A banker by profession, Émile Gaillard was a friend of Chopin, and in his youth apparently the master’s best student. It is thanks to this association that we have two works by Chopin that he might otherwise never have written – one of which could so easily have got thrown away in the bin. More about that later…

There was a chance the Mazurka in A minor Chopin wrote for Gaillard might have remained a manuscript dedicated as a souvenir but it ended up being published in 1841. The publication did not get off to an especially auspicious start. It was originally given the opus number 43, but it turned out that had already been assigned to the Tarantella; nowadays the Mazurka “À Émile Gaillard” is known, somewhat unglamorously, as the Mazurka in A minor, KK II b No. 5. For me it’s a very nostalgic piece, and I especially admire the lovely B section with the RH in octaves and the way it ends on a long RH trill. Here is Vladimir Ashkenazy.

For the score, follow this link 

Chopin’s Own Pleyel Piano ©The Cobbe Collection

Sostenuto in E flat

When the ABRSM brought out its new piano syllabus earlier this year, I was delighted to discover a piece of Chopin suitable for the intermediate player, the Sostenuto in E flat, set for Grade V. Since there are very few “easy” works of Chopin, it struck me this was going to be a big hit with candidates. But where did this piece spring from – what is its background?

Imagine being an administrator at the Paris Conservatoire in the 1940s, one day sorting through a stack of musty old books in the corner of a library store room. By mid afternoon you’ve catalogued several, and your patience is wearing thin. You open the next tome on your desk and a single sheet of manuscript paper slides out and falls to the ground. I’ve used a bit of poetic licence here, but a similar scenario took place as recently as 1941 when Dr. Jacques Chailley discovered our Sostenuto in E flat – only it had no title and bore no inscription apart from a date of 20 July, 1840, and a dedication to Émile Gaillard. The volume was an album, a sort of scrapbook that had belonged to Gaillard, and the manuscript was written in Chopin’s own hand. Dr. Chailley brought it to the attention of the First International Musicological Congress (Devoted to the Works of Frederick Chopin), held in Warsaw in February 1960. Dr. Chailley proposed the title of Albumleaf, but today the piece is known either as Sostentuo in E flat or Waltz in E flat, KK IVb No. 10.

Sostenuto or Waltz?

Sostenuto literally means “sustained”,  with implications of a smoother, more lyrical approach than a waltz – and certainly a slower tempo. I imagine the committee that rejected Dr. Chailley’s Albumleaf suggestion (which is after all what it was) must have spent a little time puzzling over the genre of this little piece.

Is it closer in spirit to a nocturne?

Or to a waltz?

The good news is that this is entirely up to you! Some players might want to project the waltz-like feel of the piece and bring out its dance quality; others might prefer to underscore the lyrical character and play at a slower tempo and in a freer, dreamier way. Either is fine – please remember this when it comes to the interpretation of music! There is no one right way to play any work, and plenty of right ones. The main thing is that it has to be meaningful to you before the musical message can come across to your listener, so experiment with both ways and discover which interpretation feels right to you. You may even find you want to do it one way one day, and differently the next.

Dynamics?

Chopin added none. Does this mean we play grey or add our own? I hope the answer is obvious. Just as in works of Bach and the Baroque masters (who left so much to the performer) you will need to use your judgement and good taste to come up with a range of expression (dynamics, timing, etc.).

The piece poses a few challenges, not least how to project melodic lines – shaping them as a singer would – while keeping accompanimental material in the background. A natural feeling for Chopin’s rubato style (how the direction of the music ebbs and flows) and a legato cantabile touch are mandatory, as is correct use of the pedal (he didn’t notate that either!).

The double note passage in the RH at the end of the A section will need careful technical preparation, and the problem with LH grace notes, especially when it involves the stretch (in bar 19) can be solved by playing the acciaccatura as a semiquaver on the beat, catching it in a short pedal. In fact, I prefer all grace notes on the beat in this piece, but this is of course a matter of personal preference. At least one edition stipulates that grace notes must be on the beat – but this is clearly erroneous, given the number of celebrated performers who do otherwise (possibly far more celebrated than the editor who issued such an edict).

Officially, the A section should be repeated as a da capo after the B section; this is neither requested nor required by the ABRSM for the Grade V examination.

Online Academy Study Guides

We are in the process of publishing study guides to a number of ABRSM exam pieces, including the Sostenuto in E flat. You will find background notes as well as teaching notes, detailed practice suggestions with musical examples and video demonstrations, and a video walkthrough at the start of each publication. I hope these will be of practical help to teachers and students.

I am happy to share with you the walkthrough I made for this lovely little piece:

I end with a beautiful clip of Vladimir Ashkenazy playing the Sostenuto; I love the warmth and freedom he brings to it.

For the score, follow this link

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