12 Etudes op. 33 (1916)

Szymanowski’s second cycle of piano etudes comes from the same period as Metopes {link} and Masques. It was written in the spring of 1916 at Tymoszówka and is dedicated to the French pianist Alfred Cortot, whom the composer had met two years earlier in London.
Etudes – 12 small piano pieces forming one whole, interesting technically, difficult” – is how Szymanowski described his new work in a letter to his publisher (Universal Edition). However, they are not simply a collection of exercises for the pianist, but constitute a cohesive cycle of miniatures, with undoubted artistic value. On the one hand, they represent a summing up of the composer’s creative path up to that point; on the other, they reach back to the tradition of the genre of the Romantic and contemporary etude, which means above all the models created by Chopin, Scriabin and Debussy.
Individual works are ordered on the basis of strong mood contrasts, and, following that, contrast of tempo, texture and timbral colouring. Each etude contains an “arrangement” of a separate figurative or chordal piano-technical formula; as a rule this is one motif which undergoes far-reaching transformations. The unity of the work as a cyclic form is ensured by the instruction – expressed in the score by the term attacca – to have the consecutive links of the cycle performed without a pause, as well as by the atonal harmonic language of almost all the miniatures (with the exception of etude No. 5 they have no key markings ). Moreover, a characteristic feature of the majority of the etudes is a particular kind of bitonality, resulting from double notation of the parts of the right and the left hand – respectively on white or black keys (for example, chords and figurations recalling tonalities G-flat major and C-major in etude No.1). This technique was used for the first time by Maurice Ravel in Jeux d’eau (1901), and a little later also by Bartók and Stravinsky, but with Szymanowski it became what might be called a principle of crossing the Rubicon of major-minor tonality (its manifestations may also be discerned in Metopes and Masques).
Etudes op. 33 form a cycle which, like other piano works from the middle period of Szymanowski’s career, poses a tremendous challenge for the pianist, both in terms of playing technique and interpretation. The first pianist to play them was Alexander (Sasha) Dubiansky (at that time a pupil of Felix Blumenfeld at St Petersburg Conservatory), to whom Szymanowski dedicated the first part of Masques.