Notes on the Études transcendantes

This page provides brief descriptive comments on all of Sorabji’s Études transcendantes (100) (1940-44; 456 pp.). As a rule, Sorabji uses a given figuration in one hand and accompanies it with contrasting material that generally features a melodic line in block voicing or fragmented motives featuring complex rhythms. The hands are later reversed and, towards the end, the main figuration is found in both hands in a more complex version. The following notes cannot explain all that happens in an etude, though the descriptions give a good idea of the style.

Numbers of pages are given in the case of extended etudes. See also a table showing which etudes consist of a certain number of pages and a list of first performances.

For another set of notes, currently limited to nos. 1-22, 25, 26, 28, 31, 32, 34, 37, 40, 45, 49, 50, 52, 55, 59, 64-67, 75, 76, 81, 83, 88, 89, and 92, see 100 Transcendental Etudes (1940-44): Comments by Fredrik Ullén on the Sorabji Archive’s website, which also contains timings and data on first performances. These comments were available until some time in 2009 as “Comments on some of the Transcendental Studies of Sorabji” (2003) on Ullén’s personal page at <http://www.fredrikullen.net/sorabji.htm> (site no longer online).

The Études transcendantes are currently being recorded by Fredrik Ullén on the BIS label:

  • Vol. 1, nos. 1-25 (January 2006), BIS-CD-1373
  • Vol. 2, nos. 26-43 (July 2009), BIS-CD-1533
  • Vol. 3, nos. 44-62 (September 2010), BIS-CD-1713
  • Vol. 4, nos. 63-74
  • Vol. 5, nos. 75-93
  • Vol. 6, nos. 94-100

 

