The word “étude” means study — a practice piece, designed to exercise a particular technique. Études for musicians are generally dry, repetitious pieces, not music to perform, but just exercises for practice. So Chopin’s choice of that title may seem a little understated, or even ironic: his études certainly do exercise one’s technique, but they are expressive, poetic, passionate, and anything but dry.
I think the title fits beautifully: shouldn’t learning always be this way?
An interesting aspect of the piece I work to bring out, one which you don’t always hear, is the inner voices. This comes straight from my teacher, Don Betts, who is very particular about that in this piece. He quotes Schumann remarking on how Chopin himself brought them out. (To have a recording of Chopin…!) That’s thirdhand information, of course, but Chopin certainly does notate them clearly.
What’s the “inner voice?” Well, the piece is made of sort of rapid, repeating cycle of notes, and a melody — a “voice” — emerges from the topmost notes. That’s the “upper voice.” But there are sections in the piece where other melodies emerge, not on the top, but in the middle, and those are the “inner voices.” Listen, for example, to 0:50–1:10, or 1:46–2:01. Does that make sense? Let me know if it’s confusing, and I’ll try to explain it better.
Don himself has a recording of this piece on this site, from his Chopin album, and our two versions make an interesting comparison, I think. Of course I love his handling of the inner voices. He’s more technically adept, especially at the end. And his sense of the shape of the phrases is quite different in some spots — not the way I’d play it, but the way he would! Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of learning and understanding a piece, I can’t stand to hear somebody else’s version. But right now, hearing Don’s version gives me tremendous pleasure, and makes me want to think through the piece all over again.
One of the marvelous things about composed music is just this: Don and I can both play this piece, and through that shared experience I can learn from the master even as I derive personal satisfaction from playing it my own way. A piece of music is not just its own world, but many worlds in many hands at many times, never perfected, always satisfying.