I told Derb, a few days ago, that I would tell him a couple of stories concerning Chopin etudes. Then, in the above-referenced post, he told the Corner-reading world that these would be forthcoming. Okay, here they are. They’re no big deal, but they might provide some mild interest.
Before storytime, let me just say that the “Winter Wind” Etude is not especially difficult, from a technical point of view. There are other Chopin etudes that are much, much harder. Thing is, Chopin was a pianist himself. The music he wrote, he wrote to concertize with. He knew how to make music sound difficult — impressively difficult — without making it so.
Liszt and Rachmaninoff had this trick too, for the same reason: They wrote for themselves. They knew the piano, backwards and forwards. Now, Chopin, Liszt, and Rachmaninoff had big, big techniques. And a lot of their music is very hard. But it’s always pianistic. Other composers wrote things that are simpler-sounding. But they’re harder to play because they’re unpianistic: cumbersome, awkward, uneasy in the hands.
Okay, now that I’ve bored you to tears: Artur Rubinstein had let his technique get sloppy. But the appearance of Vladimir Horowitz on the scene woke him up (I believe). Though a long-established world star, he decided to devote himself to practice. He had what became known as his “summer of practice.” (I forget the exact year — 1930s, I think.)
Later, when he demonstrated how he used to play, versus how he now played, he would play the “Winter Wind” Etude — first, sloppily, muddily: “cheating.” Second, cleanly, accurately: honestly.
Also, there is an old, old trick, concerning, not the “Winter Wind,” but the “Black Key” Etude. You play the piece with an orange: an orange in your right hand. Myra Hess was one of many pianists who did this: a great party stunt. It can be done with the “Winter Wind,” too, but not nearly so effectively!
Okay, we return to our regularly scheduled programming: war, peace, prosperity, decline . . . hopefulness re the upcoming elections! Hope ’n’ change, man!