Number Marking or Tempo Indication Comment
1 Mouvementé A more or less perpetual movement using groups of seven quavers, with a varying left hand.
2 Vivace e leggiero Slurred staccato quavers in both hands grouped by two, with an octave followed by a single note.
3 Two contrapuntal lines accompanied by two meandering lines in semiquaver triplets.
4 “Scriabinesco. Soave e con tenerezza nostalgica” Semiquaver septuplets in the right hand against quaver triplets in the left hand, which is the opposite of what Skryabin did in his Etude in E-flat major, op. 42, no. 8.
5 Staccato e leggiero Consists mostly of three- or four-note staccato chords in quaver triplets in both hands (and sometimes octaves in the left hand).
6 Groups of seconds, usually in groups of five staccato semiquavers in one hand, against single notes or chords in the other hand.
7 Leggiero abbastanza Groups of four sequentially repeated semiquavers in the one hand (octave followed by three single notes) against four-note chords in the other hand.
8 Runs in thirds in the right hand against single notes or thirds in the left hand.
9 Staccato e leggiero Staccato chords alternating between the hands, mostly in a high register.
10 Con brio ed impeto Cantus firmus–like melody in the left hand, in octaves, with semiquaver arpeggios in the right hand, often featuring passage of the fifth finger above the thumb in descending runs and of the thumb under the fifth finger in ascending ones. Arpeggios later appear in both hands. Surely a reference to Chopin’s Etude in C major, op. 10, no. 1.
11 Animato abbastanza Focuses on quaver triplets in both hands. No articulation specified until the “Avvivandosi poco a poco”, where staccato is called for.
12 Leggiero, quasi “saltando” Groups of four staccato semiquavers in both hands, with constantly varying intervals.
13 Delicate runs in demisemiquaver sextuplets, at first in the right hand, always alternating between two notes a minor second apart, with a slower melodic part in the left hand.
14 Tranquillamente soave Two-part right hand in groups of quavers (varying mostly between three and eight), with constantly varying intervals, with a slower left hand. The pattern is then inverted.
15 Scalar groups of staccato semiquaver quintuplets or groups of four notes in the style of a perpetual motion.
16 A study in fourths in one hand, while the other has contrasting material.
17 Molto accentato Groups of two and three accented chords in both hands alternate freely. A rare instance of a piece with a time signature (18/8) and a metronomic indication (quaver = 80).
18 Liscio, tranquillamente scorrevole A study in fifths in one hand, while the other has contrasting material.
19 Saltando e leggiero Groups of four staccato semiquavers in one hand (the first and fourth of which are octaves) while the second and third are triads, with octaves in the left hand (with notes on the first and fourth semiquavers of each group).
20 Con fantasia Delicate, “Oriental”-sounding runs in the right hand, alternating between held notes and very rapid groups in irrational rhythms, with a melodic line in the middle register accompanied by quaver triplets in the left hand.
21 Con eleganza e disinvoltura A study in sixths in one hand, while the other has contrasting material.
22 Leggiero, volante e presto assai In demisemiquavers throughout, with two-note “chordal glissandos” (one semitone apart) in one hand, alternating with groups of four notes in the other hand.
23 Dolcemente scorrevole Groups of six semiquavers in one hand against groups of three quavers in the other. The faster part then uses three groups of semiquaver triplets. The lines notated in groups of six and nine semiquavers are latter pitted against five quavers played in the time of three.
24 Con fantasia e grazia A study in minor sevenths in one hand, while the other has contrasting material.
25 Vivace e secco Consists of (mostly) four-note quaver chords in both hands, always separated by a quaver rest, all marked marcato and staccato. Later one hand plays two semiquavers for each quaver until both hands use the same gesture.
26 Dolcissimo A nocturne-like study (8 pp.) using an accompaniment motive in fifths in the right hand, while the left hand plays a sustaining harmony and chromatic melodic lines in single notes, octaves, or chords.
27 Staccato e leggiero a capriccio A study in minor sevenths in one hand, while the other has contrasting material.
28 Leggiero e volante A chord is followed by a rapid group of ascending or descending demisemiquavers leading usually to a two-note quaver group.
29 A capriccio A study featuring chords systematically preceded by a grace note (consisting of a single note, a dyad, or a triad) in one hand with a staccato accompaniment in the other until both hands are united to play the main gesture.
30 Con fantasia A study in major sevenths in one hand, while the other has contrasting material.
31 Vivace assai A bariolé-like semiquaver motive in one hand against a melodic line, mostly in crotchets, in the other.
32 Legato [quanto] possibile, quasi dolce A meandering chromatic line harmonized in block voicing throughout, with a corresponding line in the left hand, in groups of two or three chords.
