The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works

The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works
Course Trailer
Piano Starts Here!
1: Piano Starts Here!

Begin by reflecting on the life of the concert pianist and the extraordinary rigors and demands of this unique profession within the music world. Then trace the history of the harpsichord, the piano's predecessor, and how the piano, capable of a huge sonic range, evolved from its beginnings in 1700 into the modern concert instrument. Consider the range of composers included in this course and the ...

50 min
J. S. Bach-The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One
2: J. S. Bach-The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One

As a point of entry to this vastly influential work, learn about the aesthetic of the High Baroque, with its duality of exuberant expression and intellectual control. Define the highly controlled fugue as a "polyphonic" musical form, and the free-form prelude that precedes each fugue in Bach's scheme. Then explore the "well tempered" tuning system and Bach's encyclopedic use of musical genres in t...

49 min
J. S. Bach-Goldberg Variations
3: J. S. Bach-Goldberg Variations

Trace the roots of this iconic masterpiece and the purported circumstances of its creation. Penetrate its complexity by digging into its "concentric" structure-the groups of variations and larger divisions in the material that form the work's musical architecture. In particular, discover the remarkable "trinities"- successive groups of three variations, each trinity comprising character pieces, to...

50 min
Mozart-Piano Sonata in C Minor, K. 457
4: Mozart-Piano Sonata in C Minor, K. 457

In realizing the expressive scope of his keyboard compositions, Mozart single-handedly enlarged the scale, virtuosity, and importance of the piano sonata. Track Mozart's rise as a keyboard prodigy and his transition from the harpsichord to writing music specifically conceived for the piano. Through the great C Minor Sonata, grasp his lyric, operatic use of the piano; rich melodic variety; dynamic ...

46 min
Beethoven-The Appassionata Sonata
5: Beethoven-The Appassionata Sonata

First, learn how Beethoven's relationship with the organ led to the orchestral power and sonority of his piano works. Also trace how the Appassionata grew from the composer's psychological self-reinvention following his tragic hearing loss. In the sonata's opening, see how Beethoven creates a compelling dramatic narrative through persistent dissonances and ambiguous harmonies. Witness how the chor...

48 min
Beethoven-Diabelli Variations, Op. 120
6: Beethoven-Diabelli Variations, Op. 120

Arguably the greatest of all works for solo piano, these glorious variations were written on an invitation from composer Anton Diabelli. Grasp the extraordinary ways in which Beethoven varies the theme, using allusion, humor, and parody. Follow the progression of the three groups of variations, from the first group's cumulative unfolding to the second group's dissociations and contrasts, leading t...

51 min
Schubert-Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major
7: Schubert-Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major

Among relevant details of the composer's life, learn about Schubert's tragic struggle with ill health, Beethoven's influence as a role model, and the importance of song in the character of Schubert's music. In the beloved B-flat Major Sonata, delineate the three ravishing thematic melodies that compose the first movement. Savor the nostalgic melancholy and slow-changing harmonies of the three-part...

48 min
Chopin-Preludes, Op. 28
8: Chopin-Preludes, Op. 28

As context for studying the music of Chopin, delve into the aesthetics of 19th-century Romanticism, its emphasis on self-expression, and its model of the artist-hero. Also glimpse Chopin's painstaking process of creation in the writing of the preludes. Discover the lyric intimacy, harmonic ingenuity, and expressive nuance of these exquisite miniatures, as each prelude evokes a single emotional env...

49 min
Chopin-Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23
9: Chopin-Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23

Chopin's music for the piano was directly impacted by the evolution of the instrument itself. First, study two innovations in piano design that produced more powerful and resonant pianos, and grasp the symbiotic relationship between Chopin the pianist and Chopin the composer. Take apart the musical architecture of the G Minor Ballade, focusing on its unusual thematic structure, to see how Chopin c...

48 min
Schumann-Kreisleriana
10: Schumann-Kreisleriana

Trace the origins of this landmark of Romanticism in Schumann's fascination with the novels of E. T. A. Hoffman, his anguished courtship of future wife Clara Wieck, and his impulse to create art that fused music, literature, and autobiography. In the eight extraordinary movements of Kreisleriana, consider how Schumann writes a spiritual diary in sound, using expressive thematic melodies and harmon...

51 min
Liszt-Years of Pilgrimage
11: Liszt-Years of Pilgrimage

This lecture explores the phenomenal legacy of Franz Liszt as piano virtuoso, composer, and innovator in piano writing. Encounter the passionate, demonic figure of Liszt, the ultimate virtuoso-hero, packing concert halls and raising audiences to heights of ecstasy and adulation. Through his Years of Pilgrimage, learn how Liszt redefined what was physically possible in piano playing, creating dazzl...

46 min
Liszt-Sonata in B Minor
12: Liszt-Sonata in B Minor

Here, probe further into the extraordinary life and contribution of Liszt. Follow the events of his trailblazing virtuoso career and his near burnout that led to the introspective period in Weimar that produced the B Minor Sonata. Analyze the large-scale structure of this magisterial work and its metaphoric meaning based in the narrative of Goethe's Faust. Hear how Liszt recasts and transforms the...

49 min
Brahms-Handel Variations, Op. 24
13: Brahms-Handel Variations, Op. 24

Contemplate the naming of this work (Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel), as it reveals Brahms's spiritual links to the musical past and his individualist stance as a Romantic-era composer. Learn also about defining influences in Brahms's life that shaped his musical destiny. Follow the unfolding of the great Handel Variations in six groups of variations of rich and diverse content, buildin...

