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Great Piano Works Explained

Discover the magnificent works for solo piano in the classical tradition and deepen your understanding and enjoyment of these great creations.
Great Piano Works Explained is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 52.
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Rated 4 out of 5 by from Marvelous Course Somewhat Marred by Social Agenda Catherine Kautsky is obviously an accomplished, brilliant woman and I am not. (musically speaking, anyway) Here are my reactions to this course for whatever they may be worth to anyone. I learned a great deal. I enjoyed her discussion and beautiful playing of the works she chose to highlight. She has an engaging persona and great passion for the work and enthusiam for teaching and sharing that passion. She seems to posess an almost childlike sense of discovery in the music which, to me, is an essential quality in any artist or teacher. I am an older actor, (writer, acting teacher, director) who has loved much of this music for decades even without “understanding” it. Though I have “understood” it with my heart, and taken many emotional journeys with it, I can now say I understand it much better than I did before with my intellect. It was time very well spent. But I do have a couple of reservations. On the one hand, I applaud Kautsky for taking the time to put the music in its historical and artistic context. She lets us know what was going on in the world and in the arts at the time of composition. I found that wonderful and insightful. She is also impressively well-read and conversant in many artforms which she interrelates with the music. But within this framing, she, at times, engages in “presentism”, the recent habit in our society (especiallly academia) of judging things by our current view rather than engaging with them in the understanding of their time. Thus, we are informed with a sweet smile and a shrug whle discussing Poulenc, that poor Babar was a colonialist oppressor. (My conclusion from her presentation, implied, I felt, by her.) Her discussion of current-day racial strife (accompanied at one point by BLM protest photography) is not really relevant or insightful to the actual music she was analyzing in its own time. Pointing out once or twice the discrimination against people of color and women is certainly legitimate and welcome to understanding their underrepresentation in the repertoire, (which I thought was excellently well-done with Clara Schumann) but Kautsky is a bit heavy-handed about it overall. She is on a soapox. Charmingly so, but a soapbox nonetheless. We get it. My husband remarked “Well, maybe she just doesn’t want to be cancelled.” And that highlighted the point that she is in academia and this was made in 2022 during the time of the fiercest intolerance in the DEI movement. Professors had to sign agreements agreeing to its orthodoxies or face losing thier jobs on campuses across the country. They still do. So that puts this whole course in that perspective. As much as she discusses what was going on in the time the music was composed, so, too, should we consider the time in which this course was filmed. I know I am spending too much time on this in proportion to the space it occupies in this otherwise marvelous course. But it feels like being lectured to in a way the rest of the course does not, rankles a bit, and can get under one’s skin causing one to lose patience. Finally, I am not terribly musically sophisticated and freely admit my limitations in comprehending the excitement she feels about modern atonal (if that’s the right word) composers. I know she was trying to teach me something about Goerge Crumb but I just didn’t get it. I would have liked some George Gershwin and Aaron Copeland. That would have “tickled my toes” along with Florence Price.
Date published: 2024-01-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautiful music and lecture I play the piano as a hobby and I am in heaven listening to these lectures. I just finished the two lectures on Chopin, so beautifully played. She goes over the pieces in detail but also plays a portion of the piece for the listener. I will definitely be looking for more of her lectures, especially on Chopin, one of my favorite composers!
Date published: 2023-11-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Informative and inspiring! A pianist and teacher by profession, I have taken many courses on piano literature - yet I am still finding new information and insights within this wonderful course. In a single lecture, Catherine Kautsky brings in many composers and pieces that have influenced (or been influenced by) the work at hand, and distills this wealth information into focus on her main point. She covers basic foundations of musical analysis in new and engaging ways (i.e. presenting Sonata Form as a “battle” between the “king” tonic and “prince” dominant keys), and brings the composers and their personalities to life - for instance, quoting Beethoven in saying that “second to romantic love, surprise is the emotion dearest” to his heart. Giving musical examples in her own beautiful and heartfelt playing, Ms. Kautsky takes the music apart into its smallest elements (scales, arpeggios, rhythms, keys, themes) and brings it back together into a whole we can make sense of. I would recommend this to anyone with a passion for the piano, from eager students (and I have recommended this to my students to help them find joy and meaning in the Classical style) to adult amateurs and professionals with an interest in building their knowledge and understanding.
Date published: 2023-10-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I'm Loving This! I have a modest musical background and am thoroughly enjoying this course! Dr. Kautsky's detailed explanations of each composition have been a revelation for me. I always have enjoyed hearing the pieces that she presents, but never realized the complexities of the composers' thought process as they constructed their masterpiece. Very well done! Thank you!
Date published: 2023-08-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Brilliant Professor/Pianist Professor Kautsky is a charming, interesting, and knowledgeable lecturer and a skilled pianist. I enjoyed getting to know the various pieces she played and dissected. I suspect I would have learned even more had I first mastered some of the more basic music courses offered.
Date published: 2023-06-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Love Listeners from beginners to advanced will be equally charmed, captured, captivated by Dr. Kautsky’s lectures. She illustrates her examples with a grace and skill that makes this course suitable even if you are new to musical notation and interpretation. In the last, we were propelled, transported by her love for the subject.
Date published: 2023-06-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing That one person could both teach the history of these works AND play such a wide range of that music made it a very special learning experience.
Date published: 2023-05-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Unique Encompassing presentation As a pianist I thoroughly enjoyed this series. Would I have liked changes? Of course, she ignored Chopin's Scherzos, Etudes and Sonatas and Rachmaninoff's Etude-Tableau. I missed Faure, Szymanowski and others. But the host excelled at the evolution of the piano and its music. This plus her unique personal feelings on the composer and the pieces was outstanding. I didn't mind not showing the score while playing. She intended this as lecture - not demonstration. My only suggestion is using snippets from other pianists to demonstrate (for example) Liszt's (and Lyapunov's - another no show) transcendental etudes or perhaps Lugansky with the Etude-Tableaus or even Horowitz for any number of pieces.
Date published: 2023-05-26
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The glorious repertoire for solo piano includes many of classical music’s most beloved masterpieces. In this course, you’ll study key works of many composers, from Bach and Mozart through music written in the 21st century, and unpack their structure, the musical materials that drive them, and the specific features that affect listeners so strongly, giving you a clear grounding in how to approach and hear this great music.


