Autumn 2021: Play the Octaves with Two Hands: Chopin's and Liszt's Redistributions in Their Own Works
One of the strongest arguments in favor of redistribution is its use by major pianists throughout history, including two of the most prominent pianist-composers of all time: Chopin and Liszt. Because both musicians devoted considerable energy to teaching, their perspectives on many aspects of performance survive in the recollections of their students. This documentary evidence sheds light on the musical and technical situations in which Chopin and Liszt recommended redistribution, demonstrating its usefulness even to master pianists.
Chopin taught throughout his career: he began giving lessons to affluent Parisians as a primary source of income shortly after his arrival at the French capital in 1831 and continued to teach until the onset of his final period of ill health in 1848.1 The most detailed record available of how Chopin taught his own works is his markings preserved in his students' scores, particularly those of Jane Stirling and Camille Dubois.2 Both women were among Chopin's more advanced pupils, each studying many of the composer's more challenging works with him.3 In addition to fingerings, dynamics, phrasings, and numerous other expressive markings, these scores contain eight indications of hand redistribution.4 Though no commentary survives giving Chopin's explicit reasons for reassigning these notes, his pedagogical motivation can be discerned easily enough and falls into one of three categories: eliminating wide stretches, facilitating position shifts, and simplifying passages for one hand by dividing them between the hands.
Like piano teachers throughout history, Chopin taught students with a variety of hand sizes. For those with small hands, he devised accommodations to assist their performance, ranging from simple alternative fingerings to even the deletion of notes where necessary.5 Jane Stirling's copy of Chopin's preludes includes three redistributions, one of which also appears in Dubois' score, that are designed to remove stretches that are uncomfortable for some hands and impossible for others. In each case, the original notation assigns an interval of a tenth to the left hand. Chopin drew curved lines in pencil in Stirling's scores to indicate that the upper note of each tenth may be played with the right hand, allowing both pitches to be struck simultaneously.
These redistributions are possible because the right hand is positioned within reach of the tenor note in
each excerpt. In the B-flat-Major Prelude, the right hand is unoccupied on the third beat of m. 4 (and again in m. 12) and can easily play another note (see Excerpt 1). Nearly as simple is m. 50 of the D-flat-Major Prelude, in which the right hand's G-sharp is only a third away from the E it will adopt (see Excerpt 2). Measure 9 of the same prelude requires the greatest change to the right-hand line: the reach of an octave from F4 to F5 potentially disrupts the flow of the legato melody (see Excerpt 3).6 Nevertheless, Chopin apparently believed this accommodation was advisable for both Dubois and Stirling, momentarily leaving the legato of the right-hand line to be accomplished by the pedal.
Excerpt 1: Frédéric Chopin, Prelude in B-Flat Major, Op. 28, No. 21, mm. 1–12 (Jane Stirling's copy with Chopin's pencil marks).7
Excerpt 2: Frédéric Chopin, Prelude in D-Flat Major, Op. 28, No. 15, mm. 48–52 (Jane Stirling's copy with Chopin's pencil marks).8
Excerpt 3: Frédéric Chopin, Prelude in D-Flat Major, Op. 28, No. 15, mm. 5–10 (Camille Dubois' copy with Chopin's pencil marks).9
Chopin also recommended alternative hand distributions to facilitate changes in hand position. In measures 180–81 of the Scherzo in B-Flat Minor, Op. 31, the right hand must leap over five octaves from E-flat-2 to F7 at the conclusion of the trill. Camille Dubois' score reveals Chopin's technical solution: he wrote "m.g." and drew a curved bracket to indicate that the final two notes of the trill may be taken as left-hand octaves, allowing extra time for the right hand to travel across the keyboard (see Excerpt 4).Excerpt 4: Frédéric Chopin, Scherzo No. 2 in B-Flat Minor, Op. 31, mm. 170–86 (Camille Dubois' copy with Chopin's pencil marks).10
This huge leap would present a challenge to most players, but Chopin devised a solution for a much less daunting shift in his Etude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 7. He eliminates the left-hand octave leap in m. 45 entirely, reassigning the E to the right hand in Stirling's copy (see Excerpt 5). Though the technical challenge posed by the original distribution is relatively modest, eliminating the octave leap offers several advantages: it reduces the risk of inaccuracy, lessens the rhythmic delay of the melody note, and enables greater control of the sound. The E could then be sustained by the right hand, as the repeated fourths are within reach, or silently transferred to the left hand for the continuation of the line.
