Godowsky's Studies on Chopin's Etudes have achieved a legendary status among piano enthusiasts. Few areas of the repertoire have such a notorious reputation for technical difficulty and audacious compositional invention. Far from being disrespectful maltreatments of Chopin's masterpieces, Godowsky's elaborations aim to extend the limits of modern piano technique. Some recast Chopin's right-hand passagework for the left hand while introducing new contrapuntal ideas; some treat the originals more freely, inverting, imitating or combining two Etudes; others are character pieces or variations based on Chopin's originals; and twenty-two of the Studies are for the left hand alone. Taken as a whole, these Studies revolutionized piano writing and expanded the polyphonic and polyrhythmic capabilities of the instrument. They remain among the most daunting challenges of the piano literature, their difficulties not always fully apparent to the listener.
Pianists brave enough to tackle this music have often been content merely to get through the notes. Marc-André Hamelin, renowned for his superhuman technical control, injects them with the required range of character, colour and musicianship, as well as breathtaking virtuosity. Uniquely available on 2CDs, this will surely be the benchmark recording for all time.
This set comes with a handsome booklet, including an essay by the Godowsky expert Jeremy Nicholas and individual commentaries by Marc-André Hamelin.
Other recommended albums
From Leopold Godowsky’s Preface to his Studies on Chopin’s Études
The fifty-three studies based upon twenty-six Études of Chopin have manifold purposes. Their aim is to develop the mechanical, technical and musical possibilities of pianoforte playing, to expand the peculiarly adapted nature of the instrument to polyphonic, polyrhythmic and polydynamic work, and to widen the range of its possibilities in tone colouring. The unusual mental and physical demands made upon the performer by the above-mentioned work, must invariably lead to a much higher proficiency in the command of the instrument, while the composer for the piano will find a number of suggestions regarding the treatment of the instrument and its musical utterance in general. Special attention must be drawn to the fact that owing to innumerable contrapuntal devices, which frequently compass almost the whole range of the keyboard, the fingering and pedalling are often of a revolutionary character, particularly in the twenty-two studies for the left hand alone. The preparatory exercises included in a number of the studies will be found helpful in developing a mechanical mastery over the pianoforte by applying them to the original Chopin studies as well as to the above-mentioned versions. The fifty-three studies are to be considered in an equal degree suitable for concert purposes and private study.
Special remarks on the studies for the left hand alone
Widely spread arpeggios weaving a net of sound about some simple melody were in many cases the only means used to attain a superficial effect, while in this particular set of left-hand studies it has been the author’s intention to assign to the left hand alone a task commensurate with the demands made by the modern evolution in the means of musical expression. The pianoforte, being, apart from its strongly individual character, in a sense a miniature orchestra, should in the author’s opinion benefit by the important strides which modern composition and instrumentation have made in the direction of polyphony, harmony, tone colouring and the use of a vastly extended range in modern counterpoint. If it is possible to assign to the left hand alone the work done usually by both hands simultaneously, what vistas are opened to future composers were this attainment to be extended to both hands!
Godowsky: 53 Studies on Chopin’s Études
Perhaps it was this independence of mind, unencumbered by the academic notions and traditions of Conservatoire professors, that led Godowsky to rethink certain pianistic problems without inhibition. Having made Chicago his home from 1890, for the next decade he combined a struggling concert career with that of a successful teacher. As early as 1891, Godowsky had experimented with relaxed arm weight as a means of benefiting his technique—it was a principle adopted by many great pianists such as Anton Rubinstein and Teresa Carreño, but Godowsky was among the first to explain the principle and teach it to students. It was during the same period that he began to write his first piano arrangements—not of other composers’ orchestral or vocal works as was generally the custom, but of extant piano music: Chopin’s Rondo Op 16 and Grande valse brillante in E flat Op 18, and Henselt’s Étude Op 2 No 6 ‘Si oiseau j’étais’. In 1893, the year in which he produced the first of his Studies on Chopin’s Études, he was appointed Head of the Piano Department at the Chicago Conservatory.
