Doctor of Musical Arts Dissertations


The Piano Etudes of David Rakowski

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA)


Contemporary Music

First Advisor

Laura Melton

Second Advisor

Per Broman (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Robert Satterlee (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Sara Worley (Committee Member)


Since the early history of piano music the etude has played an important role in the instrument's repertoire. The genre has grown from technical exercises to virtuosic concert pieces. During the twentieth century, new movements in music were reflected in the etudes of Debussy, Stravinsky and Messiaen, to mention a few. In the past fifty years, Bolcom and Ligeti have continued this trend, taking the piano etude to yet another level. Their etudes reflect the aesthetics and process of modernist and postmodernist composition, featuring complex rhythms, new techniques in pitch and harmonic organization, a variety of new extended techniques, and an often-unprecedented level of difficulty.

David Rakowski is a prolific composer of contemporary piano etudes, having completed a cycle of one hundred piano etudes during the past twenty-two years. By mixing his own modernist aesthetic with jazz, rock, and pop-culture influences, Rakowski has created a set of etudes that are both challenging to the pianist and approachable for the audience. The etudes have drawn the attention of several leading pianists in the contemporary field, most notably Marilyn Nonken and Amy Briggs, who are currently recording the entire set. Because of pianistic difficulty, approachability for the listener, and interest of noted pianists, Rakowski's etudes seem destined for recognition in the contemporary standard repertoire. This doctoral document is the first to focus on the completed set of etudes and also provides the first method of categorization for the etudes.

In his etudes, Rakowski explored both traditional pianistic problems as well as the challenges of new music. The purpose of this study is to explore the relationship between Rakowski's piano etudes, other contemporary etudes, and the traditional etude of past historical periods. The first chapter of this document consists of a historical and musical overview of the most important piano etudes in the standard repertory. The rest of the document consists of a more focused look at Rakowski's etudes, providing an overview of styles, techniques, influences, and difficulties in the music. I have described the aesthetic and technical challenge of each etude and have placed them into categories based on their technical challenges. While the categories were my own invention, my decisions concerning the categorical placement of specific etudes were based on information gathered through secondary sources, interviews with Dr. Rakowski, and personal analysis and performances of the etudes.