Paul Cantrell’s music blog & podcast
Piano music old and new from a devoted amateur,
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Posts tagged “Chopin”

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?

Here’s a preview of a piece I’m working on — this is the march that opens Chopin’s Fantasty. The whole piece is quite an epic (about 14 minutes), and rather difficult, so I’m not going to be posting the whole thing in the near future.

This opening, however, is neither so long nor so difficult, and so I’m posting a rough version of it as a little appetizer. It almost stands as a little piece on its own, but right where I stop in this recording, instead of winding to a close, the music takes off full throttle.

Fantasy in F minor (introduction)
Paul Cantrell, piano

In the future, the whole thing!

Chopin can often get complex, virtuosic, or just generally full of big piano sounds, but always, in everything he writes, there's something pure and elemental at heart of his music. In this waltz, that elemental core is bare. In a piece like this, it's hard for me not to look at the score and wonder: It's so simple! Where is the magic is hiding? How can there be so much in so few notes?

One of the most fundamental, most important principles in music is return: when things happen, they come back. Throughout a piece of music, there are recurring elements that unite the whole. The beginning and the end connect. If we depart from where we started, we return there — or at least look back.

The familiar verse / chorus / bridge form that underlies so many pop songs follows this principle: we might get a new melody, the bridge ("Why she had to leave, I don’t know"), but we still come back to the original repeating verse / chorus music ("Yesterday…"). Many, many classical pieces (especially Chopin nocturnes) follow ternary or “ABA” form: thing 1, thing 2, thing 1 again. That includes many of the pieces I’ve posted in this blog. Even in a less clearly delineated structure, you’ll hear the principle of return: listen to Bach letting new material unfold continuously so that same initial idea keeps resurfacing in new forms, or Brahms letting several distinct ideas mingle and interact with one another.

Return can be the operating principle even when it’s not immediately obvious: the three parts of Three Places are all built out of the same material, and the melody that was floating on top of a thick swirl of sound at the beginning comes back at the very end, transformed (the swirl is gone, and it’s bare now) but still present. The point is: look for return, and you’ll find it.

Then we have today’s piece by Chopin. Everything in it happens twice … and then never comes back. It’s like a series of matryoshka dolls that you cannot put back together once you’ve opened them. It moves through four distinct musical worlds, each more inward than the last, constantly curling in on itself and finally leaving us far from where we started, as if, having gone into whatever strange interior world this is, it is impossible to return to the place where we began, or even to imagine what that place was like.

There is no reason this piece should work. It is, to my mind, a miracle. This is one I keep returning to, searching for its secret as a composer, and marveling at it as a human.

Nocturne Op 15 No 3 (in G minor)
Paul Cantrell, piano
It's organic, and sounds almost improvised --- except that it is impossibly perfect in every detail. Its soundscape is vast, deep, and richly pianistic, but look at the construction and you'll see the spare elegance of Bach. It has a loving tenderness, and a longing, that's unlike anything else, yet seems instantly familiar. And it's gorgeous. What is it? Chopin, of course!