What the great composers teach us

When I was learning the piano as a child, it wasn’t obvious to me why my teacher insisted that I learnt certain repertoire, for example, by Bach, Beethoven or Chopin (my Grade 8 programme featured works by all three). Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught technique as a specific area of piano study, and my teacher never really explained why certain composers and works were useful for both technical and artistic development. Meanwhile, my grounding in music history, styles and genres came from O- and A-level music, going to concerts and opera with my family, and listening to music at home.

Now, as I survey the vast repertoire available to the pianist (far bigger than for any other instrumentalist), I realise that there is much to be gained from studying works by specific composers, for they can each teach us something special which informs the way we approach, interpret and play music.

So, what exactly can the great composers teach us? I have tried to highlight one or two key areas for each composer (these are my own suggestions, based on my experience of their repertoire):

Bach – “counterpoint”

  • how to approach separate voices and textures within a work. Useful not just for playing Baroque repertoire, but for any music where one is required to highlight different voices and layers of sound.

Mozart – “clarity”, “elegance”

  • to play Mozart well, one needs precise articulation, finger independence, control, and lightness
  • an ability to utilise the full range of dynamics and phrasing, with minimal/sensitive use of pedal

Beethoven – “strength”, “structure”

  • an understanding of the building blocks and architecture of music, and the ability to highlight this
  • strength, projection, scrupulous attention to rhythm

Schubert – “melody”, “emotion”

  • Beautifully shaped melodies, rapid shifts in emotion, musical chiaroscuro
  • the ability to move seamlessly between many emotions, from joy to despair, sometimes within the space of a handful of bars, or even a single bar

Chopin – “sensitivity”, “songlines”

  • ultra-smooth legato, controlled shading, dynamics, voicing, pedalling
  • an understanding of the essential melodic line

Liszt – “virtuosity”

  • Play Liszt and you learn how to be a real performer, with the confidence, communication skills and strength to tackle the big warhorses of the repertoire (Russian concertos, Etudes etc) with true bravura
  • Fantastic technical grounding: double-octaves, chunky chords, projection, physical stamina, legatissimo and leggiero playing

Debussy – “colour”, “control”, “detail”

  • Debussy often asks the pianist to forget how the piano works and instead demands touch-sensitive control, subtle shadings, fine articulation, absolute rhythmic accuracy and superb attention to detail. Observe each and every marking in Debussy’s score – they are there for a reason!

Twentieth-century composers – “percussion”, “rhythm”, “articulation”, “colour”

  • Bartok offers even the most junior pianist the chance to learn about percussion and rhythmic vitality, while Prokofiev combines these elements with references back to classical antecedents
  • Messiaen for rhythm, brilliance, emotion, meditation
Maurice Sand, ‘Chopin giving a piano lesson to Pauline Viardot’, drawing (1844)