The Étude in the 19th century

In this post I will discuss a musical genre, the étude,  that emerged in the early 19th century and became extremely popular for the piano.

The French word étude literally means study. In music it refers to the specific musical genre used for pedagogical purposes. On certain occasions, composers named their compositions as exercises rather than studies. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the genre referred to instrumental pieces used as exercises and aimed at a specific technical difficulty.

Études were primarily designed to be pure exercises, yet not in all instances. In regard to the 30 Essercizi per gravicembalo (1738) by Domenico Scarlatti, the exercises resemble performance music pieces, not exercises for pure technique. Howard Ferguson and Kenneth L. Hamilton argue that the form and significance of the exercises are the same with his sonatas.[1] Thus in the specific collection, both technique and musicality are important. Études are not observed in treatises and pedagogical manuals, nevertheless Ferguson and Hamilton believe that “many variously named pieces” before the nineteenth century could be considered as studies.[2] For instance, the 12 Handstücke found in Türk’s Klavierschule 15 (1789) as well as the Probestücke found in the Versuch über die wahre Art das Clavier zu spielen 16 (1753) by C.P.E. Bach.

In the early nineteenth century, the popularity of the piano began growing and the études were widely favoured for their pedagogical aims. Composers like Carl Czerny, who published a vast number of studies, started publishing collections with instructions for both the amateur and the professional pianists. The title of the collections indicates that the studies were accomplished for the exercise and improvement of technical skills. For example, he published the 30 Etudes de Mécanisme Op. 849 and the 50 Übungsstücke für Anfänger Op.481 (1837) as well as collections with exercises for the hand, fingers and the piano technique. Czerny did not identify all the collections as studies; instead the term ‘exercises’ was adopted when referring to some of his collections or named them after the skill he intended to develop, such as Oktavenstudien Op. 553 ([1838]) and Praktische Fingerübungen Op. 802. 

In February 6, 1836 Schumann wrote in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik the article “Die Pianoforte = Étuden, ihren Zwecken nach geordnet” in which a variety of études were listed in order and categorised according to their technical aims. The list was prefaced by an introductory essay in which Schumann considered Chopin, J. S. Bach, Clementi, Cramer and Moscheles to be the most important composers of the studies. The studies at the beginning of the century were conducted to enhance technique and they consisted of specific pattern and scale repetitions; thus, they lacked musical development. Schumann article p.45Schumann article p.46

Études increasingly developed and became musically interesting to a greater extent. They were employed for performance as well as for the instruction of the pianist; and their aim was to provide solutions for technical difficulties and practise specific styles. Eventually a study from an exercise for the mechanical skills developed into an art from, a concert study, which is a technically demanding musical piece, aimed for performance and not for instruction. The path to the development of the study can be observed from a few compositions such as Schumann’s Etudes after Paganini Caprices Op. 3 (1832). The latter are short pieces preceded by exercises and instructions aiming at specific difficulties noted in the studies. It is indicated that the musical pieces themselves were not considered as pure exercises any longer, since the collection had specific exercises prior to the studies. Furthermore, Moscheles’ Grand Characteristic Studies Op. 95 – like Scarlatti’s Essercizi per gravicembalo – aim at both the performance and the improvement of technique of the professional pianist. There are not particular instructions for each study, even though a preface exists with a general instruction. The studies also contain specific titles that set a specific mood which communicates a programmatic musical aspect.

The étude from a pure exercise developed into an art form and earned a place into the concert repertoire by Frederick Chopin. His études, Opus 1025 (1833) and 2526 (1837) as well as his Trois nouvelles études (1840), are technically challenging. Each study includes a specific musical technical difficulty concurrently with a musical aspect. The studies are not intended as exercises for the pupils. They have no instructions and no specific titles assigned by Chopin – even though several studies have nicknames.

The development of the étude is also viewed in Liszt’s music. Liszt developed his collection of studies Étude en douze exercices, S.136 (1827) over a twenty-five year period. Not only he revised the collection, but he also changed the title of each revision. In 1839 the collection was revised into Grandes études S.137 and in 1852 in Études d’exécution transcendante S.139.

The studies of the first collection (S.136) are technical exercises. Liszt revised the collection, assigned a musical style to the studies and renamed the collection into Grandes études. As a consequence his influence in the development of the genre is examined. He ceases to refer to the collection as pure exercises and even though the didactic element is present, it is not considered the most important aspect. Finally, a programmatic aspect was attributed to the collection in 1852. Liszt allocated various titles to most of the studies – like Moscheles’ Opus 95. The didactic element is no longer evident and the studies, which were viewed as technical exercises, developed into highly demanding concert pieces.

The pedagogical aspect of the genre was not lost, despite generating from technical exercises and subsequently evolving into the concert study. There was the étude for didactic purposes, the concert study and the étude serving both pedagogical and performance aspects. Studies for pedagogical purposes were identified through the title of the set. For instance, Moscheles’ Opus 107 The Daily Companion, or practical & progressive exercises on the harmonised scales The same applies for studies aiming the concert hall, such as Liszt’s 3 Etudes de Concert. The concert studies include technically challenging and musically expressive elements. The third study of Liszt’s 3 Etudes de Concert must be performed allegro affetuoso. It also requires delicate fingers especially at the cadenzas. Its main technical difficulty is the alternation of crossing hands (example 1) and Liszt requests that the notes with the stems pointing down are to be played by the left hand, and with the stems pointing up with the right.

Example 1 Video: Étude No. 3, Un sospiro – Franz Liszt

Liszt example 1

Collections bearing only the title études usually serve both pedagogical and performing purposes. They have a technical difficulty as well as a musical unity. For instance, Huneker characterised Chopin’s studies as “poems [that] fit for Parnassus, yet they also serve a very useful purpose in pedagogy. Both aspects, the material and the spiritual, should be studied”.[3] An example, highly praised for its character, is his second study of Opus 25. Schumann called it as  lovely, dreamy and quiet, something like singing the child to sleep.[4] The difficulty of the particular study is the rhythmic independence of the two hands as well as the speed. Both hands play triplets, although the left hand is in crotchets and the right in quavers (example 2).

Example 2  Video: Etude Op.25 No.2 – Chopin

Chopin example 2.png

Throughout the centuries études were composed due to educational as well as performance purposes. The genre developed into the concert study and earned a place into the concert repertoire. Nonetheless, studies were still composed for the improvement of technique and performance. Even though there are collections that do not provide any instructions, most studies clarify their purpose in the preface with specific guidance.


[1] Grove Music Online, s.v. “Study”, by Howard Ferguson and Kenneth L. Hamilton,§=1#firsthit

[2] Ibid.

[3] James Huneker, Chopin, the man and his music, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1918), 143.

[4] Robert Schumann, “12 Etuden für Pianoforte von Friedrich Chopin”, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Band 7, No. 50 (December 22, 1837): 199.



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