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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

15. Berlioz's
Études for Piano



Berlioz's piano études are a middle-period work, originating from his admiration for the transcendental studies of Liszt and Chopin and the present of a new Broadwood Grand from an English admirer. But whereas both Liszt and Chopin were virtuoso performers, Berlioz was an indifferent pianist, a fact that should have deterred him from such an ambitious venture. The resulting pieces are, to say the least, original: singular, perhaps: bizarre, even. Nevertheless, they contain several technical innovations that even Liszt hadn't thought of. Berlioz completed four-and-a-half out of a projected set of six - he abandoned the fifth one halfway through - but they were never published. They do, however, shed an interesting sidelight on this amazingly original composer. Some of them have titles (here translated from the original French) that may have autobiographical significance:

No. 1. 'After reading Shakespeare's The Tempest'. A study in 7ths. Arpeggios of diminished 7ths rushing up and down the keyboard are the main - indeed the only - motive in this bravura piece. (The instruction 'bouché-cuivré' in the penultimate bar must be a mistake.)

No. 2. 'The Opium Dream'. A study in irregular rhythms. This is a lyrical piece involving complex cross-rhythms. At one point, triplets and septuplets in the l.h. are pitted against quintuplets and sextuplets in the r.h. An innovative feature is that both pedals are to be held down throughout.

No. 3. The complicated title could be translated as 'for the little finger of the left hand and the thumb of the right'. In a footnote, Berlioz orders the pianist 'not to cheat'. Within these prohibitive technical limitations, the performer is asked to make rapid scalic runs and, in one place, semiquaver leaps, and the piece ends with a double glissando. There is no doubt that in the right hands (or should it be, 'left finger and right thumb'?) this could be a tour-de-force.

No. 4. 'Study for the hand stretch'. In this piece, the limitations of Berlioz's piano playing are only too evident. The pianist is certainly 'stretched' and at one point, is required to play a widely spaced 11-note chord. The composer suggests that one of the middle notes could be taken by the nose ('sur le nez') but the acciaccatura that proceeds it would preclude this.

No. 5. 'Study for the crossed hands'. Only nine bars survive of this étude, but it would seem that Berlioz was intending the pianist to play with the arms crossed throughout.

As far as we know, these pieces were never performed in Berlioz's lifetime, though Liszt did take the manuscript away and promise to 'try them over'.


Copyright © 2 March 2000, Trevor Hold, Peterborough, UK


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