Following on from his comprehensive Indian Raags Made Easy, a guide to playing Indian classical music on the piano (review here), composer John Pitt has now turned his attention to the distinctive and beautiful music for gamelan orchestra from the Indonesian island of Java. This was the music which so intrigued Claude Debussy when he first encountered a gamelan orchestra at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, whose delicate, shimmering timbres are found in works like Pagodes.
In Extreme Heterophony: a study in Javanese Gamelan for one or more pianists, John Pitts offer a carefully-researched and clearly presented guide to the instruments and music of Java, with detailed explanations of the sounds, tunings, scales, metres and rhythms, using Western staff notation and terminology.
“Extreme Heterophony” refers to a foundational principle of how this music is constructed – akin to a theme and variations, but where c.10 types of related but widely diverse, decorative variations are all performed simultaneously – creating a rich, vibrant, exciting texture – and where the theme itself isn’t directly played. – John Pitts
This large-format book offers a deep dive in to the world of the gamelan, from descriptions of the instruments themselves to the use of melody, rubato, textural and rhythmic density, structure of performances, and notation. The author then goes on to explain the individual instruments (for example, the gambang, a xylophone, the “gender” barung, a metallophone, or the suling, a bamboo flute), their role and distinctive sounds within the gamelan orchestra, and how these roles and sounds translate to the piano, or a group of pianos.
The music, which makes up the greater part of the book, is adapted by John Pitts, each piece with a short introduction, clear directions and prompts to support the player/s. The pieces can be played at one piano, in duos or multiple duets at two or up to seven pianos. John Pitts’ website includes downloadable backing tracks to play along with, plus other useful resources for those who want to explore the music of Java in more detail.
This detailed, well-researched handbook is a fascinating introduction to the alluring soundworld of Javanese gamelan. The book is available in the UK/US from Amazon in printed book and Kindle format, and also as a PDF.
Guest post by Alexandra Westcott
An article in response to Andrew Eales’ excellent article Making Peace with your Inner Musician, which was in turn prompted by this quote from the Bhagavad Bita: “Better indeed is knowledge than mechanical practice…But better still is surrender of attachment to results, because there follows immediate peace”
I’ve already written about mechanical practice versus knowledge and clarity. But I find I am developing my thoughts on this even more with regard to some of my students. In his article Andrew Eales’ discusses having less of an attachment to and more of an appreciation of results and goals; to be kinder and more accepting of ourselves and our piano playing journey; and to find ways to enjoy our playing and what it gives both to ourselves and others. I agree with this wholeheartedly.
I read this quote from the Gita and understood it slightly differently; I interpreted it to mean that in letting go of attachments to goals we let go of those goals altogether; taking away ALL judgement about our playing (even with regards to right or wrong notes) and immersing ourselves in the moment; surely it is this that this leads to immediate peace? I’m not saying that there are not times and situations when results are useful and necessary (whether extrinsic or intrinsically motivated), but that there can be another option for pianists.
As COVID struck I noticed my teaching changed; I was more interested in my students being able to play music than any amount of right notes or technical achievements (hard to do the latter online anyway), so we found ourselves focussing on the sounds, using improvising and ear games. I have already written about how this can help with improvising so I won’t reiterate all those points here, other
than to say if a student can withhold judgement about their playing then they can make music, however little they know or practice; when unable to concentrate on notes on a page, many of my students found solace through the piano and kept playing through both lockdowns.
More recently though, one of my students had an injury and couldn’t play, but got fed up with this and wanted to just get her fingers on the keys, so we have been talking about moving away from any ‘result’ at all, trying instead to focus on being in the moment, and the process of actually playing, whatever that playing is (i.e. whether improvising or learning a piece), and relinquishing all judgement about whether it is good, or right, or even sounds ‘nice’ (there is plenty of published classical music, or jazz improvising, from highly respected musicians and composers, of which I don’t like the sound, so if they can produce such music, why can’t we?!). The student is not learning for either a concert or exam, so why get upset about the notes…? Radical! We can aim at the right notes (assuming we are learning a composed piece), but judge ourselves less, or not at all, for getting them wrong, and enjoy the process in any case.
