Episode 123: Chopin Gets the Butterflies

Etude in G-flat Major, Op. 25, No. 9, 'Butterfly'

rc-butterfly-200It flies by in under a minute. Chopin may have given it wings, but he didn’t give his Etude in G-flat Major the name it carries to this day: “The Butterfly.”

When big musical ideas come in small packages, we humans can’t help ourselves. We want names for these creatures. Chopin had no use and little patience for tacked-on titles, but his publishers and public added them liberally, particularly to his shortest works.

So how did this Etude get trapped in the lepidopterist’s net? Well, other composers use strikingly similar fluttering in the right hand with the very intention of depicting butterflies: Robert Schumann’s “Papillons”, Edvard Grieg’s “Butterfly”, and later, Maurice Ravel’s “Night Moths”. In Chopin’s Etude, one can hear fluttering wings; iridescent gracefulness even. The “Butterfly” Etude. Fine.

Well, no. Not fine. Russian pianist Arthur Friedheim, who edited Chopin’s works said, “While some titles [given to these pieces] were superfluous, this one is inadequate.” Gustav Kobb is less generous. In his book, How to Appreciate Music, he calls the name “…a wretched misnomer,” adding, a gifted pianist "can work up such a gust of passion in this Etude that any butterfly would be swept away as if by a hurricane.”

What do pianists do with “The Butterfly” Etude? What Chopin intended. They practice to perfect gracefully flicking a broken, two-octave chord from the wrist on every single beat, save for two…when that butterfly finally lands? - Jennifer Foster

Radio Chopin Episode 123: Chopin Gets the Butterflies

Etude in G-flat Major, Op. 25, No. 9, 'Butterfly'