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The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works

The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works

Professor Robert Greenberg Ph.D.
San Francisco Performances
Course No.  7320
Course No.  7320
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  48 minutes per lecture

As a solo concert instrument, the piano enjoys an unrivaled popularity in Western music. Capable of a vast sonic range, from ethereal softness to thundering grandeur, its appeal is global and seemingly eternal. For nearly 200 years, audiences have packed concert halls and opera houses to hear performers play this single, phenomenal instrument.

One of the primary reasons for the piano’s popularity is the fact that it has inspired many of the greatest compositional masterworks in the concert repertoire. The piano’s harmonic and melodic capabilities, tone colors, and orchestral resources have fascinated composers—the majority of them highly accomplished pianists themselves—since the mid-18th century. The result is a magnificent body of work, from the intricate and lyric creations of the High Baroque and Classical masters to the passionate visions of Romantic virtuosos to the revolutionary sonorities of pianistic “impressionism” and modernism.

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As a solo concert instrument, the piano enjoys an unrivaled popularity in Western music. Capable of a vast sonic range, from ethereal softness to thundering grandeur, its appeal is global and seemingly eternal. For nearly 200 years, audiences have packed concert halls and opera houses to hear performers play this single, phenomenal instrument.

One of the primary reasons for the piano’s popularity is the fact that it has inspired many of the greatest compositional masterworks in the concert repertoire. The piano’s harmonic and melodic capabilities, tone colors, and orchestral resources have fascinated composers—the majority of them highly accomplished pianists themselves—since the mid-18th century. The result is a magnificent body of work, from the intricate and lyric creations of the High Baroque and Classical masters to the passionate visions of Romantic virtuosos to the revolutionary sonorities of pianistic “impressionism” and modernism.

Within the rich repertoire of the piano, a group of unique masterworks stand out as the greatest achievements of this tradition. These historic milestones in piano writing are celebrated for several key reasons:

  • They have commanded the respect of the music world through their compositional mastery and their extraordinary power to move listeners and mirror human experience.
  • They have used the resources of the piano in groundbreaking or unique ways.
  • They have stood the test of time, continuing to enthrall and amaze each new generation of concertgoers.

To study these works and to understand their genius and enduring appeal is to know one of the greatest accomplishments of Western culture, works that provide pleasure even as they deepen your insight into the power and meaning of music.

In The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works, Great Courses favorite Professor Robert Greenberg of San Francisco Performances returns with an in-depth exploration of the solo piano works he considers to be among the most exceptional landmarks in the literature. The 23 works you’ll study represent the selections of an internationally respected composer and music historian, carefully chosen to highlight the most significant compositional and pianistic achievements in the solo piano repertoire.

Encounter a Magnificent Tradition in Art

These 24 engrossing lectures guide you through more than 200 years of music. Beginning with the towering figure of Bach, followed by Mozart and Beethoven, you encounter the piano music of such great 19th-century masters as Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt, before moving forward to visionary modernists including Scriabin, Debussy, and Prokofiev. In Professor Greenberg’s trademark style, each lecture focuses on a single work in a fresh, accessible encounter with the musical substance of the piece, welcoming listeners new to concert music as well as experienced concert music lovers.

In addition to your study of the music, the lectures expose you to a rich panorama of music history. You dig deeply into the artistic and social environments that the compositions reflect, shedding light on what inspired these great works and how they were created. As a third key layer of the course, you delve into the extraordinary history of the piano itself, discovering the ways in which the evolution of the instrument directly affected the music that composers wrote for it.

As a compelling feature of the video version of this course, the three dynamic concert pianists who play most of the musical excerpts encountered during the course appear on camera. This is a unique chance to not only hear the music superbly played, but to watch the pianists at the keyboard and to observe the extraordinary “choreography” of hands and body that goes into a performance.

A Solo Repertoire Unparalleled in Western Music

Within the wide range of periods and styles you study, you’ll explore these timeless works:

  • BeethovenDiabelli Variations: Penetrate the musical structure of this crown jewel of the repertoire, as Beethoven magically transforms the theme through successive variations, leading to a transcendent conclusion that invokes the spirit of Bach.
  • ChopinPréludes, opus 28: From this iconic Romantic composer for the piano, experience the expressive power, intimacy, and nuance of these beloved short pieces, embodied in keyboard sonorities of ravishing beauty.
  • LisztYears of Pilgrimage: Observe how these daring pieces, penned by history’s defining piano virtuoso, create dazzling pianistic effects that push the limits of both the player and the instrument.
  • DebussyPréludes, Book One: As one of the most original composers in piano history, Debussy forged trailblazing pathways in musical harmonies, textures, and nonlinear time, all of which you’ll follow in these powerfully evocative miniatures.
  • AlbénizIberia: In this luminous journey into the culture of Spain, grasp the compositional techniques through which Albéniz evokes the reverie and passion of Andalusian gypsies, guitarists, and Flamenco dancers.
  • Copland—Piano Variations: From our own shores, discover the brilliant synthesis of European modernism, West African rhythm and melodic structure, jazz, and machine-age dynamism that drives this uniquely American masterwork.

