Out of all piano composers’ music that I have spent time learning to play, I chose my top three I connect with the most and explain why. Perhaps your most connected composers are completely different to me but are suitably matched to your piano style?
- Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827) German
- Claude Debussy (1862-1918) French
- George Gershwin (1898-1937) American
- Ludwig Van Beethoven
Emotions exude resulting from melodical motifs juxtaposed with authoritative octaves in the bass clef laced with moments of surprise. Playing a piano sonata of Beethoven’s could be compared to analysing, observing and absorbing the beauty of a painting which encapsulates every element the viewer desires without being too cluttered. Romantic melodies assorted between alberti bass passages against chromatic scales drive the artist’s desire to tell a story with as much emotion as one could only imagine humanly possible to display, respectively! What and how Beethoven feels in any bar of piano sonata is how he wants the keys to be attacked or released joyfully, vigorously or softly and, you can sense it. There are no grey areas with Beethoven’s compositions. Similar to the piano itself.
To say that Mozart’s vast musical output ‘of sizeable range’ would be an understatement. Yet when I play Mozart’s piano sonatas it seems that I always try too hard to ‘feel the music’ and make it sound ‘pretty.’ I cannot picture Beethoven however, requiring himself to make allowances for any dazed listeners when the forte passages take the audience’s ears to another realm altogether. Perhaps Beethoven was born at the perfect time when Classical music was tending to slide more into the Romantic music era. A perfect time to push the piano’s dynamics to their limits as well as play with the human heartstrings, melodically.
Nonetheless, that which Beethoven writes for the piano is something I struggle to describe in words besides to say as much as that I have not heard nor played anything else as soul captivating since I began to learn his piano sonatas. Driven to progress the piano sonata’s capacity as a transfixing musical work, Beethoven carefully applied both traditional and unconventional musical functions. His developing and modernising of the piano sonata as a compelling and technical music work succeeded to such a degree that it continues to enthral listener and performer today.
2. Claude Debussy
Claude Debussy’s art in piano composition is on par with Claude Monet’s paintbrush across a canvas. Light, playful, gently stirring the mind’s power to create prominent imagery between what is not played as much as what is. Though Debussy did not associate himself with the word ‘Impressionist,’ the word does define how;
‘Composers were obscuring the outlines of objects with gentle fogs and mists, or with the fuzzy reflection of street lights through an evening’s drizzle of rain.’ (Quentin Thomas, 2003).
Elongated pauses among very lower register chords make space for fairy-like delicate dancing in the melody. Melody which is often played by the left hand, accompanied by the right hand. The titles of his piano works already create imaginative scenes before the pianist sets hands against the keys. Translated from French, some popular titles include; The Sunken Cathedral, The girl with the flaxen (or linen) hair, Daydream, On a boat, The Sea, Footsteps on the snow… You can easily appreciate from the titles of such works, what imagery the composer aims to stir up within the notes. The titles are simple and yet tell us more than Opus numbers and movement tempo markings of the Classical composers ever did. Technical skill is certainly required, but the pianist must also allow her/himself to become the passenger ship to sail the listener on a magical journey. And it is a magical journey with Debussy. He brings to the pianist, a fantasy-world filled with intrigue and not without its technical challenges either.
3. George Gershwin
Amalgamating Classical Music knowledge with popular elements, Gershwin composed a quality collection of popular Jazz piano melodies and ballads. Both symphony and Broadway stage compositions proved Gershwin’s compositional output was varied. Pieces were often speed-composed and completed within just a few minutes. He had an evident talent.
Having struggled with becoming recognised within the Classical world, Gershwin delivered less Classical and more popular melodies which have become jazz standards, many of which most people will recognise today. It is Gershwin’s piano melodies which encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and boundaries within Classical manuscript parameters and explore improvisation within his inspiring chord progressions. I love playing around with improvisations in tunes such as- Fascinating Rhythm, Embraceable You, Someone to watch over you, Rhapsody in Blue. Although Rhapsody in Blue was written as a piano concerto there are many solo piano versions worth trying out and exploring with improvisation. If, like me you are a classically trained pianist and feel like exploring Jazz piano style, I highly recommend Gershwin as a composer whose compositions for piano can gently guide you towards jazzier scales and harmonies in a more comfortable transition than say, trying to play like Keith Jarrett after practising J S Bach fugues.