Catherine Kautsky

Of all the musical instruments in the western world, the piano can do far and away the most things.


Lawrence University

Catherine Kautsky is the George and Marjorie Olsen Chandler Professor of Music and the Chair of Keyboard at Lawrence University. She earned her Master of Music degree from The Juilliard School and her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Stony Brook University. She is a performer, teacher, writer, and lecturer who has performed and given classes on six continents, winning accolades for both her playing and her far-ranging commentary. The New York Times lauded her as “a pianist who can play Mozart and Schubert as though their sentiments and habits of musical speech coincided exactly with hers.”

By This Professor

Great Piano Works Explained
Great Piano Works Explained


J. S. Bach and The Well-Tempered Clavier

01: J. S. Bach and The Well-Tempered Clavier

Begin the course with the sublime keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Learn about the musical form of the fugue, based in the interplay of different musical lines or “voices,” employing a basic musical idea or subject in successive variations. Study two of Bach’s fugues and contemplate his genius in using their formal materials to create music of astonishing beauty and dramatic power.

30 min
Bach’s French Suites

02: Bach’s French Suites

Delve into the riches of Bach’s dance suites, multi-part works built on simple musical elements. In his French Suite No. 5 in G major, study the individual movements, from the peaceful Allemande and the lively Courante to the pensive Sarabande and the final, joyous Gigue. Grasp how Bach creates endless variations of motion, rhythm, texture, and tension/resolution in this magical keyboard piece.

36 min
Joseph Haydn’s Early Classical Piano

03: Joseph Haydn’s Early Classical Piano

Take a first look at sonata form, a key formal structure in classical music. In Haydn’s brilliant Sonata in C Minor, see how the first movement leads from the opening exposition through development and recapitulation, and how Haydn uses musical detours, transitions, and tonal modulations to create an engrossing and often surprising musical narrative, bearing his own unique expressive signature.

35 min
Mozart’s High Classical Piano

04: Mozart’s High Classical Piano

Enter the world of Mozart’s superlative writing for the piano. In excerpts from his piano sonatas, observe how he creates perfectly balanced phrases, making exquisite use of the musical conventions of the classical era. Find the essence of his musical voice in his use of melodies, drawing on the lyricism of opera, and his ability to move seamlessly from one emotional state to another.