33 Vivace e brioso An energetic study in octaves in one hand or the other, with only partly stepwise motion, while the other hand plays mostly four-note chords. Concludes with a two-voice fugato in octaves in both hands.
34 Soave e dolce, insinuante Features a meandering line in groups of five quavers against three crotchets marked “6:5”, i.e., six quavers (though written as three crotchets) in the time of the five quavers in the other part.
35 A two-voice counterpoint in the left hand against an accompaniment gesture in groups of semiquavers consisting of light staccato triads alternating with single notes.
36 “Mano sinistra sempre sola” A left-hand piece concluding with a three-part fughetta (marked “Sempre mano sinistra sola” to make sure that this still applies). The subject, as noted by Alistair Hinton, “sets up an elegant false expectation of the fugue from the Brahms-Handel Variations”.
37 “Riflessioni” An etude focussing on irregular scalar gestures, with the left hand consisting throughout of a symmetric inversion of the right hand.
38 Con fantasia A study in minor ninths in one hand, while the other has contrasting material.
39 An etude in double notes, in staccato semiquavers, with constantly changing and expanding intervals (for instance beginning with a single note and proceeding to a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth).
40 Moderato Long series of four-note chords played as an accompaniment to drawn-out melodic lines in slower note values (very often triplet crotchets).
41 Written throughout in semiquavers, pitting sextuplets against groups of four, then five notes.
42 Impetuoso e con fuoco ed energia An etude in which figurations constantly alternate between octaves and single notes. Uses multi-note dotted and reversed dotted rhythms.
43 Focuses on constantly expanding and contracting melodic movements (crab-like gestures), with extensive use of superimposition of complex irrational rhythms.
44 An extensive nocturne (16 pp.) replete with complex figurations and rhythms.
45 Features chords in demisemiquavers alternating between the hands.
46 Focuses on arpeggios in both hands, throughout in interlocking patterns of melodic fourths, for example, D-G-C-A-D-G.
47 Leggiero e a capriccio Pits three staccato quavers consisting of alternating seconds and octaves against arpeggios and scalar figures played in groups of six semiquavers (often with silent notes).
48 Volante Swift scalar gestures in both directions alternating between the hands. The single notes then become thirds, sixths, fifths, and finally fourths.
49 Vivace ma non troppo Fast scalar movements in semiquavers in one hand against three- or four-note chords in the other.
50 “Per il pedale 3” For the Steinway piano’s middle (sostenuto) pedal, which is used to hold chords in long values. The writing, in quavers throughout, proceeds in free (i.e., not symmetric) inversion.
51 Crab-like figurations in multi-note dotted and reversed dotted rhythms and arpeggio and scalar figures.
52 A four-voice study in which one hand plays two parts in quaver triplets while the other has two parts in semiquavers. In each case complementary rhythms are used so that the lower part holds a note while the top one is active.
53 A capriccio Focuses on double dotted rhythms consisting of an octave followed by a smaller interval (often a third) against fast three-note arpeggio figures involving stretches.
54 A linear study with usually two parts in each hand, featuring mostly quavers and semiquavers.
55 Calls for a staccato part in semiquavers using a figure consisting of two octave leaps in opposite directions a semitone apart (e.g., F4-F3-E3-E4) in one hand while the other plays snatches of melodic lines in three-note chords.
56 Moderato Focuses on octaves plus a roving inner voice in one hand against chords in the other.
57 A study in broken intervals larger than the octave in both hands.
58 Leggiero Repeated single notes and intervals in groups of two in one hand against single notes or chords in the other.
59 Quasi fantasia A moderate-size nocturne (9 pp.) with the usual irrational rhythms but using quaver quintuplets extensively.
60 Saltando, leggiero A staccato gesture in groups of two semiquavers with constantly varying intervals serves as an accompaniment to a “declamato” meandering melodic line.
61 Focuses on multi-note (usually five or six) dotted and reversed dotted rhythms.
62 A study in double notes with constantly varying intervals in one hand, where the first and last intervals of each group are octaves.
63 “En forme de valse. Leggiero con disinvoltura” In triple time throughout, with a few exceptions; an extensive piece (20 pp.) in the style of the Valse-fantaisie for Piano (1925; 16 pp.).
64 Focuses on gestures consisting of groups of two slurred semiquavers (octave followed by single note above or, more often, below).
65 Swift scalar demisemiquavers in one hand against groups of four triads in semiquavers in the other.
66 A slow etude featuring arpeggiated chords spread over several octaves surrounding a free melody with irrational rhythms.
67 A melodic line with block voicing written predominantly in crotchets against an accompaniment using mostly quavers.
68 Sotto voce A study in fast crab-like figurations in staccato semiquavers.
69 “La punta [recte Il punto] d’organo” An extended nocturne (16 pp.) with a soft A pedal throughout, mostly in the middle register.
