composer and pianist. He combined a gift for melody, an adventurous harmonic sense, an intuitive and inventive understanding of formal design and a brilliant piano technique in composing a major corpus of piano music. One of the leading 19th-century composers who began a career as a pianist, he abandoned concert life early; but his music represents the quintessence of the Romantic piano tradition and embodies more fully than any other composer’s the expressive and technical characteristics of the instrument.