The Piano: History of a Cultural Treasure

Parallel with the unfolding of the musical repertoire, you follow the history of the piano’s technological evolution, from the development in 1700 of the first piano “action”—a mechanism enabling the instrument to produce gradations of volume from soft to loud—through successive design innovations that increased the instrument’s power and resonance, culminating with the fully modern piano of the 1870s. Here, you discover how changes in piano design made entire new types of keyboard music possible.

You learn, for example, about the “double escapement” mechanism, pioneered in the 1820s, that made fast repeated notes possible and allowed Liszt to create a sort of piano music that could never have been played on earlier pianos. And you grasp how Debussy used the resonance and overtones of the modern piano to create the shimmering, otherworldly atmospheres that characterize his piano writing.

In studying the individual works in the course, you learn about the musical forms and structural procedures that underlie them—such as sonata form, rondo form, fugue, and canon—allowing you to follow the music’s structure as you listen, and also to appreciate the masterful use of these forms. Understanding sonata form, for example, allows you to appreciate how Prokofiev’s thoroughly modernist use of the form differed from its use by Beethoven and Liszt before him, and how the three composers employed this same musical structure to realize hugely different expressive visions.

You also learn in detail about the compositional means used by the great composers for the piano to realize their creative impulses. Early in the course, you see how Bach used the musical pitches of his Fugue no. 4 to depict the Christian cross, making explicit his own identification with Christ’s suffering. Later, you study Schubert’s glorious use of lyric, thematic melodies. And you learn how Alexander Scriabin, fulfilling a vision of music as spiritual revelation, employed a “mystic chord” to create a sound outside of traditional tonality.

Larger than Life Creative Spirits

Throughout the lectures, you look penetratingly into the circumstances surrounding the composition of the individual works and the historical background of their writing. In this inquiry, Professor Greenberg provides fascinating glimpses into the process of musical creation and reveals insights into some of Western art’s most remarkable personalities:

  • Chopin, whose obsessive creative process included shutting himself in for days, weeping, breaking his pens, and agonizing—sometimes for weeks—over a single page
  • Liszt, who cut the figure of a 19th-century rock star, driving awestruck fans to ecstatic adulation during his pyrotechnical performances
  • Brahms, who, declared by Schumann to be the new Beethoven, burned piles of his own works in fanatical self-criticism
  • Scriabin, whose embrace of Gnosticism and quest to reveal divine knowledge through music pushed him to the edge of sanity
  • Prokofiev, who, during the terror under Stalin, doggedly pursued his own musical vision in some works while adhering to the artistic dictates of the Soviet state in others

In The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works, you’ll delve deeply into a body of works that have enthralled, astounded, and profoundly moved generations of listeners. An educational journey you won’t find anywhere else, these twenty-four, 45-minute lectures give you the knowledge and insight to enjoy and appreciate the stunningly diverse literature of the piano.

Join a master composer and musicologist in discovering these great works of art, which make the solo piano tradition one of the superlative, enduring riches of our culture.