Excerpt 5: Frédéric Chopin, Etude in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 25, No. 7, mm. 42–45 (Jane Stirling's copy with Chopin's pencil marks).11
In three other instances, Chopin advised splitting a passage notated for one hand between both hands. In Stirling's copy of the Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 1, Chopin modified the wide arpeggios of mm. 27–28, drawing upward stems on the highest notes to assign them to the right hand (see Excerpt 6). This distribution keeps each hand in a more compact position, avoiding extraneous finger crossings, which allows greater control of sound quality.
Excerpt 6: Frédéric Chopin, Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 1, mm. 26–28 (Jane Stirling's copy with Chopin's pencil marks).12
Chopin also suggested dividing up a left-hand accompaniment in the Impromptu in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 36. During the right hand's three beats of rest in m. 58, the left hand must repeatedly shift distances greater than an octave (see Excerpt 7). Although these leaps are not especially challenging at the work's moderate tempo, Chopin drew upward stems on the final three D4s in both Stirling's and Dubois' score to indicate that they may be played by the right hand. These markings suggest a relaxed attitude toward fingering that favors an equal division of labor between the hands where possible.
Excerpt 7: Frédéric Chopin, Impromptu No. 2 in F-Sharp Major, Op. 36, mm. 55–58, (Camille Dubois' copy with Chopin's pencil marks).13
Instructions to divide another left-hand passage between the hands appear in Dubois' copy of the Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1 (see Excerpt 8). Chopin marked "les 2 mains" above the ascending octaves in the lower staff in the latter part of m. 48.14 Appearing at the end of an extended passage of octaves in both hands, Chopin may have recommended splitting these octaves between the hands to offer physical relief when octaves in both hands are no longer necessary or to provide greater control over the accelerando.
Excerpt 8: Frédéric Chopin, Nocturne in C Minor, Op. 48, No. 1, mm. 48–49 (Camille Dubois' copy with Chopin's pencil marks).15
These eight surviving redistributions illustrate Chopin's openness to alternative hand arrangements within his own music. They suggest that Chopin's original note distribution was not deemed essential to the work's effect and demonstrate that adjustments to facilitate performance were not only acceptable to Chopin but even recommended by him in certain circumstances.
Unlike Chopin, who worked privately with his students and made numerous markings in their scores, Liszt taught only in groups,
originating his famed master class method of group instruction during his Weimar years, and continuing to teach in this manner up until the end of his life.16 As a result, Liszt's teaching legacy survives not in marked scores but in his comments on a wealth of repertoire preserved through the notes of those present at his master classes. The most detailed accounts available are found in the diaries of August Göllerich, who attended twenty-one of Liszt's classes between May 1884 and June 1886. Göllerich records two instances of Liszt recommending alternative hand distributions in his own compositions, in each case suggesting to play a passage notated for one hand alone with two hands.
According to Göllerich's diary, Augusta Fischer performed Liszt's Concert Etude No. 3 in D-Flat Major
("Un sospiro") for the class on 9 June 1884.17 Göllerich noted, "In bar 29, the master said one should make a fairly long octave whirlpool with both hands instead of with the right hand alone, as written" (see Excerpt 9). Taking the octaves with both hands allows for increased speed and greater force, contributing to the "whirlpool" effect Liszt sought. Liszt's direction implies that the aural effect achieved through using both hands trumps any visual flourish achieved by using only one.
Excerpt 9: Franz Liszt, Trois Études de Concert, S. 144: III. m. 29.18
Göllerich notes a similar recommendation to divide an octave passage between the hands on 23 February 1886. Liszt advised Ilona von Krivácy, who was performing Liszt's Paraphrase de concert sur Rigoletto, to "play the octaves in bars 1–6 with wo hands so that they come out really staccato" (see Excerpt 10).19 His comment identifies a musical problem: the articulation is unconvincing but, he proposes a technical solution: performing the passage with two hands instead of one. Liszt again affirms that the desired quality of sound should dictate the manner of execution, even if that goes against the hand division implied by the notation. In these two instances, the greatest technician of the age suggests that dividing octave passages between the hands, what some might construe as mere facilitation, can help achieve musical goals like maximizing power and ensuring crisp articulation. Liszt presents these alternative fingerings as valuable tools for artistry rather than cheap tricks or "cheats."