These factors—his success as a piano pedagogue, his interest in resolving technical problems and developing pianistic vocabulary, his ambition to perfect his own mechanism, his encyclopedic knowledge of piano literature, the need to extend his own repertoire, his unusual fascination in arranging piano works—all played a part in inspiring the extraordinary collection of work that would become the 53 Studies on Chopin’s Études.
Shortly before his death in 1938, Godowsky contributed to a periodical called Overtones an article entitled ‘Pedagogic experiments at the two extremes of pianism’. It is worth quoting at length:
I suppose that some readers may be interested to know how I started to compose these Studies. In June of 1893 I went to Chicago to visit the World’s Columbian Exposition. My enthusiasm for the many scientific and aesthetic wonders I saw and the marvellous impressions I gathered there knew no bounds, and when I returned to New York I talked about the World’s Fair so extravagantly and persistently that my brother-in-law and his fiancée decided to spend their honeymoon at the Chicago Exposition. As it was their first venture from New York, I offered to join them. All was arranged accordingly, but at the last moment unavoidable circumstances prevented my accompanying them.
They wrote me from Niagara Falls, where they had stopped overnight, of their enthusiastic appreciation of one of the wonders of the world, and continued to Chicago. I received the letter in the morning, and in the afternoon newspapers issued extras giving news of an appalling catastrophe, the most terrible railroad accident in the history of America, happening near Battle Creek, Michigan. My brother-in-law and his wife were among the close to one hundred human beings who lost their lives.
I had been practising at that time the Double-Thirds Étude of Chopin [Op 25 No 6]. In trying to divert my thoughts so that I would not brood over this tragic event, I concentrated on evolving a more practical fingering for the double-notes of this Étude. After numerous experiments I succeeded in finding an entirely new succession of fingers which appeared to me most practical. I then transposed the Study to the left hand to see whether the same fingering could be applied to it: to my great surprise I found that the left hand was more amenable than the right to my experiments.
Once I realized that fact, I experimented with other Études which had special mechanical problems as their object. Thus I transcribed the Black-Key Study, the Study in Sixths, the Study in Wide Arpeggios [Op. 10 No. 5, Op. 25 No. 8 & Op. 10 No. 1], etc., etc. The more I transcribed, the more I found that the left hand was as adaptable to the mechanical and technical difficulties as the right hand. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the left hand is easier to develop when given an opportunity.
To justify myself in the perennial controversy which exists regarding the aesthetic and ethical rights of one composer to use another composer’s works, themes, or ideas as a foundation for paraphrases, variations, etc., I desire to say that it depends entirely upon the intention, nature and quality of the work of the so-called ‘transgressor’. Since the Chopin Études are universally acknowledged to be the highest attainment in étude form in the realm of beautiful pianoforte music combined with mechanical and technical usefulness, I thought it wisest to build upon their solid and invulnerable foundation to further the art of pianoforte playing. Being averse to any tampering with the text of any master work when played in the original form, I would condemn any artist for taking liberties with the works of Chopin or any other great composer. The original Chopin Studies remain as intact as they were before any arrangements of them were published; in fact, numerous artists claim that after assiduously studying my versions, many hidden beauties in the original Studies will reveal themselves to the observant student.
The results were described half a century later by Harold Schonberg, famed critic of the New York Times, as ‘probably the most impossibly difficult things ever written for the piano. These are fantastic exercises that push piano technique to heights undreamed of even by Liszt’. Critical opinions to Godowsky’s recreations, though, have been divided ever since their first appearance, attracting, as Kaikhosru Sorabji put it, ‘Niagaras of abuse’ from some quarters. To others, when the final tally of 53 Studies had been published, Godowsky’s achievement was nothing short of a revelation, especially in his writing for the left hand. The American critic James Huneker, who saw some of the first Studies in manuscript in 1894, wisely advised others not to wonder whether Godowsky had treated Chopin with reverence. ‘Besides,’ he prophesied in 1900, ‘he is writing for the next generation—presumably a generation of Rosenthals.’ A century after the first ten studies appeared in print there is no longer any reason to be defensive about Godowsky’s aesthetics. (Not that there ever was, in this writer’s opinion, one of those who took the simple expedient of reading—and taking at face value—Godowsky’s preface to the collected studies which lays out clearly and precisely the composer’s technical and musical aims.) And, a century on, we have now enjoyed several ‘generations of Rosenthals’, where we have seen the technical (if not the musical) accomplishment of pianists increase significantly since Huneker’s day.
