The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works

Watch The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works

  • 2013
  • 1 Season

This educational video features 24 lectures from Professor Robert Greenberg, all executed in an entertaining fashion. It explores the reasons why the piano has fascinated both audiences and musicians as a solo concert instrument for more than two centuries. Greenberg examines 23 of the most masterful compositions ever produced for the piano since the mid 18th century from some of the world's greatest composers, including Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Handel and Mussorgsky.

The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works
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The A-List
24. The A-List
September 27, 2013
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."
Copland?Piano Variations
23. Copland?Piano Variations
September 27, 2013
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.
Prokofiev?Piano Sonata No. 7
22. Prokofiev?Piano Sonata No. 7
September 27, 2013
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.
21. Rachmaninoff??tudes-tableaux
September 27, 2013
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.
Scriabin?Piano Sonata No. 5
20. Scriabin?Piano Sonata No. 5
September 27, 2013
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.
Ravel?Valses nobles et sentimentales
19. Ravel?Valses nobles et sentimentales
September 27, 2013
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.
18. Alb?niz?Iberia
September 27, 2013
Albéniz's magnum opus for the piano celebrates the culture of the Andalucía 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.
Debussy?Pr?ludes, Book One
17. Debussy?Pr?ludes, Book One
September 27, 2013
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."
Debussy??The Sunken Cathedral?
16. Debussy??The Sunken Cathedral?
September 27, 2013
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.
Mussorgsky?Pictures at an Exhibition
15. Mussorgsky?Pictures at an Exhibition
September 27, 2013
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.
Brahms?Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118
14. Brahms?Six Pieces for Piano, Op. 118
September 27, 2013
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."
Brahms?Handel Variations, Op. 24
13. Brahms?Handel Variations, Op. 24
September 27, 2013
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.
Liszt?Sonata in B Minor
12. Liszt?Sonata in B Minor
September 27, 2013
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.
Liszt?Years of Pilgrimage
11. Liszt?Years of Pilgrimage
September 27, 2013
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.
10. Schumann?Kreisleriana
September 27, 2013
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.
Chopin?Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23
9. Chopin?Ballade in G Minor, Op. 23
September 27, 2013
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.
Chopin?Pr?ludes, Op. 28
8. Chopin?Pr?ludes, Op. 28
September 27, 2013
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.
Schubert?Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major
7. Schubert?Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major
September 27, 2013
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.
Beethoven?Diabelli Variations, Op. 120
6. Beethoven?Diabelli Variations, Op. 120
September 27, 2013
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.
Beethoven?The Appassionata Sonata
5. Beethoven?The Appassionata Sonata
September 27, 2013
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.
Mozart?Piano Sonata in C Minor, K. 457
4. Mozart?Piano Sonata in C Minor, K. 457
September 27, 2013
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.
J. S. Bach?Goldberg Variations
3. J. S. Bach?Goldberg Variations
September 27, 2013
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.
J. S. Bach?The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One
2. J. S. Bach?The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One
September 27, 2013
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.
Piano Starts Here!
1. Piano Starts Here!
September 27, 2013
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 evolved from its beginnings in 1700 into the modern concert instrument.

This educational video features 24 lectures from Professor Robert Greenberg, all executed in an entertaining fashion. It explores the reasons why the piano has fascinated both audiences and musicians as a solo concert instrument for more than two centuries. Greenberg examines 23 of the most masterful compositions ever produced for the piano since the mid 18th century from some of the world's greatest composers, including Mozart, Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Brahms, Handel and Mussorgsky.

The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works is a series that is currently running and has 1 seasons (24 episodes). The series first aired on September 27, 2013.

Where to Watch The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works

The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works is available for streaming on the The Great Courses website, both individual episodes and full seasons. You can also watch The 23 Greatest Solo Piano Works on demand at Apple TV+ and Amazon Prime and Amazon.

  • Premiere Date
    September 27, 2013