The Alexander Technique talks about ‘end gaining’; the mistake we make in focusing on the end result rather than how we get there. Understood correctly this is a huge part of how the Alexander Technique can benefit a piano (or any other) student. I think it can go further than aiding our clarity and technical grasp of the music and take us to a place where we are in the moment and finding peace, whether it is in enjoying the physical nature of playing the piano (which is one of the things I myself love about the piano, whereas I didn’t like the particular physical demands of playing the flute, for instance) or getting absorbed in the moods we can evoke. Sometimes we might enjoy the former but not like the latter we produce but does it matter; if it is ephemeral then is has gone in a whisper but we have lived the moment with peace and pleasure.
If you want a left brain reason to do this then be reassured, letting go of all our preconceptions and ‘goals’ completely can produce much more freedom; from judgement, from tightness of technique, or from musical and physical rigidity, and lead one to being more comfortable at the keyboard from whence ‘traditional’
results and goals are more easily attained.
So along with Andrew’s suggestion to be kinder of and more appreciative of where we end up, I also encourage you to be more mindful of, and kinder to yourself, in the moment. Take away an interest in the results completely, and with it any judgement of how you get there or what you are doing. As I’ve said once before and which reflects Andrew’s own words, once we get out of the way, there is only the music, whether is it ours, or Mozart’s.
Alexandra Westcott, BA, FRISM, is a piano teacher and accompanist based in north London.
In collaboration with Gerard Hoffnung’s estate, over 50 intricately detailed, music-inspired fine art prints are now available at fine art print dealer and picture framers King & McGaw.
Satisfyingly simple and endearingly witty, artist and musician Gerard Hoffnung’s (1925–1959) illustrations are appreciated for their charming depictions of humorous characters and whimsical representations of musical instruments; from a cheerful lady playing a violin cat, two gentlemen straddling a double bass, to an elderly dame playing a flute that doubles as a washing line. An artist, tuba player, humourist,
broadcaster and raconteur, it is perhaps not surprising that Hoffnung’s work should spill over so far beyond his lifespan. Indeed, his legacy continues to delight succeeding generations around the world even now, more than sixty years after his death.
Incredibly imaginative, the titles of the playful works alone – ‘Cat with Musical Whiskers’, ‘Cymbal Player with Bandaged Nose’, ‘Tubular Bell Accident’, amongst others – will bring extraordinary scenes to life.
Hoffnung’s genius was to communicate his richly comic vision of the world through words, drawings and music. Bursting onto London’s musical scene at The Royal Festival Hall in the mid-1950s, the musician-cum-illustrator captured the interest of the music industry, and the population, to which he carved a prolific working career. His ability to have those around him in floods of laughter is ever present through
his drawings, which keeps his joyous spirit alive. When the collection of Hoffnung’s cartoons was exhibited at the Edinburgh Festival, The Guardian wrote: “…never before at an Edinburgh exhibition can so many visitors have been heard giving way to uninhibited laughter as the crowds filing through the Hoffnung exhibition […] in all, this exhibition is guaranteed to keep you happy for as long as you have the time to spare.”
King & McGaw are privileged to offer these works produced to an exceptional museum quality standard, each framed by hand. Brilliant as standalone pieces, these prints can also be appreciated as collectors’ items with a myriad of animated scenes to form your very own Hoffnung gallery at home. Beautifully presented in bespoke frames, they’re perfect for the devoted musician, lover of orchestras, or admirer of light-hearted illustrations.
[Source: press release]
In this, the first in a new occasional series of articles on repertoire, pianist Daniel Tong introduces a chamber work with a fascinating “melting pot of cross-reference” which first captivated him as a teenager.
Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio, in C minor, Op. 66 was published in 1846 amidst illustrious company, dedicated to superstar violinist-composer Louis Spohr, premiered with another world-famous violinist Ferdinand David alongside the composer, and presented to Fanny Mendelssohn as a fortieth birthday present. It is a piece full of fire and passion, but also confession and intimacy. Although by no means rarely performed, for many years it has lain in the shadow of its lyrical predecessor in D minor from 1839, an audience favourite ever since Robert Schumann declared it the ‘master trio of the age’. But for me this C minor work is the more dynamic, challenging and multi-layered of the two, notwithstanding Mendelssohn’s low mood at the time: “Nothing seems good enough to me, and in fact neither does this trio”, he wrote to Spohr.
