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An étude (a French word meaning study), is an instrumental musical composition, most commonly of considerable difficulty, usually designed to provide practice material for perfecting a particular technical skill. The tradition of writing études emerged in the early 19th century with the rapidly growing popularity of the piano. Of the vast number of études from that era some are still used as teaching material (particularly pieces by Carl Czerny and Muzio Clementi), and a few, by major composers such as Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt, Claude Debussy and Charles-Valentin Alkan, achieved a place in today's concert repertory. Composers of the 20th century variously composed études related to the old tradition (György Ligeti), études that required wholly unorthodox technique (John Cage), and études that required unusually facile technique.
Studies, "lessons" and other didactic instrumental pieces composed before the 19th century are very varied, without any established genres. The pieces in lute instruction books, such as the celebrated Varietie of Lute-Lessons (1610), may be arranged in order of increasing difficulty, but will usually include both simple teaching pieces and masterworks by renowned composers. Domenico Scarlatti's 30 Essercizi per gravicembalo ("30 Exercises for harpsichord", 1738) do not differ in scope from his other keyboard works, and Johann Sebastian Bach's four volumes of Clavier-Übung ("keyboard practice") contain everything from simple organ duets to the extensive and difficult Goldberg Variations.
The situation changed in the early 19th century because of the growing popularity of the piano as a domestic instrument. Instruction books with exercises became very common. Of particular importance were collections of "studies" by Johann Baptist Cramer (published between 1804 and 1810), early parts of Muzio Clementi's Gradus ad Parnassum (1817–26), numerous works by Carl Czerny, and Ignaz Moscheles' Studien Op. 70 (1825–26). Most of these pieces concentrated on the technical side of music and were not intended for performance. However, with the late parts of Clementi's collection and Moscheles' Charakteristische Studien Op. 95 (1836–37) the situation began to change, with both composers striving to create music that would both please the audiences in concert and serve as a good teaching tool. Such combination of didactic and musical value in a study is sometimes referred to as a concert study.
Frédéric Chopin's études, Op. 10 (1833) and Op. 25 (1837) were the first to retain a firm position in the concert repertory, and are commonly regarded today as some of the finest études ever written. The technique required to play them was extremely novel at the time of their publication, and the first performer who succeeded at mastering these pieces was the renowned virtuoso composer, Franz Liszt (to whom Chopin's Op. 10 is dedicated). Liszt himself composed a number of études that were more extensive, and even more complex than Chopin's. Among these, the most well-known is the collection Études d'Execution Transcendante (final version published in 1852). These did not retain the didactic aspect of Chopin's work, however, since the difficulty (and the technique used) varies within a given piece. Collections of études by Charles-Valentin Alkan, marked by harmonic and structural experimentation, are similar in this aspect. Alkan's work includes some of the first études written for a single hand.
The 19th century also saw a number of étude and study collections for instruments other than the piano. Violin études by Rodolphe Kreutzer, Federigo Fiorillo and others, and cello études by Friedrich Dotzauer and Friedrich Wilhelm Grutzmacher are used mostly as teaching tools today. The only études to make their way to concert repertory are those by Niccolò Paganini: 24 Caprices (1802–17). These works all conform to the standard definition of 19th century étude in that they are short compositions, each exploiting a single facet of technique. Collections of studies for flute were published during the second half of the 19th century by Ernesto Köhler, Wilhelm Popp and Adolf Terschak.
The early 20th century saw the publication of a number of important collections of études. Claude Debussy's Études for piano (1915) conform to the "one facet of technique per piece" rule, but exhibit unorthodox structures with many sharp contrasts, and many concentrate on sonorities and timbres peculiar to the piano, rather than technical points. Leopold Godowsky's 53 Studies on the Chopin Études (1894–1914) are built on Chopin's études: Godowsky's additions and changes elevated Chopin's music to new, hitherto unknown levels of difficulty, which led Ferruccio Busoni to remark that Godowsky was the only composer to have added anything of significance to keyboard writing since Liszt. Other important études of this period include Heitor Villa-Lobos' virtuoso 12 Études for guitar (1929) and pieces by Russian composers: Sergei Rachmaninoff's Études-Tableaux (1911, 1917) and several collections by Alexander Scriabin (all for piano).
By mid-century the old étude tradition was largely abandoned. Olivier Messiaen's Quatre études de rythme ("Four studies in rhythm", 1949–50) were not didactic compositions, but experiments with serial durations and pitches. John Cage's etudes—Études Australes (1974–75) for piano, Études Boreales (1978) for cello and/or piano and Freeman Études (1977–80, 1989–90) for violin—are indeterminate pieces based on star charts, and some of the most difficult works in the repertory. The three books of Études by György Ligeti (1985, 1988–94, 1995) are perhaps closest to the old tradition in that they too concentrate each on a particular technique.
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