St George’s Day – Best Of English Piano Musicianship
We love celebrating music! With so many incredible musicians coming out of the UK, we think it’s important to spend some time reflecting on the best, biggest and freshest names in each country’s history.
Today, in connection with St George’s Day, we’re taking a slightly different approach and focusing specifically on some of the incredible pianists throughout English history. From household names to some which you might not have heard of before, this list will be sure to cover some of the boldest and most fascinating names in English piano composition.
Why not start at the very top?! We all know the Elton John (born Reggie Dwight) is an absolute staple not only in musical history, but he single handedly has continued to keep the piano exciting, fun and in a strange way, could even be compared to the likes of a modern day mozart or beethoven. He’s had 38 gold and 31 platinum or multi-platinum albums, sold more than 250 million records worldwide.
Elton’s playing style is so iconic as whilst it may seem simple at surface level and is typically associated with pop, he is a classically trained musician and his piano parts are notoriously difficult to play. Often they run counter to the vocal melodies which go over the top, meaning the brain is having to operate completely differently for both the piano and the vocals.
The piano is found in almost all of Elton’s songs and continues to bring joy to millions every year. You only have to listen to ‘Tiny Dancer’, ‘Goodbye Yellow Brick Road’ or ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me’ to experience the true intricacies of his piano work.
A name that many overlook, but one that is central to the English composition scene, Edward Benjamin Britten, Baron Britten OM CH was an English composer, conductor, and pianist. Before his death in 4 December 1976, he was a central figure of 20th-century British music, with a range of works including opera, other vocal music, orchestral and chamber pieces. His best-known works include the opera Peter Grimes (1945), the War Requiem (1962) and the orchestral showpiece The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra (1945).
Britten often performed piano duets with Clifford Curzon or Richter, and chamber music with the Amadeus Quartet. The composers whose works, other than his own, he most often played were Mozart and Schubert; the latter, in Murray Perahia’s view, was Britten’s greatest idol.
When it comes to British piano, one name that will continue to come up again and again is John McCabe. John’s work came in many different forms, from symphonies to ballets, and most famously – solo works for the piano. He served as director of the London College of Music from 1983 to 1990 and continued to inspire thousands of young musicians throughout their time. He was praised as “one of Britain’s finest composers in the past half-century” and “a pianist of formidable gifts and wide-ranging sympathies”. Before his death in 2015, John was responsible for more than 200 compositions and pursued a busy solo career over several decades.
Another household british name that whilst is usually associated with playing bass guitar in The Beatles, Sir Paul has more than proved his own musicianship on the piano. McCartney’s father was a trumpet player and pianist who led Jim Mac’s Jazz Band in the 1920s. He kept an upright piano in the front room, encouraged his sons to be musical and advised McCartney to take piano lessons. However, McCartney preferred to learn by ear.
McCartney played piano on several Beatles songs, including “She’s a Woman”, “For No One”, “A Day in the Life”, “Hello, Goodbye”, “Lady Madonna”, “Hey Jude”, “Martha My Dear”, “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road”.
Just as important modern piano names are, they all stem from earlier roots and one root that is particularly important is that of George Pinto. Born 25 September 1785 and living until just 1806 when he was just 20 years old, Pinto was an English composer and keyboard virtuoso who’s music still stands the test of time.
The writer and musician Alexander Campbell wrote: Young Pinto is not only an admirable violin player, but also a first-rate performer on the grand piano forte: to excel on two instruments so widely different from each other, is a proof of genius and unwearied application very seldom to be met with. If dissipation, and consequent idleness, do not impede him in his career, what may not the musical world expect in his riper manhood?
Dame Fanny Waterman
Passing away at the end of 2020, Founder of The Leeds International Piano Competition, one of the most prestigious piano competitions in the world this list wouldn’t be complete without the works of Dame Fanny Waterman, who dedicated her life to inspiring thousands to take up and master the piano.
Born 22 March 1920, the Dame was destined to be a musical prodigy from the moment she played her first key. After her parents scraped together the money for piano lessons, Dame Fanny went on to study with the pianist Cyril Smith at the Royal College of Music. From there, her skills grew and she performed with the Leeds Symphony Society in 1941 and at a Henry Wood Promenade Concert in 1942.
Following the birth of her son in 1950, she turned her back on the concert platform to teach, giving masterclasses on six continents and earning the nickname ‘Field Marshal Fanny’. Around this time, she also became a recognised publisher with her series Me And My Piano. The series remains one of the most popular piano books of all time and has sold more than three million copies, been written into 30 different volumes, and has never been out of print since first being published.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this brief delve into English piano music! Did we miss your favourite? Of course there are thousands of incredibly accomplished and successful pianists we also could have mentioned here, we’d love to know your views!