70 “Rythmes brisés” Short, rapid figurations separated by brief rests.
71 “Aria” An extended nocturne (10 pp.), with the quaver as the main rhythmic unit.
72 “Canonica” A series of eight short canons.
73 “Quasi Preludio-corale. Sonorità piena, morbida e dolcissima. Legatissimo” A moderate-size etude (7 pp.) based on a long theme using mostly minims (tonal centre of G major) and treated as a passacaglia. Consists of two long sections ending in a climax.
74 “Ostinato” Forty-nine statements of a staccato motive in quavers followed by a quaver rest in the low register, each corresponding to one bar; treated as a passacaglia.
75 “Passacaglia”
An extended study (24 pp.) consisting of one hundred variations on a one-bar theme based with a tonal centre of B. The theme appears first in the low register (vars. 1-50), then in the middle one (vars. 51-75), and finally in the upper register (vars. 76-100). Vars. 85 and 86 are marked “Canonico” and “Per inversionem”.
76 “Imitationes” A motive in rapid note values is played in one hand and taken up by the other hand in a transposition.
77 “Mouvement semblable et perpétuel. Scorrevole” A perpetual movement in septuplets at a distance of two octaves.
78 Leggiero e veloce Arpeggio figures alternate between the hands; double notes are added in the final section.
79 “The inlaid line. Legatissimo il tema melodico” A continuous melodic line, mostly in crotchets, is surrounded by semiquaver staccato single or repeated chords in both hands.
80 “La linea melodica. Mormorando sordamente” A continuous melodic line, mostly in minims, is played against an accompaniment in quintuplet quavers. It is then doubled at a distance of two octaves, with double notes added as the piece progresses.
81 “The suspensions. Lento quasi adagio e gravemente solenne” Slow-moving chords in both hands, mostly in minims or semibreves, with an accompanying line featuring suspensions.
82 Sordamente e oscuramente minaccioso Constant movement of semiquavers usually moving within a very small interval and mostly in the low register against a melodic line in chords.
83 “Arpeggiated 4ths” Consists entirely of arpeggiated fourths and of chords built out of this interval. Makes extensive use of irrational rhythms.
84 “Quasi tango habanera. Leggiero, con grazia indolente” A very free extended habanera (9 pp.) concluding with an extended “Brioso” section written on four staves.
85 Rapid scalar gestures in semiquavers against melodic lines (mostly) in three-note chords.
86 Adagietto. Legatissimo A melodic line (mostly) in crotchets against a figuration consisting of a dyad or a three-note chord followed by a single note (slurred pairs often beamed into larger groups).
87 “Studio gammatico” Scales played at an interval other than the octave, starting or arriving on chords in long note values or series of chords.
88 A surprisingly simple etude emphasizing dotted rhythms.
89 “Chopsticks. Vivace” Rapid alternating movement between the hands, first in single notes, then double notes, and finally three- and four-note chords.
90 Stride-like gestures in one hand against figurations written mostly in groups of semiquavers.
91 Volante, leggiero Long notes tied to groups of hemidemisemiquavers against triplet figures emphasizing leaps.
92 Legato [quanto] possibile. Velato, misterioso A very simple etude in groups of seven quavers throughout; uses mostly four-note chords in parallel movement in each hand.
93 Leggiero, saltando Emphasizes “reverse stride-like gestures” against double-note staccato arpeggios.
94 “Ornaments. Con fantasia” Melodic line ornamented with grace notes supported by scale or arpeggio figurations.
95 A fast study emphasizing arpeggios built of thirds.
96 Broken chord semiquaver figurations in the right hand against an accompaniment figure in quavers in the left hand involving wide intervals.
97 An etude featuring single notes, thirds, fourths, or sixths in groups of four semiquavers (with one additional note on the first semiquaver of each group) in one hand against contrasting material (or double notes) in the other hand.
98 Staccato e vivace An expansive toccata-like etude in four-note quaver chords in both hands.
99 “Quasi fantasia (nello stile della Fantasia cromatica di Giovanni Sebastiano). Scorrevole” An extended pastiche (21 pp.) of the Chromatic Fantasia, BWV 903, by Johann Sebastian Bach, and a cousin of the Transcription in the Light of Harpsichord Technique for the Modern Piano of the Chromatic Fantasia of J. S. Bach, Followed by a Fugue (1940; 15 pp.).
100 “Coda-Finale. Fuga a cinque soggetti” A massive etude (51 pp.) in which the first fugue is written for two (MS: pp. 406-10; ED: pp. 783-88), then three (pp. 410-14; 789-94), four (pp. 414-17; 795-802), five (pp. 418-26; 803-16), and six voices (pp. 426-56; 817-64).

The climax is spread on systems with five and then six staves (MS: pp. 439-52, 452-56). Alexander Abercrombie’s edition, with the exception of two systems written on four staves, uses five staves in these final pages; this shows that systems as Sorabji wrote them are not always essential.
Last modified: 2014-09-12
© Marc-André Roberge 2014
Sorabji Resource Site (SRS)
Faculté de musique, Université Laval, Québec

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