Best piano music of all time: are these the 10 greatest ever?
We celebrate the best pieces of piano music - do you agree with our choices?
Given the sheer volume of existing piano repertoire, we've decided to cheat, just a little: strictly speaking, this is more about the best collections of piano music, rather than individual works.
And naturally, we're kicking ourselves for leaving out many, many fantastic pieces and composers.
Nevertheless, having sifted through four hundred-odd years of piano history, we've made our choices. See whether you agree with them.
Best piano music
1. Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-Tempered Clavier).
The basic essentials of the pianist’s repertoire, the two books of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues (The Well-Tempered Clavier) were completed in 1742, though they were not published in Bach’s lifetime. Intended as a work for students to play in all keys and in a wide range of styles and textures, they are now an indispensable part of every aspect of a pianist’s training. Schumann encouraged his readers to ‘let the Well-Tempered Clavier be your daily bread’.
2. Beethoven’s 32 Piano Sonatas
Written between 1795 and 1822, these us on a journey from Haydn (to whom the first three are dedicated) to the future of music (the last three), constituting the first body of serious, substantial piano music suitable for large concert halls. They ‘gradually became the basis of the public repertoire for any pianist with pretensions to serious musicianship’, as wrote pianist Charles Rosen.
3. Schubert's Impromptus
Schubert Impromptus Composed in 1827, the penultimate year of Schubert's life, this set of eight piano pieces is considered to be one of the finest examples of early Romantic music, with many of the eight pieces finding their way into movies, or providing inspiration for subsequent composers.
The third impromptu in G flat major is probably the best known of the set, its serene yet sobbing melody painted in countless shades of grey by pianists from Vladimir Horowitz to Alfred Brendel. But all eight pieces contain moments of great poignancy, tenderness and beauty.
4. Brahms Intermezzi
These three solo piano works, composed by Brahms in 1892, are known for their capacity to express emotions of astonishing intensity through the sotto voce purr of a lullaby.
Brahms himself described them as ‘cradle songs for my sorrows’, prefacing them in the score with two lines of poetry from a Scottish poem translated into German by Johann Gottfried von Herder: ‘Sleep softly, my child, sleep softly and well! It grieves me so to see you weep.’ But what sorrows was Brahms referencing exactly? Perhaps his unfulfilled, enduring love for the pianist and composer Clara Schumann, who, as Brahms’s friend and confidante of forty years, was destined as the first pianist to see these pieces.
5. Chopin's Études
Until Chopin came along, piano Études were purely utilitarian exercises, intended solely for the improvement of technique. In Chopin’s hands, however, they became artistic masterpieces – one of the piano repertoire’s most defining works, that have since embedded themselves in popular culture.
Most popular among them are Op. 10 No. 3 (‘L’Adieu); ‘Op. 10, No.12 (‘Revolutionary Étude’; Op 10. No. 5 (‘Black Keys’; and Op. 25, No. 11 (‘Winter Wind’) - the latter of which prompted one editor to write: ‘Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should avoid it.’
6. Janáček's In the Mists
Various critics have detected the influence of the French, so-called ‘impressionist’ composers in this set of solo piano works, not least in their mysterious, dreamlike atmosphere and vivid use of harmonic colour. But this is unmistakably Janáček: emotionally turbulent, rhythmically unpredictable - even improvisational, with a folk-infused sound world poised on the boundary between eastern and western Europe. Written in 1912, a few years after the death of Janáček’s daughter, this is a haunting snapshot of a troubled, but brilliantly original, composer’s mind.
7. Mozart's Piano Sonatas
They may not quite plumb the same emotional depths as Beethoven, but Mozart’s piano sonatas - written between 1774 and 1789 - offer a snapshot of a phenomenal musical talent, and one that was never more at home than in dramatic music for the stage: each of his piano sonatas are like mini operas, their surface grace belying their internal drama.
Each tells its own story, each is populated with dynamic characters that engage in, often passionate, dialogue. And each is a window into Mozart’s character, reminding us that this was someone who could push boundaries, without violating them, and who could pack a sense of mischief into music of the utmost elegance and grace. Most popular among them is the Piano Sonata No. 11 in major, K.331, often referred to as the ‘Alla Turca’, but there are 17 other numbered piano sonatas to choose from, so get listening!
Reflecting Debussy’s fascination with the relationship between sight and sound, this masterpiece was visionary in the way it effectively transformed the ear into an eye, creating musical swirls of iridescent colour through its inventive pianistic techniques and blurred harmonic focus.
On finishing his first series of Images, in 1905, Debussy wrote to his publisher, Jacques Durand: ‘Without false pride, I feel that these three pieces hold together well and that they will find their place in the literature of the piano… to the left of Schumann, or to the right of Chopin.’ He was not wrong.
9. Liszt's Piano Sonata in B minor
‘This is nothing but sheer racket…it’s really awful,’ wrote Clara Schumann on first hearing Liszt’s B minor sonata. And yet, of Liszt’s many, many great piano pieces, this ogre of a sonata, written to no conventional structural design, is generally acknowledged to be his masterpiece, its very complexity one of the main reasons why it is so well loved.
Some have suggested that it offers a musical portrait of the Faust legend. Others have argued that its wild, intense contrasts mirror the conflicts in Liszt’s own personality. Either way, it is a work of extraordinary emotional intensity, something of a cathartic experience for many pianists, which may be why, despite its ferocious technical difficulty, there are now well over 50 recordings of the sonata in the recording catalogue.
This series of piano pieces was written in response to a visit to a retrospective exhibition - that of Mussorgsky’s friend, the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, who had died in 1873, aged only 39.
Mussorgsky, who was known to suffer creative agonies during the composition process, apparently took great pleasure in this one and it shows: encapsulating the idea of a viewer walking through a gallery, this piece is a wonderfully playful representation of image, with many of its tuneful snapshots - including ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ and ‘The Hut on Hen’s Legs (Baba-Yaga)’ - ranking among the heavyweights of the piano repertoire.
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An alcoholic in later life, the composer died before the piece could be published, and many of us are now more familiar with Rimsky-Korsakov’s tidied-up orchestral version. Still, there is a lot to be said for the raw, muscular power of Mussorgsky’s original.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.