Artists can have a tendency towards the overly self-critical and certainly later composers seemed to agree with my more positive appraisal. Schumann paid homage to this work in his own final Trio from 1851, and Brahms also recalled it, both in his magnificent F minor Piano Sonata, Op. 5, and even more tellingly in the finale of his Op. 60 Piano Quartet. There is a world of allusion in Mendelssohn’s score, from Beethoven in the opening passagework to Chopin’s C♯ Minor Scherzo in the chorale section of the finale. I love this melting pot of cross-reference with Mendelssohn’s Trio at its centre; it is as if a whole host of composers are taking part every time we play the piece.
Indeed the piano trio itself was a medium rich in intertext and personal significance for Mendelssohn’s circle. The moment when it was written was particularly extraordinary: Felix was working on his trio during 1845, the year before Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn wrote their own Piano Trios. In 1847 Robert Schumann produced his first two trios, the first of which was obviously inspired by Mendelssohn’s 1839 Trio, as well as his wife’s work. I imagine them playing these pieces to one another alongside string player friends, each expressing enthusiasm, but also giving advice. There are many accounts of such meetings. And my mind travels further, imagining the feel of the old wooden-framed piano beneath the fingers of these four geniuses, the flicker of the fire in the grate, the starched collars of the men, cinched waists of the women, laughter and wine, because however much a work of art is set free to transcend its origins, these are works of a particular moment. One cannot play the Mendelssohn without the others in the room. Beethoven and Brahms too. Life, in those days, was precious; by the end of 1847, both Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn were dead.
The trio opens (Allegro energico e con fuoco) with swirling piano figures, whilst the strings play threatening, sustained chords. The whole movement tumbles forward with unstoppable momentum, new themes often beginning before the previous one has finished. The piano part alternates between demonic flashes of virtuosity and the simplicity of a chorale-like second theme, in a Faustian tussle, all achieved through a thematic development of which Beethoven would have been proud. There is a sublime, prayer-like oasis in the middle section, but the power of the minor tonality is in the end too much; the opening material first sneaks back in and then hammers the chorale into a desperate fortissimo before Mephistopheles leaves, slamming the door behind him. It is a movement of dramatic concision and pent-up energy that seems to mirror its composer’s mood and hint at the precarity of life, leaving you (literally, as a performer) breathless.
Next comes the movement that captivated me as a teenager, amongst the drama and pathos, a profoundly beautiful song without words, cast as a lilting sicilienne (Andante espressivo). Again Mendelssohn makes use, to beguiling effect, of overlapping phrases where the end of one is also the beginning of the next, but this time there is a disarming simplicity to the action, set in stanzas of three lines each. The middle section increases the tension and momentum as dark clouds pass, before the motion is carried into a reprise of the song, the piano turning arabesques with great delight whilst the singing strings develop their harmony as two soulmates who have experienced life together.
Third comes the scherzo, Molto allegro quasi presto, the three players ready to pounce like tigers, glancing at one another in adrenaline-fuelled anticipation. The violinist gives the merest hint of a nod and the strings are off, deft and fleet, my job initially to support their scurrying semiquavers with dark rumbles of harmony. Once the headlong flight is instigated it cannot be stopped; my hands dance around the keyboard in a complex choreography learned through painstaking repetition. The notes are too fast to devote conscious thought to each one at speed. The central trio section explodes with gleeful laughter, continuing the moto perpetuo without respite, even bursting back in when it has no right to, after the scherzo material has returned. Finally the movement retreats to the shadows with string pizzicatos, the audience let out their breath, often audibly, and we all wonder yet again just quite how we managed it.