31 min
Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor, K. 457

05: Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor, K. 457

From the dramatic opening of the great C Minor Sonata, hear how the sonata functions as a dynamic conversation between opposing ideas, expressed in the interaction of different musical voices and themes. Learn about the uses of the pedals in piano music, about Mozart’s markings in the score, and the slurs (the linking of notes), harmonies, and modulations that give this passionate work its power.

36 min
Beethoven’s Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1

06: Beethoven’s Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1

Witness how the composer challenged expectations in this piece by enlarging the structure of the sonata and infusing it with more drama and contrast than previous composers had done. See how Beethoven ingeniously uses small musical ideas to create huge structures, fusing logic and emotion with unforgettable expressive force, and using longer forms, louder dynamics, and combustible energy to distinguish himself from his classical predecessors.

37 min
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, Movt. 1

07: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, Movt. 1

In this late Beethoven masterpiece, travel into the architecture of the first movement, to see how the composer creates a compelling musical narrative. Follow the unfolding themes, their development through multiple modulations, and the uncanny return to the original tonality that make the movement a remarkable journey. Then hear the complete movement, in Professor Kautsky’s sensitive playing.

38 min
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, Movts. 2–3

08: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, Movts. 2–3

In the majestic conclusion of the sonata, Professor Kautsky guides you through the short and dramatic second movement, leading into the mournful melody which begins the finale, and from there to the great concluding fugue. In Professor Kautsky’s playing, hear how the earlier lament returns, before the fugue surges back to life, ending the sonata on a glorious note of triumph and victory.

29 min
The Songs of Franz Schubert

09: The Songs of Franz Schubert

As a core element of Schubert’s keyboard writing, look at his use of modulations, the changes of key and tonality that infuse his music. Grasp how he uses modulations for expressive purposes, to evoke the boundaries between emotions. See this at work in two of his famous songs, as they move between minor and major, and also in the beautiful and haunting Impromptu Opus 90 No. 4.

25 min
Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960

10: Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960

Find the expression of Schubert’s genius in the first movement of this beloved and iconic sonata. From the luminous opening theme, hear how the music moves from serenity to joy, passionate exultation, sorrow, and beyond—a journey through unexpected keys, silences, unfinished thoughts, and unpredictable outcomes, raising questions rather than offering answers.

31 min
Robert Schumann’s Romantic Dream World

11: Robert Schumann’s Romantic Dream World

As a first encounter with Romantic piano music, learn about Schumann’s piano “cycles,” multipart episodic pieces that allowed him to express himself freely. In his great Kreisleriana, Papillons, and Carnaval, hear how he speaks through different musical personas and musical “codes,” creating solo piano works of profound sentiment; harmonic freedom; and wild, unbridled imagination.

31 min
Clara Schumann and the Plight of Women Composers

12: Clara Schumann and the Plight of Women Composers

Look into the phenomenon of women composers, particularly in the 19th century, and take account of the cultural thinking and lack of musical education that barred most women from composing music. Hear nocturnes by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, noting their originality of phrase structure and harmonies, and consider whether these works may represent promise not wholly fulfilled.

32 min
Frédéric Chopin: Piano’s Quintessential Romantic

13: Frédéric Chopin: Piano’s Quintessential Romantic

Travel into the poetic and passionate universe of Chopin’s piano music, and his unique, sensuous use of the instrument. In sampling the astonishing expressive range of his piano writing, hear the otherworldly dissonance of his Prelude No. 2, and the undulating waltz Opus 69 No. 1, before concentrating on his mazurkas, iconic Polish dances which reveal Chopin’s emotionally complex sensibility.

33 min
Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades

14: Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades

Contemplate the ethereal beauty of Chopin’s famous Nocturne in Db major. Grasp how the use of rubato (rhythmic flexibility), pedaling, and exquisite modulations contribute to the piece’s hypnotic atmosphere. In the majestic Ballade in F minor, hear how Chopin propels two themes through a richly diverse musical journey filled with longing, leading to a fiery, transcendent conclusion.

