When it comes to piano repertoire, there are countless options for the new, intermediate and seasoned pianist to learn. With so many composers and centuries of works to lose yourself in, knowing which pieces are worth learning and which are not can seem a little overwhelming.
Over the past year, our team have been scouring the industry for what we believe to be the best titles out there, our hand curated range of sheet music essentials offers everything from titles to help people get back into playing, tips for the new learner and advice for those looking to progress their playing.
With this, our team has been able to identify the most influential, iconic or interesting piano pieces that we believe every pianist (in particular classical pianists) should have in their repertoire. Today we explore these works, why they were so influential and how we can use them to further our piano playing. Let’s jump straight in!
The Well Tempered Clavier - JS Bach.
Often referred to as the godfather of piano music, even though he was never technically a pianist, but an organ and harpsichord player, Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier is often regarded as ‘The Old Testament Of Piano Playing’. Consisting of two sets of preludes and fugues in all 24 major and minor keys for keyboard, Bach was the first to bring and codify what ‘standard piano’ tuning would later become.
Whilst it may seem like a relatively simple concept on the face of it, by having all 24 major and minor keys, Bach created a uniform tuning system, which made it possible to play every key in tune, regardless of the piano being used. This allowed all pianos to be tuned to some kind of similarity, where in the past it was a lucky dip on how a piano would have been tuned, often it was simply ‘in tune with itself’.
By having pianos and keyboard instruments being able to be kept at a standard level of tuning, this gave basis to the embodiment of almost all western music and set the foundation for piano playing.
Being so influential in terms of setting the modern foundations of music, The Well Tempered Clavier left its mark on pianists throughout the ages, Chopin for example also credited it as being a large inspiration for his Preludes and Beethoven based large portions of his repertoire from the book.
To this day, the Well Tempered Clavier is still considered one of the most important and surefire ways of increasing and excelling ones’ musicianship. If you want to master the piano, one of the best ways of understanding musicality is to master this book.
Piano Concertos & Sonatas - Mozart
Mozart’s short lived life is one of the most fascinating out there, his works have stood the test of time and across all instruments, he is generally regarded as one of the most important composers to have ever lived.
This is why Mozart’s piano concertos are one of the most influential and iconic works of piano music that whilst many pianists will never be able to learn or play in full, deserve a great level of respect in terms of what they did for musicianship as a whole outside of just the piano.
Mozart’s concertos were masterpieces of possibility for all instruments, from wind to brass and of course piano. He was more than just a master of the piano, but a revolutionary in terms of musical structure and composition.
To begin mastering Mozart, try this:
Piano Sonatas - Beethoven
In the same way that Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier is the Old Testament of music, Beethoven’s piano sonatas are very much the New Testament of piano composition.
Beethoven was the first to craft major piano pieces that were suited not only to public concertos, but also private performance. His piano sonatas acted almost as a bridge for what piano concert music and private leisure music could achieve when used in harmony.
Every piano sonata that was written before Beethoven followed the same structural blueprint. They would open with a lively brisk opening movement, slow middle movement and a large finale that pulled the piece together. When just looking at the likes of the famous ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and its delicate, quiet slow opening, it is immediately apparent why Beethoven’s sonatas were so different from everything that had come before.
Having mastered the likes of Haydn’s and Mozart’s sonatas, Beethoven remade and remade the definition of sonata and sparked revolution within the piano world and piano production. His works led to adding more keys to the bass and treble (hence why we now have 88 keys on a piano), enhancing the sustain pedal and injecting new realms of dynamics, expression and attack within piano playing.
What is particularly interesting however is that no two of Beethoven’s sonatas are the same, each one has their own characteristics that make it unique and added a new level of reformation of what the sonata ‘is’, whilst still sounding truly authentic and sensational.
Études - Chopin
Even to this day, Chopin’s Etudes are regarded as being one of the most challenging and complex compositions to achieve. Having written twenty-seven compositions overall, Chopin’s Etudes formed the foundation for what was then a revolutionary playing style for the piano.
Using complex technique and playing, Chopin’s works were marvelled by audiences across Europe. Chopin's Études not only presented an entirely new set of technical challenges, but were the first to become a regular part of the concert repertoire. For this reason they are generally considered the perfect blend of technical challenge and also artistic composition, demonstrating mastery of the two forms.
His effect on contemporaries such as Franz Liszt was apparent, based on the revision Liszt made to his series of concert études after meeting Chopin. Other great composers after him, such as Schumann, Debussy, Prokofiev, and Rachmaninoff, wrote études in the same style as Chopin's.
So there you have it, just four titles that can easily fill a lifetime of piano playing. Each of these composers' works and their various compositions have sparked debate within the piano community for centuries and will likely continue to for centuries more, each was a revolutionary within their time and propelled the art of piano playing forward, one note at a time. To learn more about these composers, read our guides to their works or visit our showroom to browse our selection of sheet music titles.