Poised on the threshold of the finale, the narrative could still take many turns. Mendelssohn plunges us back into the stormy world of the opening movement with a galloping Allegro appassionato night-ride, the anguished phrases of the cello soaring above, but as in a good thriller, we are still unsure as to how the piece will conclude: will it be in tragedy, along the lines of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’ [Piano Sonata] or Brahms’s B Major Trio, or a more positive resolution? When the second theme arrives it recalls the chorale-like music of the first movement – Gretchen perhaps, to complete the Faustian trio of characters – but the masterstroke is still to come. In the central part of the movement, the music fragments and dissipates, as if exhausted or in mental turmoil. A true chorale now emerges, evolving from the Gretchen material that has its root in the first movement, pianissimo, pure and soothing. Initially this seems as if it may just be a typical contrasting episode, as the main themes of the movement re-assert themselves, but during the coda, as the music seems set to spiral into crazed oblivion, the chorale reappears, majestic and fortissimo, like a mighty archangel, to banish the darkness forever. The Trio ends in exalted triumph, hard won, but all the more joyous for it.
My London Bridge Trio, David Adams, Kate Gould and myself, are performing this piece three times in January: on 20th at the Assembly Rooms in Norwich, 22nd in Seaford, Devon, and on 23rd at Conway Hall in London.
Here is the first movement played by a previous incarnation of our trio, when Tamsin Waley-Cohen was violinist:
Pianist Daniel Tong enjoys a diverse musical life and is regarded as one of Britain’s most respected and probing artists. He performs as soloist and chamber musician, and directs two chamber music festivals, as well as teaching and writing. Born in Cornwall, Daniel first came to prominence as piano finalist in the BBC Young Musicians competition (more years ago than he cares to remember) and his life has subsequently embraced a rich variety of musical experience, from concerto performances at Kings Place and St Martin-in-the-Fields in London, chamber concerts at the Wigmore Hall and frequent broadcasts on BBC Radio, to a current role as Head of Piano in Chamber Music at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. He released his first solo CD of works by Schubert for the Quartz label in 2012 and has recently recorded the three Op. 10 Piano Sonatas by Beethoven for Resonus Classics, due for release in Spring 2022. Later next year he records piano works by Brahms for the same label. He also recorded short solo works by Frank Bridge for Dutton as part of a London Bridge Ensemble disc and broadcast Janacek’s piano sonata live on BBC Radio 3. He has appeared as concerto soloist at St Martin-in-the-Fields and King’s Place in London.
If you would like to contribute to the Repertoire in Focus series, please see this article for further information
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Guest interview by Michael Johnson
The Russian pianist Irina Lankova, based in Europe for the past 25 years, has kept her career moving despite the lockdowns and confinements of the covid pandemic. She performs at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in May 2022, and has other engagements to the Salle Cortot in Paris, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, “and many concerts in between”, as she said in our interview.
Her new album Elégie, a “very personal selection” of her favourite emotional pieces by Rachmaninov, Schubert and Bach, has been critically acclaimed in Europe where she has built her career as a soloist. Her playing is notable for her erudite talks in French, English or Russian before recitals, and her expressive interpretations. It is not unusual, she says, to leave members of the audience in tears. “I also cry, at least internally, when I play,” she says.
She has issued six other albums featuring Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Liszt, Schubert, Chopin and Bach.
In this YouTube clip she performs one of the selections from the album recorded during her recital at the Salle Gaveau, Paris
She reads voraciously and draws on the Russian masters – Dostoevsy, Bulgakov, Pasternak, Pushkin, Akhmatova and others “to understand the suffering and the spirituality of the characters”.
Her new album and her internet clips are illustrated with the work of the late photographer Peter Lindberg, who sought her out after absorbing the “strength and fragility” of her playing. She writes in her liner notes that “with all his kindness he was able to capture this duality and something more, invisible.”
Now raising a family while practicing long hours on her Steinway B, she balances her Russian origins with her European life, still playing with much of her Russian school training in evidence.
Ms. Lankova granted this telephone interview (below) from her home in Belgium and mine in Bordeaux covering her musical origins, what matters most to her continued development as a musician, and where she is headed next.
Here is an edited transcript of our conversation.
You come from an unusual family of mechanical engineers? Are your parents music-lovers?
My parents were not musicians, but they were what we call intelligentsia, people who read, listen and think. There was a piano at home, so it was the most natural thing that I started to go to a music school at the age of 7.
When did the piano first become important to you?