36 min
Johannes Brahms: Piano’s Dark Poet

15: Johannes Brahms: Piano’s Dark Poet

As an exemplar of the expressive landscape of Brahms’s piano music, delve into the six pieces of his Opus 118. Begin with the heartfelt Intermezzo No. 2 whose sinuous melodies, counterpoint, and inner voices flow so naturally. Take in the enormous range of emotion and mood in these pieces, from the turbulent No. 1 to the eerie No. 6, as they reveal Brahms’s incomparable musical voice.

38 min
Franz Liszt: The Consummate Pianist

16: Franz Liszt: The Consummate Pianist

Take the measure of Franz Liszt as a larger-than-life pianistic showman, the greatest virtuoso of his age, and an innovative composer with a vast command of the resources of the instrument. Experience Liszt’s piano writing in his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, drawn from Roma themes, and his Petrarch Sonnet No. 104, a haunting tone poem on unrequited love which dazzles with its sonic textures.

28 min
The Rise of the Russian Pianists

17: The Rise of the Russian Pianists

Learn about the riches of the Russian school of piano playing, through two remarkable composers. Taste the lush melodies and grand pianism of Sergei Rachmaninoff through his Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No.5. Also, hear the piano creations of Aleksandr Scriabin, from his early, Romantic-inspired Étude Op. 2 No. 1 to his late, strikingly modernist preludes, in Professor Kautsky’s evocative playing.

29 min
Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern

18: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern

Experience the music of three Viennese modernists, reflecting the dislocations of the early 20th century and a desire to explore the unconscious. Hear Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke from 1911 with its rejection of traditional tonality and aura of psychic disorder. Continue with Berg’s neo-romantic and dreamlike Piano Sonata, Op.1, and taste Webern’s austere yet expressive Piano Variations.

43 min
Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune”

19: Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune”

In approaching Debussy’s sensual Claire de Lune, learn about the artistic climate of Belle Époque Paris that influenced the composer, and his own musical personality, which sought new sounds and forms. Hear how Claire de Lune seems to exist outside of time, and note how Debussy uses supple rhythm, undulating lines and sustained pedaling to evoke a sonic atmosphere of dreams and the unknowable.

37 min
The Preludes of Debussy

20: The Preludes of Debussy

Investigate the sensibility that imbues Debussy’s music; his attraction to apparitions, reverie, and exoticism, and how he makes these manifest in his piano Preludes. Witness how he uses harmonies suggesting Javanese music in Voiles (Veils) and evokes Egypt in Canope and Spain in La Puerta del Vino. Finish with the mercurial “General Lavine” - excentric -, portraying a famous Parisian circus clown.

36 min
French Piano in the Early 20th Century

21: French Piano in the Early 20th Century

France produced a spectrum of groundbreaking piano music in the new century. Encounter the striking originality and tonal beauty of Maurice Ravel in his Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and Tombeau de Couperin. Then, come to grips with the wildly eccentric Erik Satie and meet the whimsical Francis Poulenc, who created piano music that often chooses irony, parody, and humor over introspection.

32 min
Charles Ives, Sergei Prokofiev, and Béla Bartók

22: Charles Ives, Sergei Prokofiev, and Béla Bartók

Here, encounter three 20th-century giants who forged new pathways while honoring traditional musical forms. Begin with the contemplative third movement of Ives’s iconic Concord Sonata, evoking the family home of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott. Continue with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 3, blending romanticism with dissonant modernism, and the percussive, modal textures of Bartók’s Rumanian Folk Dances and Mikrokosmos.

26 min
Marginalized Composers

23: Marginalized Composers

This lecture shines a light on composers who have been marginalized because of race, gender, or class. First, hear the remarkable Adagio in F minor by Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, an 18th-century Black composer. Follow with the eerie Prelude No. 6 by Ruth Crawford Seeger; works by the African American composer Florence Price; and Frederic Rzewski’s musical homage to Oscar Wilde, which uses both music and spoken text.

31 min
New Sounds for a New Century

24: New Sounds for a New Century

Finish the course with three highly contrasting works of recent times. First, hear Spatials, by African American composer George Walker, an electric and atonal set of variations on an original theme. Follow that with George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, in which the pianist plays with thimbles and metal chains on the inside of the piano. Conclude with Jörg Widmann’s dreamlike Idyll and Abyss, which evokes the spirit of Schubert in 21st-century language and brings the course full circle.

36 min