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24 Lectures
  • 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 criteria for the selection of the masterworks you’ll study. x
  • 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 the sublime preludes and fugues that make up this work. x
  • 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, toccatas, and canons, and how they serve the larger unity and spiritual meaning of the set. Learn also about Bach’s admittedly checkered relationship with the piano. x
  • 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 contrasts; and expressive extremes that look toward the piano music of the 19th and 20th centuries. x
  • 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 chorale-like second movement theme and variations achieves a lyrical calm before the relentless darkness of the heart-stopping finale. x
  • 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 to the final set’s movement toward the spirit of Bach and concluding in a mood of transcendent peace. x
  • 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 andante, the harmonic flight of the scherzo, and the great expressive range of the final rondo. x
  • 8
    Chopin—Préludes, 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 environment. Learn how the performance technique of rubato informs and illuminates the music. x
  • 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 creates a powerful dramatic poem with an emotional narrative that builds to an apotheosis-like conclusion. x
  • 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 harmonic complexity to reveal rich metaphoric meaning and his own innermost feelings and fears. x
  • 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 dazzling musical and pianistic effects that push the limits of the pianist’s body and the resources of the instrument. x
  • 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 three powerful themes as they evoke the figures of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. x
  • 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, building to the splendorous fugue, a musical creation of majestic power. x
  • 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 radiant Romance in F, and the masterful final Intermezzo, a movement portraying “utmost grief and passion.” x
  • 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 flights of fancy to the monumental tone painting of The Great Gate of Kiev. x
  • 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 fluidity, and tone color to create a magical, otherworldly atmosphere and a nonlinear sense of time. x
  • 17
    Debussy—Préludes, 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 Préludes, discover the remarkable compositional innovations that allowed him to craft these superlative short pieces. Focus on the storytelling content, ethereal textures, nuance, and harmonic originality of preludes including “Dancers of Delphi,” “The Wind in the Plain,” “Footprints in the Snow,” and the raucous “Minstrels.” x
  • 18
    Albéniz—Iberia
    Albéniz’s magnum opus for the piano celebrates the culture of the Andaluc'a region of Spain. Identify the characteristic elements of Andalusian folk music, such as the Phrygian mode, Flamenco rhythms, and traditional dance forms, and how Albéniz incorporated them into the lush sonic palette of this work. In compelling excerpts from the 12 pieces of Iberia, hear how the score pulsates with the sounds of voices, bells, guitars, castanets, and Flamenco dancers. x
  • 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 wistfulness, as Ravel evokes the waltz as a memory of a vanished world. x
  • 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 a “mystic chord,” creating a melodic and harmonic sound outside of traditional tonality. x
  • 21
    Rachmaninoff—Études-tableaux
    Rachmaninoff’s Études-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 Études, see how Rachmaninoff uses ingenious virtuoso effects, layered rhythms, and sophisticated harmonies to evoke a boisterous fair, a seascape, a funeral ceremony, and a heroic march. x
  • 22
    Prokofiev—Piano Sonata No. 7
    In a story of tragic poignancy, learn about Prokofiev’s early international success and his extraordinary political naïveté 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 Schumann’s song “Sadness,” and of the explosive finale of this work that demonstrates brilliantly Prokofiev’s trademark, machine-like rhythmic drive. x
  • 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 create a dramatically compelling set of variations—a work that is “American” to its core. x
  • 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 scope of the piano repertoire, a literature that is, as Professor Greenberg says, “the envy of every other instrument.” x

Lecture Titles

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Robert Greenberg
Ph.D. Robert Greenberg
San Francisco Performances

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.

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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 10 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Informative AND inspiring In 24 lectures Prof. Greenberg accomplishes so much: a survey of the history of the evolution of the piano along with brief interesting biographical details of each composer and a solid analysis of each composition. He manages to do all of this without ever being dry or boring. It's as if he comes to life from my CD player. I couldn't be happier with this course. In fact, it has inspired me to study the piano again. In addition, I also purchased a few of the works that Prof. Greenberg discusses. June 1, 2014
Rated 1 out of 5 by Is Professor Greenberg losing his touch? In this series of lectures, Professor Robert Greenberg endeavours to present and discuss what he considers the 23 greatest piano solo works ever written. Sadly, both in terms of contents and of rendition, this production does not meet the level of excellence attained in his previous ones (15 of which I have bought and listened to at least once). Professor Greenberg points out from the start that the lectures in this course are meant to be self-standing and need not be followed in sequence. This implies of course that there is no train of thought linking them. This also leads to countless repetitions from one lecture to the next, regarding for instance the development of pianos with metal-framed harps or the structure of a sonata form. Worse, there are repetitions with previous courses and, for instance, the same anecdotes with the same wording are provided regarding Bach, Liszt and Brahms as in the series devoted to each. Yet worse, there are oftentimes repetitions within the same lecture: the listener need not be told three times in 45 minutes that Brahms burned the works he did not deem worthy! In terms of rendition, Professor Greenberg definitely speaks less quickly than in previous series, enunciates unusually well and obviously reads his text throughout, with section titles spoken out and breaking the internal continuity of single lectures. In fact, except in lectures 23 and 24 where he appears energized, he seems a bit bored with what he is delivering. Unfortunately, the result is just plain long and tedious. May 18, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Beautiful and Entertaining Journey I looked forward to every lecture in this wonderful course. Dr. Greenberg presents an engaging and exciting exploration of solo piano music in a very enjoyable way. I recommend the video version of the course because it is quite enlightening to see professional pianists play these fantastic pieces. I have listened to many of the works covered in the course many times, however now I enjoy hearing them so much more because of what I have learned in this course. Dr. Greenberg is always a joy to listen to and watch because he is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic. I have many years of experience teaching at the university level and always learn new techniques of teaching from Dr. Greenberg as well as learning the subject matter. A special treat in this course are the discussions of the development of the piano and how its evolution made possible the innovations of ground breaking composers. March 2, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Every Piano Teacher should own this!! Professor Greenburg's lectures are intellectually stimulating, not only for the amateur musician, but also for the professional musician. These are particularly useful for pianists because the lectures feature standard repertoire that every pianist should know intimately. Every piano teacher should own this series! This series offers great motivation for young pianist students to practice, and to approach their repertoire in a well-rounded fashion. Each lecture has a good variety of well-research historical content, fascinating personal anecdotes about the composers, entertaining factoids about the various time periods, well-performed musical examples, and fairly detailed musical analysis. February 6, 2014
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