Almost immediately after I started. I was very shy, introverted, bored and sensitive, so music became all at once a friend, a shelter, a source of intellectual challenge and beauty.
Were you attracted to one of the big-name Russian pianists – Gilels, Richter Yudina, Kissin, Tatiana Nikolaeva, Lev Naumov? Did you or do you listen to their recordings? Do they influence you?
Sure, all of the above, but mostly Horowitz, Lipatti, Gould, Rubenstein, Rachmaninov and later Grigory Sokolov. Their recordings forged my musical taste, made the reference point for what is my commitment to music, the quality of work, the depth of the interpretations, and the attitude towards the performance – respect for the score, becoming a musician at the service of Music and not the opposite.
When were you first recognized as an exceptional talent?
Around 10 or 11 years old, I guess I was playing Liszt’s paraphrases and I wasn’t realizing that I was playing something difficult, so at some point my parents were told that I should consider this professional orientation. At the same time, I was also doing exceptionally well at school, so my parents were not inclined to let me choose music unless I entered the best college. At age of 13, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do. This persisted until the day I pushed the door open to the Gnessin Musical College and from that moment there was no second option for me, that’s where I wanted to belong.
How many years did you study at the Gnessin Musical College? Was it very demanding? A wonderful experience? Or was it hell on earth?
I studied at Gnessin from the age of 14 to 18. My four years there were absolutely wonderful. I studied with Irina Temchenko, who was wonderful to me, and who taught me so much. I’m still in touch with her on a regular basis. And I also was taking occasional lessons with other great Moscow professors which broadened my outlook. These included Olga Tchernjak, Lev Naoumov, Vladimir Tropp.
How did the move to Belgium at age 19 affect your playing? Was Russian training removed and suppressed from your musicality?
No, not at all, maybe just the opposite. In Brussels I studied at the Royal Conservatory with Russian professor Evgeny Mogilevsky (himself a pupil of Heinrich Neuhaus), so I totally continued with the Russian school. I also worked with Vladimir Viardo and Vladimir Ashkenazy. I was exposed to other influences by living in Europe and going to concerts. For example, Early Music that I loved ever since. But my taste for a specific piano sound was already formed by Russian teachers.
How would you describe the “Russian school”? Do you feel it in your bones? Is it more aggressive and expressive? Or is this a meaningless question?
I think it is real. The secret of Russian pianism is probably in the singing and depth of sound, in the rich scale of colours and nuances, and a special expressiveness. We really look for a large scale of colours, from pianissimo to fortissimo. Not being afraid of expressiveness. We avoid making it overly sugary.
In your stagecraft, you demonstrate an attractive grace, smooth movements of arms and hands, controlled emotions. Is this your natural demeanour or have you been trained for this image?
The movements come from the desire of a particular sound that I want to achieve: the singing sound, full and deep, without harshness, long melodic lines. So, whatever my arms and hands are doing in order to achieve that doesn’t matter to me.
Some pianists fill concert halls with their non-musical trickery – stunning gowns, exaggerated grimaces, bouncing on the piano bench… How have you resisted these temptations?
I need to be myself when I perform. I dress in the same style on stage and off stage — simple, classy and elegant. This means jeans and jackets off stage, long dresses and flared trousers on stage. I feel good in that way and I don’t need to eroticize my looks. And second, and the most important, I think classical music is not about the looks. It’s above all a spiritual and intellectual experience. The music of Bach, Beethoven, Rachmaninov aim to elevate the human being. When I perform, I’m very humble in front of these composers and the public. I’m not flirting with public, neither I try to impress. Instead I’m putting all my heart and soul into the performance, and I want to share the emotion.
Your playing in your new album “Elégie” creates moods by making the piano “work” for you. The listener feels your floating resonances, your sensitive pedalling, your tone, breathes with your pauses and silences.
I am not aware of that but if you hear it that way I am touched. Elégie is very personal selection of pieces that I love. That’s what I hope you sense while listening. Two thirds of that album is Rachmaninov, my favourite composer. I love his expressivity, the gravity, the drama, the spirit, the sincerity, the richness, the intelligence, the melodies, the harmonies, the unpredictability, the humour, the sadness — everything!
