4 Etudes op. 4 (1900-1902)

Szymanowski composed his first etude cycle during the years 1900-1902, and dedicated it to the pianist Natalia (Tala) Neuhaus, his cousin, with whom he remained close friends over many years (as well as with her brother Henryk [Harry], also a pianist and later a highly respected teacher at Moscow Conservatory, whose students included, among others, Emil Gilels and Sviatoslav Richter). These works are regarded, alongside Scriabin’s etudes written a few years earlier, as the most valuable reworking of the model created by Chopin within the whole of late Romantic music.
Viewed against the composer’s youthful output, Etudes op. 4 are distinguished by a bold harmonic language and discipline in the shaping of the form, developed most frequently through the transformation of one motivic formula. Another characteristic feature of the composer’s style is the multilayered texture, consisting in overlaying of a number of planes of melody and accompaniment. The first Etude in E flat minor (Allegro moderato) is based on a tuneful, melancholy theme, whose first motifs evolve throughout the whole work. In the second Etude in G flat major (Allegro molto) the main technical problem lies in the polyrhythmic and polymetric structure – the part of the right hand is notated in 6/8 meter, and that of the left – in 2/4. Apart from this, it is based on total chromaticism – the constant semitone dislocations of thirds and sixths in a very fast tempo lead to the blurring of their tonal significance. An element of contrast is brought by Etude in B flat minor (Andante), which maintains a slow tempo and chord texture, distinguished by a dignified, almost funereal expression, and in its culmination a very dramatic expression. On the other hand, the fourth Etude in C major (Allegro) is characterised by a particularly rich, and in essence already atonal harmonic language; the tonality indicated in the title is present only in the last measure.
The composer achieved great fame and popularity through his Etude in B flat minor – a work which in a very short space of time found its way into the repertoire of many pianists. Ignacy Jan Paderewski himself added it regularly to his programmes of Chopin recitals during the first years of the twentieth century. For a long time, Szymanowski’s name was mainly associated with this piece, and many years later the composer commented on this ironically in a letter to Grzegorz Fitelberg: “Paderewski introduced himself to Stasia [Stanisława Szymanowska, the composer's sister] at the soirée, said various warm things about me, naturally in particular about the famous etude in B flat-minor op.4 No. 3. Very bad luck to have composed one’s Ninth Symphony while so young!” (letter dated 13 November 1910).