Monday, July 25, 2011

The blog problem (and how Alfred Cortot resolves it)

Blogs. On the one hand they’re great: cheap, easy to create, versatile, wide-reaching and egalitarian. Anyone can create a blog, about any subject imaginable, and actually find people to read it. Sometimes they actually make a difference, as in the Arab uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia this past spring. But blogs, especially amateur blogs, are also problematic precisely because of their good qualities. They tend to be carelessly written, messy and – how can I say this nicely? – useless. Their pages are all too often clogged with virtual bric-à-brac, their texts knotted with colored links – those unfortunate escape hatches and trap doors – that entice the impatient reader elsewhere. What’s more, depending on the aims of a given blog, the problem of the blogger’s credibility (or rather, lack of it) can come into play, even in the context of an opinion piece (which describes the nature of many, if not most blogs). With professional, corporate-sponsored blogs the credibility of the publication being written for vouches for the credibility of the writer. But there is no editorial standard to serve as a filter between an amateur blogger and his readers.

The problem of messy “bric-à-bracness” is easily enough solved (though not completely, as you can see looking around you); that of credibility and usefulness, less so.

Now this should in no way be taken as some sort of pompous auto-proclamation on the value the current blog. I make no claims. Of course I would like the Blue Note to be credible and useful; but if I say so too loudly I’ll have to live up to those standards. No. It’s better to not say anything at all. Instead, in light of my journey through the Chopin Etudes (which formally begins in September – after vacation, thank you), let’s consider this my way of introducing two important sources that are soundly credible. And because one of these two references is not available in English, my referencing it may just lend a useful and interesting sheen to the blog.

The first reference is Alfred Cortot’s practice edition of the Etudes, published by Salabert. Cortot, it must be said, was one of those rare personages that sleep only on Sundays, who was at once a great interprète, dedicated pedagogue, music school founder (Ecole Normale de musique de Paris) and accomplished conductor – and who managed to keep the same haircut his entire life. (This last detail isn’t as irrelevant as it seems.)

The opening comments of the edition indicate the purpose: “…A rational work method based on carefully considered analyses of the technical difficulties. The basic law of this method is not to work on the difficult passage, but the difficulties contained in the passage.” To this end each Etude is prefaced by a set of preparatory exercises as well as an explanation of the progress to be expected and the difficulties to overcome. To top it off he gives extra exercises for the not-so-faint at heart, like the following apropos of opus 10 n° 1: “Excellent work consists of playing the Etude slowly transposed to all keys keeping the fingering for C major.” That would be twenty-four keys in all, to do in your spare time.

My second source is a book written by one of Cortot’s disciples, Monique Déchaussées, called Frédérique Chopin : 24 Etudes, vers une interprétation. It details each of the Etudes from a technical as well as interpretive angle, giving exercises and advice the Cortot edition does not. Déchaussées also describes in a magnificent way general technical considerations. I’ll talk about these in later posts.

I’ve found myself in the strange position of having read these texts before actually tackling the music at the keyboard. Such an unorthodox approach does has its advantages: namely, you’re not yet in the thick of it so to speak. You’re not on the ground and in the action, and you can still think theoretically. In the same way, learning the score away from the piano before playing a single note, thus temporarily avoiding tactile problems, is an unbelievable timesaver. Still, in both cases it’s a little like reading a book on parenting before becoming a parent; or a guide on writing novels before writing the first sentence of your story. Experience alone brings understanding – true understanding. It’s only after experience that a text such as Déchaussées' reveals its true value.

And so in summarizing and discussing these texts I hope to provide a solid complement to my own musings and personal experience.


  1. I hope you take this in the right light, but I'm surprised at your comments on blogging credibility without having done exhaustive research. The Cortot editions are widely available in English as translated by M. Parkinson; the very same Salabert Edition you reference here. It is distributed in two volumes by Hal Leonard: the world's largest distributor of printed music. Forgive me for looking untidy but I don't know how to leave a link in the comments:

    Here for Opus 25

    Here for Opus 10

    As to Déchaussées, as universal as Western Classical music has become any high level academician (i.e. 'not me' however, certainly you!) is expected to speak a language other than English: it's a degree requirement in most colleges and universities. And while all may not achieve absolute fluency if the text is pertinent to their line of study most can find a way to get through it with a high degree of understanding, if only by means of their own meager translation. French, or perhaps it is better to say--a functional knowledge of romance languages--are necessary to a student of western classical music. Even to the lay musician I don't think French to be as obscure as Farsi, but I may have just gone off a semantic bridge... In short I don't think the matter of language to be as esoteric as you.

    How did you find Cortot's comments "difficult," or is that discussion for a different post?

    As an aside, I'd be curious as to your thoughts on Ms Wu dissertation after you've finished your journey. Or perhaps you can benefit in reading it before undertaking the task, much like score study? If you're interested:

  2. Indeed the Cortot edition is available in English -- correction made. Thanks for pointing that out.

    As for the rest, I don't agree that "functional knowledge of romance languages" would be sufficient to thoroughly understand an even moderately difficult text. French may be transparent to an Italian or Spanish speaker, but only to a certain degree. Keep in mind that Déchaussées' book is over 150 pages long; if you're not comfortable with French how laborious it would be to struggle through it! I for one would not be able to get through a long text in another romance language, much less walk away from it any wiser.

    In truth the question of language is secondary. I didn't choose Déchaussées' book BECAUSE it's in French; I chose it first and foremost because it's a good text.