Episode 152: Chopin's Gallopin' Gertie Etude

Etude in C minor, Op. 25, No. 12

rc-gertie-200“The thunder and spray of the sea;” “a gigantic play of chimes;” “the sound of great guns” – what some have heard in Chopin’s Etude in C minor, Op 25, No. 12. This is the work of the frail, sickly Chopin hovering over the keyboard?

What’s going on here? How does Chopin achieve this larger-than-piano effect? The answer has something in common with an infamous 1940 engineering disaster.

Newsreel Announcer: “The eleven-thousand ton center span twists and strains the giant cables that support it…as the bridge gyrates like a nightmare high above the river, twisting, turning, curling…Steel girders buckle and giant cables snap like puny strands…There it goes!"

What does the Tacoma Narrows Bridge Disaster have in common with Chopin’s force-of-nature etude? Both are studies in resonance and its consequences. The bridge they called “Gallopin’ Gertie” was known to move up in down in the wind. About four months after it opened, a high wind blew right at Gertie’s resonant frequency. All day. The structure began to oscillate from the mounting vibrations and eventually collapsed.

Now, Chopin’s Etude in C minor won’t break your piano, but it does exploit the same kind of vibrational energy produced by resonant repetition. The right hand sweeps relentlessly up and down the keyboard – like that wind blowing across Gertie - while the left hand tolls a thunderous melody.

Combine these forces with Chopin’s stroke of genius - to end in an emphatic major key? Not collapse, but an audience leaping to its feet. - Jennifer Foster

Radio Chopin Episode 152: Chopin's 'Gallopin Gertie' Etude

Etude in C minor, Op. 25, No. 12