47 min
Brahms-Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118
14: Brahms-Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118

In this lecture's opening, explore Brahms's musical aesthetics, a pioneering synthesis that combined 18th-century formal procedures with a fully Romantic expressive content. Also note how his personality and extreme self-criticism affected his creative output. Uncover the riches of the six pieces of Opus 118, highlighting the compositional ingenuity of the wistfully beautiful Intermezzo in A, the ...

49 min
Mussorgsky-Pictures at an Exhibition
15: Mussorgsky-Pictures at an Exhibition

In 19th-century Russia, Mussorgsky and his contemporaries rejected the influence of German composers in seeking to create a music that would be purely Russian. In the kaleidoscopic movements of Pictures at an Exhibition, each based on a visual artwork, experience the power and directness of Mussorgsky's non-Western European musical language, from his incarnation of fantastic creatures and comic fl...

50 min
Debussy-"The Sunken Cathedral"
16: Debussy-"The Sunken Cathedral"

Here, journey into Debussy's early life as he broke with the musical past, developing new approaches to tonality and sonority to create stunningly original piano works. In this extraordinary prelude, study five elements of Debussy's revolutionary style, used to evoke the mythical cathedral of Ys rising from the sea. In particular, observe how he uses "modal" melodies and harmonies, rhythmic fluidi...

45 min
Debussy-Preludes, Book One
17: Debussy-Preludes, Book One

Begin this lecture with reflections on Debussy's personality and artistic influences, including that of French Symbolist poetry, as they influenced his musical creations. In his first book of Preludes, discover the remarkable compositional innovations that allowed him to craft these superlative short pieces. Focus on the storytelling content, ethereal textures, nuance, and harmonic original...

49 min
Albeniz-Iberia
18: Albeniz-Iberia

Albeniz's magnum opus for the piano celebrates the culture of the Andalucía region of Spain. Identify the characteristic elements of Andalusian folk music, such as the Phrygian mode, Flamenco rhythms, and traditional dance forms, and how Albeniz incorporated them into the lush sonic palette of this work. In compelling excerpts from the 12 pieces of Iberia, hear how the score p...

49 min
Ravel-Valses nobles et sentimentales
19: Ravel-Valses nobles et sentimentales

Explore the evolution of the waltz as a popular dance and musical form, and how the Viennese waltz, paradoxically, became a metaphor for both civility and tragedy. Learn about Ravel's creative process and character and the likely personal meaning behind this suite. Experience the rich harmonic textures and huge expressive range of these eight pieces, from passionate exuberance to dreamlike wistful...

50 min
Scriabin-Piano Sonata No. 5
20: Scriabin-Piano Sonata No. 5

Beginning as a post-Romantic composer, Alexander Scriabin made a dramatic transition, embracing theosophy and a vision of music as mystical revelation. In this daring, modernist piece, see how Scriabin shapes a musical narrative in which tonal and nontonal music coexist. From the sonata's dissonant opening, follow the interweaving of the first, tonal theme with a lyric, contrasting theme based in ...

47 min
Rachmaninoff-Etudes-tableaux
21: Rachmaninoff-Etudes-tableaux

Rachmaninoff's etudes-tableaux combine programmatic (storytelling) content with great pianistic challenges for the performer. As background, explore Rachmaninoff's dual life as a composer and a peerless piano virtuoso, and the linking of his musical destiny with the American-made Steinway piano. In the etudes, see how Rachmaninoff uses ingenious virtuoso effects, layered rhythms, and...

50 min
Prokofiev-Piano Sonata No. 7
22: Prokofiev-Piano Sonata No. 7

In a story of tragic poignancy, learn about Prokofiev's early international success and his extraordinary political naïvete as he returned to live in the Soviet Union during the terror under Stalin. In the Sonata no. 7, follow the unfolding of the first movement's two themes, alternating brutal force with quiet rumination. Grasp the expressive content of the second movement, based on S...

50 min
Copland-Piano Variations
23: Copland-Piano Variations

American concert music emerged in the early 20th century as a synthesis of musical types and influences. Trace its dynamic mix of elements, encompassing West African rhythm and melodic structures, blues, ragtime, jazz, popular song, and European modernism. In this homegrown masterwork, study how Copland used "microtonal" melodies, jazz and ragtime rhythms, and a relentless, machine-age energy to c...

48 min
The A-List
24: The A-List

The course concludes with a lighthearted look at another side of the piano literature: works written by the great composers for amateur pianists. Survey nine iconic piano pieces from Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Rubinstein, Dvorak, and Debussy; the stories behind their writing; and the often amusing ways in which these works have taken root in our culture. Contemplate the scop...

52 min
Robert Greenberg

For thousands of years cultures have celebrated themselves through their music. Let us always be willing and able to join that celebration by listening as carefully as we can to what, through music, we have to say to one another.

ALMA MATER

University of California, Berkeley

INSTITUTION

San Francisco Performances

About Robert Greenberg

Dr. Robert Greenberg is Music Historian-in-Residence with San Francisco Performances. A graduate of Princeton University, Professor Greenberg holds a Ph.D. in Music Composition from the University of California, Berkeley. He has seen his compositions-which include more than 45 works for a wide variety of instrumental and vocal ensembles-performed all over the world, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, England, Ireland, Greece, Italy, and the Netherlands. He has served on the faculties of the University of California, Berkeley; California State University, Hayward; and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has lectured for some of the most prestigious musical and arts organizations in the United States, including the San Francisco Symphony, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Van Cliburn Foundation, and the Chicago Symphony. For The Great Courses, he has recorded more than 500 lectures on a range of composers and classical music genres. Professor Greenberg is a Steinway Artist. His many other honors include three Nicola de Lorenzo Composition Prizes and a Koussevitzky commission from the Library of Congress. He has been profiled in various major publications, including The Wall Street Journal; Inc. magazine; and the London Times.