Études, a French word for study, is an imperative part of training to become an accomplished virtuoso pianist. Études is essential practice to increase a pianist’s endurance with and control of difficult passages. For advanced pianists, etudes like Chopin’s Opus10 and 25, Liszt’s 12 Transcendental Études, or the two sets of Rachmaninoff’s Études Tableaux Opus 33 and 39, represent formidable tasks; however, there it is still possible to master them and one should not to be discouraged in attempting them.
It is considered a monumental achievement in virtuosic training as a pianist if one has completed and mastered these Études. A good pianist can and should learn and play a few Études well rather than all of them but poorly. A summary of the more common Études are as follows:
1. Chopin Études
Chopin’s Études are foundational to training as a pianist. The twenty-seven compositions, comprising of two sets of 24 studies, were published in the 1830s. The first set, published in 1833, were composed while in his teens (1829). They reflect extremely rare youthful compositions that will add dynamics to a standard concert repertoire. Chopin dedicated the entire first set to Franz Liszt with whom he made his acquaintance in the salons of Paris.
This second set was dedicated to Franz Liszt’s mistress, Marie d’Agoult, a French Romantic author. They never got married as they each had residual interests while Liszt was busy composing and concertizing throughout Europe.
This set of three Études were without an assigned opus number, named Trois Nouvelles Études, a piano instruction written by Ignaz Mocheles (Bohemian composer and piano virtuoso) and Francois-Joseph Fetis (Belgian musicologist, composer, teacher and a prominent influential music critics of the 19th century), were composed in 1839 as a contribution to Méthode des Méthodes de piano.
2. Rachmaninoff Étude Tableaux (Study Pictures)
The Etude Tableaux were the last work of the composer before he left Russia. Rachmaninoff initially wrote the nine pieces for Op.33 between August and September 1911 in his Ivanovka estate. He published only six in 1914: no.4 in A minor was lost and later revised and was included as the sixth Études of Op.39 while no.3 and 5 was published posthumously added to Op.33. These are usually performed as part of the six.
Étude Tableaux presents a wide range of practices, with Nos. 1 to 4 simpler in nature than Nos. 5 to 8, which are more virtuosic. These call for a non-traditional hand position, drawing considerable technical strength from the performer and requiring maturity in the individual to evoke the passionate mood of each piece.
Op.39 was first published in 1917. Robert Matthew-Walker, the Author of Rachmaninoff: His Life and Times states that Op.39 is a ‘’Hidden set of variations on the composer’s idee-fixe, the Dies irae, parts of the plainchant being quoted directly in all of the nine studies, and is particularly obvious in the first five”. He also added that these compositions departed from Russian tradition and focused more on the Central and East-European tradition. Walker commented that Op.39 is very unique in the harmonic language and is of equal standing to the Third Concerto, and is authoritative and yet subtle and under-state
These studies were called Étude en douze exercices (Study in twelve exercises S.136) and are a set of youthful exercises of a less technical nature. These pieces were later revised considerably to become a more technically challenging work named Douze Grandes Études (Twelve Grand Studies) S.137 and published in 1837.
In 1852, Liszt revised and dedicated the Transcendental Studies S.139 which was derived from Twelve Grand Studies S.137 to his piano teacher, Carl Czerny. These pieces were modified, simplified and customized for pianists with smaller hands by removing the stretches that had greater than a tenth separation.
In my view these Études should be attempted to improve a pianist’s skills; however, for those who are not quite prepared to conquer these Études (because of the capacity of the technical and musical demand), there are alternative Concert Études for advanced pianists and other Etudes and exercises for those at early to intermediate levels that will assist in strengthing and skills-building to the next level.