Evolution of your repertoire today will take you where – towards Baroque, Classic, Romantic, Contemporary?
Through the years, it seems that I have gone backward from Rachmaninov and Scriabin, to Chopin, then Schubert, then Bach. Today, I’m kind of turning back to Scriabin and Chopin in my next season’s program and CD. And I also want to perform Mozart concertos. If I feel the emotion, I will play it.
You are an avid reader of books. Who are your favourite Russian writers. How do you bring their poetry, philosophy or prose into your playing?
Totally, I read all the time in Russian, French and English. Right now I’m finishing the new book of my favourite Russian author Ludmila Ulitzkaya. Of course, I have read most of classics to Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Bulgakov, Pushkin, Akhmatova. I think it’s important to read Russian literature to understand Russian music, to understand the suffering and the spirituality of the characters of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Bulgakov in order to feel the depth of Rachmaninov’s music. I also read a lot in French and English. For me, it’s important to go from contemporary writers to the classics and back.
You have written transcriptions and cadenzas. Do you foresee more ambitious composing objectives ?
No, I don’t think so. I’m not a composer. I’m very happy with my role as an interpreter. It’s an important role in music. We are sort of guardians of what the human race has been doing best — classical music.
You are not the same musician you were 30 years ago. As you reach maturity, how has your musical approach changed? Are you getting better and better?
I hope better and better. You develop as an individual and a human being as well as a musician, and your understanding of life and music become deeper and you have more to say in music when you are 40 than when you were 20, providing you continued to read, learn, play and grow.
How much practice do you need daily to maintain your technique? Do you spend all day at the keyboard?
No, no. If I did, my playing would be very boring. Four hours is ideal for me, but in real life is doesn’t work like that. Sometimes it’s one hour one day versus eight hours the next. The routine is very flexible. I practice on a Steinway B. It’s my friend. We know each other. I can rely on it. It responds to what I want to do.
How reliable is your musical memory? Is it changing as you become more mature? What is your technique for remembering? Do you visualize the score?
I think it’s not the memory that needs to be reliable, but the confidence. Few years ago, I had a very difficult period in my life that damaged my confidence and I had a blackout on stage. It was an important moment for me. It was very painful. After that experience, for a few years I was not able to play by heart. Even in recitals I played with the score before me. It took me a lot of effort, determination and help from various people to get the confidence back and to trust my memory again. Today, I play by heart again, I feel free and love it. But it’s not something I take for granted.
Where did the idea of delivering short music lectures at your recitals come from? Was it your personal concept or did a teacher guide you?
I started intuitively long ago with very short introductions to the pieces, with an idea to provide some key points. And gradually I felt more and more comfortable in talking on stage and I found it helped me to relax and to establish a connection with the public. And the feedback was very good. I made some videos that I called Piano Unveiled and before I realized it, this became my signature.
What has been the impact of the Covid pandemic on your art and your career?
Despite the negative side of cancellations and change of plans, there was a positive side for me. I have had more time to reflect on many things, on my repertoire, on things I wanted to prioritize in the future. I also made recordings, including the new Elégie album.
How do you see your career evolving over the next five or ten years ?
I want to continue establishing myself internationally, playing on a variety of beautiful stages everywhere – Japan, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia, North and South America.
Michael Johnson is a music critic and writer with a particular interest in piano.
He has worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is a regular contributor to International Piano magazine, and is the author of five books.
Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux, France. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.
You can order Michael Johnson’s most recent book, in French and English, with drawings by Johnson: “Portraitures and caricatures: Conductors, Pianists, Composers” here.
This interview first appeared on the Facts and Arts website
The key of C major. It’s the beginner’s key signature and usually the first scale that early piano students learn. (In fact, Chopin considered it the most difficult scale to play and instead liked to begin his students with the B major scale in the right hand, in order to more naturally introduce the passing of the thumb under the other fingers and to help students develop a more fluid finger and hand position.)
The earliest, easiest piano pieces a student may encounter are usually written in the key of C, because this key contains no daunting black notes to confound mind or fingers.