Even twenty years ago, few of the studies had ever been recorded; it was rare indeed to find a pianist brave enough to include any in concert. The earliest Chopin–Godowsky disc was made in 1912 when Vladimir de Pachmann recorded Study No 22, Chopin’s ‘Revolutionary’ transcribed for the left hand alone in the key of C sharp minor. There was a long wait before any significant artist recorded another. This was David Saperton, Godowsky’s son-in-law, who recorded ten of the studies in 1940 (along with some other Godowsky works). The metal masters of these were destroyed by RCA (the metal was needed for shell-cases!) and it was a further twelve years before Saperton re-recorded the selection, adding an eleventh Study. Geoffrey Douglas Madge (Dante, 1989) became the first pianist to record the entire cycle, followed by Carlo Grante (Altarus, 1993–98). At least one pianist (Francesco Libetta) has played the complete 53 Studies in concert (two recitals in Milan, 1994 and 1995).
Mr Hamelin, who has always included a selection of Godowsky’s Studies in his repertoire and has previously recorded several of them, offers his own perceptive comments on them (below), but it may be of interest to remark briefly on their publication and lengthy gestation. What eventually became ‘LG No 36’ (Chopin’s Étude Op 25 No 6 in G sharp minor) was the first to be published (H Kleber, 1894). This was republished with nine others in 1899 by Schirmer:
Op 10 No 1 in C (No 1 in the final Godowsky listing)
These and a further twenty-two studies were published in 1903 by Schlesinger and Schirmer, re-engraved with little change to the music but with commentary and, occasionally, revised fingerings and ossia readings. The title page of this 1903 edition announces around ‘50 Studien über die Etüden von Fr. Chopin von Leopold Godowsky’. By 1909, however, the advertised total had risen to 56. It was only in 1914, after some studies were dropped, different ones substituted and additions made, that the final total of 53 was reached. Today’s definitive five-volume edition published by Robert Lienau includes introductory, personal and general remarks by Godowsky, as well as his essays on the use of the pedals and on the twenty-two studies that are conceived for the left hand alone. Many Studies have Godowsky’s specially written preparatory exercises which, according to Theodore Edel, ‘are of a quality very rarely seen. Godowsky’s fingerings resemble the moves of a great chess master who, as a result of deep thought, selects the best from a field of many possibilities’ (Piano Music for One Hand, Indiana University Press, 1994).
Those Godowsky studies listed but not published are: a third version of Op 10 No 2 in A minor and a version of Op 10 No 3 in E major for the left hand alone (which, however, eventually appeared transposed to the key of D flat); a second version of Op 25 No 6 (an inversion in G sharp minor) originally announced as No 36, a treatment of Op 25 No 7 (announced as No 37 and the only one of Chopin’s études not ultimately to receive Godowsky’s attention) and a second version of Op 25 No 8 (D flat major in thirds) (announced as No 39). The ‘50 Studies’ edition also mentions two further combination studies that have never seen the light of day: Op 25 No 4 and Op 25 No 11 in A minor (which was to have been LG No 49) and, to round off the series in triumphant style as LG No 50, three Studies combined!—Op 10 No 2, Op 25 No 4 and Op 25 No 11. There are references among Godowsky’s papers to a further five ‘Studies on the Studies’ which were either never completed or lost in Vienna at the outbreak of the First World War.
Jeremy Nicholas © 2000