Excerpt 10: Franz Liszt, Paraphrase de concert sur Rigoletto, S.434: mm. 1–6.20
Taken together, these documented occurrences of Chopin and Liszt recommending hand redistributions in their own music suggest that such alternatives were uncontroversial, perhaps even routine in the nineteenth century. These pianists employed redistributions to solve technical problems, including avoiding wide stretches, eliminating or facilitating leaps, and dividing passages more evenly between the hands. In addition, they proposed alternative distributions to enhance musical expression through improved control of sound and articulation. Today's pianists must decide for themselves whether and how to employ redistribution to satisfy their own technical needs and expressive aims in performance. They should be secure in the knowledge that the practice has been a valuable tool used by master performers for centuries.21
12 Frédéric Chopin, Deux nocturnes pour le piano (Paris: Schlesinger, 1836), 3. Jane Stirling's marked copy available at Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rés. VMA 241 (4,27).
13 Frédéric Chopin, Deuxième impromptu pour le piano (Paris: Schlesinger, 1840), 4. Camille Dubois-O'Meara's marked copy available at Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rés. F-980 (3,2).14 The text is rather faint in this image provided by the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger has viewed the score in person and provides this reading of its text in Eigeldinger, 155.
Dubois-O'Meara's marked copy available at Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rés. F-980 (2,6,1).
Göllerich, ed. Wilhelm Jerger, trans. Richard Louis Zimdars (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 31.
Chopin, Frédéric. Ballade pour le piano. Paris: Schlesinger, 1836.
———. Ballade pour le piano. Paris: Schlesinger, 1841
———. Deux nocturnes pour le piano (Paris: Schlesinger, 1836). Jane Stirling's marked copy. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rés. VMA 241 (4,27).
———. Deuxième impromptu pour le piano (Paris: Schlesinger, 1840). Camille Dubois-O'Meara's marked copy. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rés. F-980 (3,2).
———. Etudes pour piano: deuxième livre (Paris: Schlesinger, 1837). Jane Stirling's marked copy. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rés. VMA 241 (3,25).
———. Scherzo pour piano (Paris: Schlesinger, 1837). Camille Dubois-O'Meara's marked copy. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rés. F-980 (2,14).
———. 13e. & 14e. Nocturnes pour piano (Paris: Schlesinger, 1841). Camille Dubois-O'Meara's marked copy. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rés. F-980 (2,6,1).
———. 24 Preludes pour le piano, vol. 2 (Paris: Schlesinger, 1839). Camille Dubois-O'Meara's marked copy. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rés. F-980 (1,4).
———. 24 Preludes pour le piano, vol. 2 (Paris: Schlesinger, 1839). Jane Stirling's marked copy.
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Rés. VMA 241 (4,28,2).
Liszt, Franz. Rigoletto de Verdi: Paraphrase de Concert. Leipzig: J. Schuberth, 1860.
———. Trois Études de Concert. Leipzig: Kistner, 1849.
Eigeldinger, Jean-Jacques. Chopin: Pianist and Teacher As Seen by His Pupils. Translated by Naomi Shohet. Edited by Roy Howat. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1986.
Ganche, Edouard. Dans le souvenir de Frédéric Chopin. 6th ed. Paris: Mecure de France, 1925.
Göllerich, August. The Piano Master Classes of Franz Liszt, 1884–1886: Diary Notes of August Göllerich. Edited by Wilhelm Jerger. Translated by Richard Louis Zimdars. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.
Marmontel, Antoine. Les Pianistes celèbres. Paris: Heugel, 1878.
Mason, William. Memories of a Musical Life. New York: The Century Co., 1901.
Walker, Alan. Franz Liszt. Vol. 2, The Weimar Years, 1848–1861. London: Faber and Faber, 1989.
———. Franz Liszt. Vol. 3, The Final Years, 1861–1886. New York: Knopf, 1996.
———. Fryderyk Chopin: A Life and Times. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2018.