The publication of the first set in 1833 revolutionised piano technique - in contrast to the methods of Czerny, Kalkbrenner and others, which sought to attain independence of the fingers, Chopin's demanded the engagement of the entire upper body as a whole. Aside from their new level of technical demands, the Études are also well known for beginning the sub-genre of "Concert Études," meaning pieces that are both meant as technical exercises and as works of musical expression with high artistic value. This trend was continued in numerous sets of études by composer/pianists Franz Liszt, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, and Claude Debussy.
The most famous of the Études is Op.10 No.12 in C minor, the "Revolutionary Étude" - its crashing chords and fiery left hand passage-work supposedly evoke the 1831 Polish November Uprising against Russian rule.
In the introduction to this étude, the legendary pianist and teacher Alfred Cortot not only makes a perceptive comment about the poetic content of this masterwork, but also lucidly sums up the romantic ethos of piano technique which Chopin's virtuosic piano writing embodies:
|“|| To enlarge upon pianoforte technique when referring to a composition which is an exalted outcry of revolt - to set down fingerings for pages wherein the emotions of a whole race of people are alive and throbbing - to compose practical exercises for music pregnant with the mysterious and terrible force of genius, may appear an odd misunderstanding of the deep inner meaning of this Study and a dull appreciation indeed of the pathetic and exalted element which composes its particular essence.
Nevertheless, the throbbing, the sweep and the marked vigour which run through its pages will only be truthfully rendered by the performer who has overcome the difficulties and who can completely ignore the numerous technical obstacles which lie between him and the feelings he must express.
- Cortot, Alfred. Chopin: Twelve Studies, op. 10, for piano. Working Edition with Commentaries by Alfred Cortot, trans. by M. Parkinson. Paris: Editions Salabert 1913/2003, p. 78.