Who would believe the Chopin Etude, Op. 10 no. 3, opening with a somber melody that melts the heart away, would venture into the devil’s realm with a splash of “tritones.”
Music historians characterize the interval of a “tritone” (A whole step progression of three notes) as the diabolus in musica.
Dating back to medieval times it was difficult to sing this interval, known as an augmented 4th, that came to suggest evil. (Paraphrase, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music by Michael Kennedy)
Willi Apel, author of the Harvard Dictionary of Music, Revised second edition, states that “the tritone has always been considered a dangerous interval to be avoided or treated with great caution.”
So why did Chopin include a cascade of tritones amidst a heavenly universe of mellifluous melody?
I would guess that the composer needed a dramatic contrast to the opener. He wanted to engage the listener and perk up his ears. Why not expose him to the devil’s animus.
In the Chopin Etude, Op. 10 no. 3, harmonic or vertical tritones in half step, chromatic movement, build to still another attention grabbing series of chromatic sixths played in contrary motion between the hands. This forte ( loud) con bravura section is the apex of the composition, followed by a gradual return to the hauntingly melancholic opening theme.
Words cannot amply express the beauty of this Etude even with the devil intertwined.
Performed by Valentina Ishogina: