Chopin’s Unique Tribute to Bach: his Etude in C Major

What can we learn?

Chopin’s Unique Tribute to Bach: his Etude in C Major

If you have heard my version Chopin’s famous C major etude, the opening piece of his opus 10, I  hope by now you all have recovered from an initial shock! I also hope you enjoyed the incredible beautiful harmonic curtains that occur when you simply give time to these harmonies to develop and to be absorbed fully by our brains and hearts. The left hand in this tempo sounds almost as an organ pedal now, putting its shoulders under the colored raindrops of the right hand.

This etude however is remarkable also because it is one of the most illustrious tributes made to another famous composer, a celebrated one in those days, Johann Sebastian Bach. In this post, I’ll show you how exactly this etude is connected to Bach, and –of course- what kind of new perspective this opens for our fascinating tempo research.

Connecting musical periods

One of the absolute most fascinating exercises there are in musical research, is connecting different musical periods with each other. Certainly in a case like this, where it is very well known that Frédéric Chopin not only admired the music of J.S.Bach, but played it a lot and had it its students play Bach’s music often.

In his etude in C major, one of his most famous works, and one of the earliest as well, composed in 1829, Chopin paid his share of tribute to the Leipzig master. What he did was in fact rather simple. The beginning motive of Bach’s prelude in C of his first book of the Well-Tempered Keyboard, gives the listener a simple, pure triad of C major. Still early 18th century, the hands start from a closed position,–Bach divides the span of an octave and a third over two hands, like this.

What did Chopin do with this motive? Basically he kept the same motive, but instead of distributing it over two hands, the complete motive now becomes part of the performance of one hand.

Chopin etude opus 10 1 Bach WTC C major prelude

As in Bach’s prelude, Chopin holds on the entire piece to these wide arpeggios, as Bach did with his motive. By doing so, he turned this prelude into an etude that does not –as many seems to believe today- practice finger speed, but focuses on the suppleness of the wrist.

Bach’s prelude in C major

Now, let’s focus first on the Bach Prelude. It’s common time, normal notation pattern, “à l’ordinaire” as for instance Hottetere would say, so no use of faster note values than 16th’s, open harmonic structure, so from this perspective suggesting perhaps more a tempo that is rather an allegro than a ‘tempo ordinario’. But if one wants to emphasize more the rather contemplative character of this piece, I could imagine a tempo around the second as well, being the normal tempo ordinario for common time.

Click here to listen to a few performances of the last half century. From slowest to fastest:

  1. Helmut Walcha quarter note 60,
  2. Wanda Landowska quarter note 62,
  3. Glenn Gould quarter note 62,
  4. Friedrich Gulda, on clavichord/piano quarter note 72,
  5. Wim Winters quarter note 72,
  6. Gustav Leonhardt quarter note 84,
  7. Busoni
  8. Carl Czerny –  quarter note 112. Czerny completely falls out of this row of tempi from 60 to 88 for the quarter note, almost doubling the speed of the normal tempo ordinario:

chopin bach table 1

Czerny and Chopin

Czerny is an important source however for understanding Chopin. A few months ago I made an episode on ‘how Chopin played Bach’, a video that is among the most viewed on my channel in which the Bach score of one of Chopin’s pupils stood central. In that score, Chopin copied in pencil as accurately as one would think only a student would do, the additional performance indications from the Bach edition of Carl Czerny.

Chopin Bach well-tempered klavier

Central point in that video was the fact that Chopin also copied Czerny’s metronome marks. Pointing to another video that I made early in 2017 – one that I need to reshoot soon- in which we talked about the Czerny tempo marks for the Bach inventions and the rather hilarious results one gets when read in our modern way unplayable even in many cases, it opens an incredibly important window on the understanding of these tempo indications by simply knowing that at least for Chopin they formed no problem at all.

Czerny gave hundreds if not thousands of metronome marks and those tempi were not a joke to him. He points several times to the importance of the metronome and the accuracy of these tempi. So his work, not only the edition of the Bach inventions, but also his own etudes – take for instance his famous opus 299, gives no other solution than to accept the fact that Czerny applied the metrical use of his metronome, in which every tick represents only a ‘part of the intended time’, as the Maelzel 1816 instructions describe, and not the complete time, being the note value used in the metronome equation. So in case of opus 299, half note 108 means that every tick correlates with a quarter note –part of the intended time – not the half note.

The etudes and the inventions by Czerny are the most clear examples to demonstrate this. In the Well-Tempered clavier, more metronome marks are technically possible even in single beat –few are played however in single beat- but there is not a single fact or source that would support the thesis that Czerny’s Well-Tempered edition would NOT be metrical or double beat.

If we replace our metronome numbers of our examples by metronome numbers in double beat, so in the old metrical reading, we get an interesting difference:

As we can see now, Czerny suddenly is the slowest of all, with a tempo that is close to the normal tempo ordinario for common time.

The Busoni tempo

One metronome mark in our list of recordings must have caught the eye of the trained tempo researcher: that of Busoni. Let’s add Chopin’s own metronome mark to this and be surprised. Or not.

Personally I believe it is a too fast tempo for this prelude. But apart from that, it does not make any sense, it certainly cannot be “proven” from any -even basic – study on notation, to accept the possibility of two pieces written in common time, the prelude of Bach and the etude of Chopin, with a similar kind of harmonic openness, similar use of note values, the one clearly inspired by the other, to have a tempo relationship of exactly 1 to 2. It touches upon a point I will work out more in detail in future episodes: the generation of late 19th century musicians, as Busoni was, might have been still aware of echoes of a different historical way of playing, they did not apply it in their own careers. It is clear Busoni did not ask any questions why playing a Bach allegro in half the tempo he at least tried to reach in the case of the Chopin etude.

But it gives us a beautiful possibility to showcase the unique relationship between the Bach prelude and Chopin’s etude. Let me give you a few seconds of Busoni again, and then go to my version of the Chopin etude. It’s about the same tempo. Let’s listen.

So, hope this little piece of that big puzzle we want to reconstruct opened some ideas, and stimulates all of you to do some own research. Make sure to free your mind from any outcome you might be looking for, since it influences the way we read or think a lot.

Here’s a playlist on YouTube that might interest you if you are new to this Tempo Research!