Each musical key has distinctive characteristics and C major is generally associated with childlike innocence, naivety and happiness. Music written in C major tends to be positive and uplifting – but while it may suggest simplicity, not all pieces in C major are simple, and often present a wide range of characters and emotions, as these examples demonstrate. And as the piano’s range developed, so did the music written for it, with increasing invention and sophistication.
Bach – Prelude in C, BWV 846
The most famous of all of Bach’s Preludes, the Prelude in C is built on a sequence of broken chords which modulate through various keys, creating a remarkable processional quality to the music as it approaches its final climactic episode, ending most emphatically in C major.
Chopin – Etude in C, Op 10, No. 1
In the first of his Opus 10 Etudes, Chopin pays homage to Bach, whom he revered. He takes the same C major triad that Bach uses in his Prelude, but instead of distributing it between the two hands, the complete motif is performed by the right hand only, while the left hand underpins the harmonic structure of the piece. Majestic in character, the work shares the same processional quality as Bach’s Prelude. Vladimir Horowitz refused to perform this étude in public, declaring it “the most difficult one of all” [of Chopin’s études].
Mozart – Piano Sonata No. 16 in C, K 545 ‘Sonata Facile’
Mozart described this sonata as “for beginners” and it has the nickname ‘Sonata Facile’ or ‘easy sonata’. One of Mozart’s most popular piano sonatas, it confirms the pianist Artur Schnabel’s assertion that Mozart’s music is “too easy for children, too hard for artists”, and requires a certain amount of technical prowess to perform it convincingly (for example, Mozart employs an Alberti Bass in the first and second movements). Its first movement has an infectious, innocent joyfulness; its slow movement is an elegant serenade with a gently melancholic middle section; while the finale is a lively rondo. Mozart composed three other piano sonatas in C major, but the K 545 remains his most popular and well-known.
Haydn – Piano Sonata in C major Hob XVI: 50
Composed during Haydn’s second visit to London in 1795, this sonata was written both for Therese Jansen, a brilliant English pianist, and also for one of the larger English pianos of the day. Haydn fully exploited the ‘extra notes’ (an extended keyboard) and greater range of sonorities that these English instruments offered, and he was so impressed that he took one back to Vienna with him. In the first movement of the C major sonata he includes the instruction ‘open pedal’, a direction which exists nowhere else in his piano literature, and which is intended to create a mysterious wash of sound in these passages.
The opening movement is full of driving momentum, built from the bare staccato theme from the opening. The middle movement is an operatic Adagio, while the finale is an extrovert Allegro, full of stops and starts and witty false cadences.
Rachmaninoff – Moment Musical Op 16 No 6
Jumping from the end of the eighteenth century to the close of the nineteenth century, in this Moment Musical by Rachmaninoff it is clear that the piano has undergone significant development since Haydn’s day. The instrument for which Rachmaninoff was writing was very similar to the modern piano, and this concert piece uses the entire range of dynamics and sonorities available. It places great technical demands on the player with a challenging chordal melody in both hands, and a dynamic palette that is mostly “loud” and “very loud”. Although stormy and agitated, the piece is nonetheless light-hearted in mood.
Janacek – Good Night from ‘On An Overgrown Path’
In complete contrast, this piano miniature by Leos Janacek, composed at the start of the 20th century, is intimate and wistful with its yearning, naïve melody and repeated flickering motif.
Schumann – Fantasie in C, Op 17
The Fantasie in C is a love letter in music, a culmination of passion, virtuosity and delicacy. No salon sweetmeat, this is a highly demanding, sweepingly romantic large-scale work which pianists approach with trepidation. It alludes to sonata form in its three-movement organisation, Schumann dissolves the formal structure to create a work of striking improvisatory freedom which heightens its emotional impact and poetic narrative. Read more
Some other works in the key of C to explore:
Beethoven – Piano Sonata in C, Op. 53 ‘Waldstein’
Schubert – Wanderer Fantasy
Schumann – Toccata Op 7
Chaminade – Scherzo Op 35 No 1
Brahms – Op 119 No 3
Scriabin – Prelude Op, 11 No 1
Scott Joplin – The Entertainer
Ravel – Rigaudon from Tombeau de Couperin
Stravinsky – Danse Russe from ‘Petrushka’
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