As I sat down to write about Frederic Chopin’s Étude Opus 25, No. 11, called “Winter Wind,” suddenly, out of nowhere, I was overwhelmed with childhood memories. See, the word étude in French means study. When it comes to art – be it music or painting – it really means a short study piece. When I was little my father would take my brother Alex “to etudes.” Sadly, neither my oldest brother, Leo, nor I inherited my father’s gift for painting. Alex did, however, in spades. Painting came easy to him, it fact too easy; he was not challenged by it and gave up painting in his mid-teens. He didn’t start painting again until his late 40s.
I remember my father and Alex leaving for their “études,” carrying small easels with them (in Russian called etudenik) and coming back with a lot of little partially finished paintings. They’d go outside find a subject – a tree, a building, or a street – and start painting. Études were not as much about quality as about quantity. They painted in watercolor, which is an unforgiving medium for mistakes. You only have one chance to get the painting right, otherwise it becomes dirty. Oil in contrast allows you to layer brush stroke on top of brush stroke. So they’d come back with a half a dozen pieces of half-finished work.
For Alex this is where his painting stopped, but for my father this is where it began. He’d lay these paintings out on the floor, take out his big easel, and start work on a large painting based on his études.
Back to Chopin.
Chopin wrote études as practice pieces that each emphasized a certain technique. No. 11 was composed to develop the pianist’s stamina and dexterity of the right hand and flexibility of the left. It is a very technically difficult piece to play. I love the unpredictability and contrast of this étude – its first few bars are very mellow, and then it takes an incredibly violent plunge. The first four bars set up the contrast, deceiving the listener into expecting an easy-listening experience – and this piece is anything but. Interestingly, these four introductory bars were added right before publication.