The pianist and critic Charles Rosen once wrote a piece on Chopin’s sadism, by which he meant two things.  First, that Chopin’s music often makes painful demands on the pianist. The example Rosen gave was the Military Polonaise, which, to be played at the volume and level of energy demanded, requires remarkable strength and force. One hesitates to speak of pounding, but the concussive toll on the digital joints is considerable.

Actually, I’m not sure that I find anything unique about Chopin in that particular respect.  He requires a lot from those who would play him (there are etudes that I can play far better when I’ve been doing my pushups–non-pianists don’t understand how much of playing the piano involves sheer physical strength.  Good technique and using the natural weight of the body helps with some of that, but there is no substitute for strong forearms.) But so do a lot of composers. And hand pain is a way of life for pianists in much the same way that leg and foot pain are for dancers.  Claudio Arrau claimed that he never suffered from it but he was surely unique in that respect.

But Rosen meant something else as well: that Chopin’s writing exhibits a peculiar and pervasive refusal to accommodate itself to the hand.  And here I know exactly what he means.

It is not that Chopin wrote without an awareness of the hand or what it can do.  To the contrary, he was (as one would expect) acutely conscious of the ways in which the sheer physicality of the hand affects what is composed and executed.

His first etude is a fair example:


One can hear the performance of Maurizio Pollini here: Etude 1.

The piece is a fairly characteristic example of the way the Etudes work.  A particular technical difficulty is identified and isolated, put through its paces, explored in its possible variations, and the whole somehow makes for astonishing music.  They are, essentially, studies.

And as mentioned above, the physical nature of the hand is key–shaping and limiting the musical possibilities of the writing and the performance.

In the first etude the left hand plays octaves. The right hand moves up and down in arpeggios and (while ascending) utilizes the first, third, fourth, and fifth finger, then shifts position  with the thumb taking over from the fourth, and the process is repeated throughout the keys.

The hand determines not only arpeggiation–it stops and a new arpeggiation begins when one runs out of fingers–but also the phrasing. As the accent mark indicates, the note played by the fifth finger gets emphasis.  For anyone who breaks down and analyzes what this means on the purely physical level, it means that the hand itself is conceived of as rolling as it plays so that greater arm weight comes down on the last note.  In essence, the rotation of the wrist is being used to phrase. One can see the hands at work here.

So far, so good.  But the etude is damnably hard, physically one of the most impossible to play pieces Chopin ever wrote and there are many superb pianists who never recorded it–and some who shouldn’t have.  Arrau himself, one of the most formiddable technicians of the last century, released a recording of the Etudes which includes a performance of the etude–and it probably should have been destroyed.  He cannot do it. Even Horowitz refused to play it in public, and considered it the hardest of the Etudes, though there are some clips of him playing it in slow motion.

Strategically, there are two different approaches one can adopt to it–both again grounded in the nature of the hand.  One can expand and contract the hand constantly, attempting to connect the notes and achieve a legato sound.  Or one can essentially freeze the lateral distance between the fingers, and simply roll the hand without any effort to connect the notes.  (This is Horowitz’s approach)   Both are valid.

The technical difficulty is hard enough–but playable–in C.  There is some discomfort in the demands placed on the fourth finger (the only finger without its own tendon), but after practice one can learn to do it.  As the piece moves through the more remote keys however, the unnaturalness of the hand position caused by the constant adjustments in positioning and weighting becomes excruciating.

I have played the etude for twenty years.  (I have it to thank for a wrist that doesn’t like to hold things). In one of the descending passages I doubt that I have ever really succeeded in hitting all of the notes.

Still, one might ask why this is interesting from anything other than a technical perspective. That technical studies should have technical difficulties challenging the pianist to improve his or her skill set is hardly surprising. If anything, it is surprising that such technically oriented music should be so astonishingly musical.

And yet, it does point to something central about Chopin’s music:  its ubiquitous formalism.  Indeed, few features of his musical corpus are more striking at a first glance than that his pieces come, with very few exceptions, with genre labels only–“Mazurka in F,”  “Etude in C” etc.  The names by which listeners often know them–“Revolutionary Etude,” “Heroic Polonaise,” etc. were the additions of editors who were trying to sell more copies of the sheet music and thought that romantic sounding names would help.  Chopin himself despised  such concessions to popular and romantic sentiment–just as he despised efforts to schmoltz up his pieces with undisciplined rubato (more on that another time).

But it is not only a question of names.  With very few exceptions, his pieces are remarkably strict in observing the forms of the genre they are working in.  As opposed, for instance, to Liszt who developed themes and ideas with great freedom, Chopin is, in a formal sense, remarkably rigid, demanding, unyielding–classical. The only real exceptions are the free-form Ballades, and perhaps the Preludes, which are like ruins and deconstructions of etudes–similar to them in that they center around a technical phenomenon, but differing in that they do not develop it with anything like the fulness. They hint and suggest at what might be done.

And it is often precisely this insistence on preserving the forms that creates such difficulties for the performer: if the musical logic comes into conflict with the possibilities of the flesh, it is the flesh that must yield. This forms a striking contrast with Liszt, whose music, however demanding it may be, feels as though it were composed at the keyboard first and written down after.  His is first and foremost the logic of the hand.

One might close in noting that it is not only the performer who senses the tensions.  Difficulty, as any number of writers and musicians have observed, has its own sound. In some ways it is the war with the demands of the form that brings much of the electricity and tension of Chopin’s greatest works.