“My teacher says that this etude is like broccoli. Not the most delicious, but very useful.” (encountered on YouTube)
Most discussions of Chopin’s etudes go something like this: Yes, it’s a study and yes, it exercises a certain pianistic technique, but wow, listen to that music! Chopin makes such art from what most before him left mundane, many of his etudes have inspired evocative nicknames: “Winter Wind,” “Butterfly,” “Waterfall,” “Sunshine,” “Revolutionary."
But when it comes to the eighth etude in his Opus 25 collection, the only word that sticks is, well, useful. The refrain sounds from comments on YouTube to Hans von Bülow, who wrote of Chopin’s Etude in D-flat Major: “[It’s] the most useful exercise in the whole range of etude literature.”
Useful. Well, how so? A second commenter on YouTube points the way: “I disagree, broccoli is pretty good actually; but you're right, the etude goes through an important step for all pianists, 6ths!”
Sixths. Simply put, a sixth is the musical interval between one note and another six notes away from it.
An earlier etude in Chopin’s set is all about thirds. The eighth is composed entirely of sixths – in both hands this time and with no let-up. “Depending on one’s playing style, this can be either easier or harder than playing thirds all the way through,” writes one presenter. “On the one hand, sixths are more ‘predictable’ than thirds [but they’re] much more difficult to play smoothly….Without proper use of the pedal, [it] is essentially impossible.”
Chopin did work an interesting, if cheerful melody into this “useful” study; perhaps its greatest use is to underscore what a dedicated student and teacher of the piano Chopin was. - Jennifer Foster