Chopin: Etudes for the Salons

He was indeed a revolutionary, though not in the political sense. He had, for a start, a revolutionary attitude to his instrument. In the rough draft of an unfinished book on teaching the piano there is a paragraph reminiscent of Karl Marx’s determination to stand Hegel on his head:

“Many futile methods have been tried to teach pupils to play the piano, methods which have no bearings on the study of the instrument. They’re analogous to teaching someone to walk on their hands in order that they may go for a stroll.”

No one had ever touched a piano the way Chopin did. He saw the keyboard as an anatomical construction in perfect accord with the form of the human hand. “No admiration can be too great for the genius who was responsible for so cleverly adapting the keyboard to the shape of the hand. The black notes, intended for the long fingers, make admirable points of purchase. Could anything be more ingenious? . . . Thoughtless people, knowing nothing of piano playing, have frequently suggested levelling the keyboard.”

His anatomical understanding of the keyboard went so far that he claimed, were the keyboard to be levelled in such a way, it would be necessary to remove a joint from each of the long fingers in order to play an effective staccato. The C major scale, in his view, was the most difficult of all to play, despite being the easiest to read — simply because it has no black keys to act as supports.

The basic position for the right hand that Chopin recommended to his students was E, F sharp, G sharp, A sharp, B. When he asked them to practise scales, he always began with the easiest, as he saw it: B major, in which the long fingers are consistently supplied with black keys. Many of the less decipherable keys in Chopin’s works are there not just for musical reasons, but for technical purposes of convenient fingering. They are not so much keys for the ear (and the characteristics of different keys are hotly disputed), but above all for the hand.

Chopin did not believe in playing with the hands alone, as older pianists like Kalkbrenner still did; he insisted that the wrists and forearms, indeed the whole of each arm, must be called into play. But in this theory and practice he concentrated above all on the fingers. Among his notes is a short speech to a girl he had taught: “Dear child – you have had excellent music lessons. You have been taught to love Mozart, Haydn and B. (Beethoven or Bach?) You can read the great masters at sight with ease. You have a feeling for them and understand them to the full . . . All that you need is a fluent technique in order to express in your playing that feeling for the great masters, whom you have grown to love.”

The strength of each finger is relative to its shape. The extremities of the hand are formed by the thumb, which is its strongest member, and by the little finger. While the third finger has a greater freedom as a point of support . . . the fourth finger is bound to the third by the same tendon like a Siamese twin and is the weakest. One can try with all one’s might to separate them, but this is impossible and, thank heavens, useless. There are as many different sounds as there are fingers. Everything hangs on knowing how to finger correctly.

Fingering, technique and composition went hand in hand, in Chopin’s view, and he was always generous with his markings. The most distinctive characteristic of Chopin’s fingering is a sort of gliding system. The elegiac and lyric melodies of many of his compositions depend on the use of the third, fourth and fifth fingers in the descant. And Karol Mikuli, one of his students, reported Chopin’s use of an utterly new and heretical technique: “With one and the same finger he often played two keys one after the other (and not just when sliding from a black key down to the next white one), without allowing the slightest interruption in the sound.”

From Pianoforte: A Social History of The Piano.


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