The history of musical étude is rooted in piano pedagogy. Etudes are short musical compositions designed as exercises on specific performance techniques. Although composed for a variety of instruments since the 18th century, études for piano are among the most well known. It was with increasing widespread popularity of the piano throughout the 19th century that the demand for études grew. While Carl Czerny (1791-1857) is regarded the father of piano études, it was Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849) who transformed them into their own musical genre. His 27 total études (including two sets of 12 — Opp. 10 and 25) encompass all major and minor keys, and inject musicality into what were initially designed as “technical exercises.” While Chopin’s études are frequently included in performances, Czerny’s are not. Other important piano étude composers include Robert Schumann, Franz Liszt, and Claude Debussy.
Enter David Rakowski. He lives in Maine and teaches at Brandeis University. He won an Academy Award and almost won two Pulitzer Prizes, and has earned an impressive laundry list of recognitions and awards. His claim to fame? He authored popular fonts such as Dragonwick, Pixie Font, and Erasure Dust (written on the blackboard in South Park). Oops — wrong column. His claim to fame? An ever-growing acclaimed catalog of over 70 études for solo piano, among other compositions.
Rakowski’s etudes infuse contemporary musical influences with technical exercises, on creative themes. “Absofunkinlutely” for example, is a “funk étude.” “Less is” is a minimalist étude on chord-building. Bop étude “Bop It,” and “Boogie Ninths,” for practicing ninth intervals, also demonstrate 20th-century influences. He composed études focusing on the Jerry Lee Lewis style of playing, and Tower of Power chords.
“Fist Fury” focuses on cluster chords and the use of fists to sound chords. “Touch Typing” is for index finger-only playing, “A Gliss is Just a Gliss” studies glissandi, “You Dirty Rag” is for left thumb melody, “Roll Your Own” is for rolled chords, and “Saltimanno” is for “finger-pedaling.” Among the most outrageous is “Schnozzage” — an étude for nose.
On Saturday, March 17, Rakowski appears at the University of Southern Maine with pianist Amy Dissanayake, a “leading interpreter of the music of living composers.” An evening piano recital includes works by Ravel, Sciarrino, Ligeti, and Rakowski. Although “Schnozzage” may not be performed, other interesting étude will get their exercise—including two for repeated notes, “E-Machines” and “Nocturnal,” and two composed specifically for Dissanayake — “Purple” and “Strident.” “Pitching from the Stretch,” an étude on tenths, and “Mantler,” a hand-crossing étude, will be performed. A piano master class at 1 pm and a composer talk at 3:30 pm complete a day-long seminar on the theme of collaborations between performers and composers. The recital is performed again in Portsmouth on Sunday.
After you study all your études and you’re ready to get your degree in music, you have to perform a senior recital. Fifty years ago, pianist Richard Roberts did exactly that for the Julliard School of Music. At that time, he wasn’t expected to perform Rakowski études, or to play piano with his nose, but it being Julliard and all, the technique required was demanding. On Sunday, March 18, the Portland Rossini Club presents Roberts, professor of music emeritus at the University of New England, in a re-creation of his senior recital of fifty years past. The concert is to benefit the club’s piano fund, which cares for two Steinway concert grands, and will include works by J.S. Bach, Ludwig van Beethoven, and you guessed it — Chopin, the king of piano études (sorry Rakowski — Chopin is after all, Chopin).