Television came to Goa in 1982 during the coverage of the Asiad games. And with it, the couch-potato syndrome, and perhaps the beginning of our own obesity epidemic. And the first wave of in-your-face commercialism and advertising.
They say it pays to advertise. But sometimes what lingers after some advertisements is everything but the product. This has been the case with me, regarding one of those early TV ads. It would have been 1985-86. I remember so much about it; it was about half-a-minute long, and a pretty model shrouded in a hooded cloak stepping into view amid a swirl of the most glorious cascading piano music I had ever listened to. The music would fade away, and the product spiel (luxury chocolate? coffee?) would take over, and the spell would be broken.
It was only several years later, during my internship year in 1989, that the identity of the music was revealed to me. An East European pianist was performing at the Kala Academy, and it was the first time I heard the work in full: Chopin Étude no. 1 in C major, opus 10.
In those pre-internet days, programme notes or any information about music works were not easy to come by. Over time, I managed to listen to different recordings of this étude. The versions by Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini and Vladimir Ashkenazy still stand out in my memory, and quite readily accessible online for those interested. The great Vladimir Horowitz had a healthy respect for it, and refused to perform it in public: “For me, the most difficult one of all (the études) is the C Major, the first one, Op. 10, No. 1.”
The American music critic James Huneker compared the “hypnotic charm” that these “dizzy acclivities and descents exercise for eye as well as ear” to the frightening staircases in Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prints of the Carceri d’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), his capricci, or whimsical aggregates, Kafkaesque depictions of monumental architecture and ruin.
The main technical challenge of the étude is playing the right-hand arpeggios seamlessly without interruption, legato and accurately at the suggested tempo (Allegro). It is called a study in ‘reach and arpeggios’, and is aimed at stretching the fingers of the right hand.
Chopin himself told his pupil Friederike Müller-Streicher: “You shall benefit from this Étude. If you learn it according to my instructions it will expand your hand and enable you to perform arpeggios like strokes of the [violin] bow. Unfortunately, instead of teaching, it frequently un-teaches everything.”
If one follows Chopin’s own metronome markings (MM 176, referring to quarter notes), it is a daunting tempo. Later editors such as Hans von Bülow suggested a slower tempo (MM 152), arguing that at MM 176 “the majestic grandeur [would be] impaired.” Most contemporary performers seem to follow Chopin’s original recommendation. If memory serves right, the clip in the TV ad, as well as the live performance I first heard in 1989 were taken at the slower tempo.
This étude entered popular culture in 1978 when its first few bars were incorporated by the English progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer into their track ‘Love at First Sight’ in their studio album Love Beach.
It is an odd choice, and seems to be tacked on to the beginning of the ballad for no real artistic reason. The album in general was panned by fans and critics alike; Rolling Stone magazine sniffed: “Stale and full of ennui, this album makes washing the dishes seem a more creative act by comparison”.
But the Chopin Études theselves are timeless, and form the bedrock of the concert piano repertoire. This first étude in his set of opus 10 (aptly nicknamed ‘The Waterfall’) was written by him when still a teenager; he would dedicate the entire opus to his friend Franz Liszt.
For those interested, there is wonderful video footage of a young dashing Vladimir Askenazy striding purposefully over to the keys to play this marvelous piece. The camera lets you watch his right-hand arpeggios in all their glory.
But for sheer poetry, the audio clip of Martha Argerich’s 1965 prize-winning (Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition) account of this étude is matchless. The evenness of the fingers, the fluidity of wrist are phenomenal, and the whole work ‘sings’ from the weighty left-hand bass. Magical.
(An edited version of this article was published on 19 November 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)