The piano brings together every element of music like nothing else. Pianists often deal with melody, harmony, rhythm, and percussion simultaneously, making the piano an incredibly expressive and dynamic instrument.
Much of the most beautiful and challenging classical music ever written was written for the piano, and I’ve picked out my favorites.
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What makes a piano piece/concerto special?
A concerto is a classical composition that features a soloist accompanied by an orchestra. In this case, a piano concerto would feature the pianist front and center.
The approach to composition for a single instrument compared to writing for an orchestra is very different. But solo piano arrangements can be just as compelling as a concerto. With that in mind, my list features a mix of solo arrangements and concertos.
Critics judge classical music on many aspects, but two that provide the basis for my selections are technical difficulty and emotional content.
My condition regarding technical difficulty is that the composition must be emotionally moving, too. Technical difficulty without emotion makes for a great practice exercise but doesn’t merit a place on this list. On the other hand, a (technically) simple composition that’s hugely moving can earn a spot on the list.
My picks represent the most impressive blend of virtuosic technique and beauty, along with some compositions that confirm you don’t have to be a virtuoso to play something beautiful.
These are the greatest piano pieces and concertos of all time:
Sergei Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 2
Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is universally regarded as a work of genius, a compositional masterpiece. Due to its original success and continued plaudits from critics, the fact that it was a make-or-break composition often goes unmentioned.
Before completing his second piano concerto, the great Rachmaninoff suffered from severe depression and writer’s block, much of which is attributed to the prior shortcomings of his Symphony No. 1.
As a great concerto should, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 2 delivers a second movement steeped with emotion, so much so that it found its way into one of the most iconic movie scenes of all time (“Brief Encounter”).
In true Rachmaninoff fashion, this composition terrifies most pianists because it’s so physically demanding. The final section is particularly daunting for any pianist, and I applaud anyone who tackles this monstrous piece; it’s incredible.
Ludwig Van Beethoven – Piano Concerto No. 5
Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto is a very important piano concerto for several reasons, the first being that it was his last. Another reason is that it was not only a departure from classical convention in some ways but also a sign of change.
Classical music, in many ways, is a very rigid art form that doesn’t like to stray from tradition. The length of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 is the first break away from tradition, and it’s followed by a somewhat unconventional transition from the second movement to the final section.
Although written around 1809, the concerto premiered in 1812 with Beethoven’s student Carl Czerny at the piano. The Romantic period wasn’t fully established at that time, yet Beethoven’s work now seems like a look into the future. The unapologetic romance and majesty of the Emperor Concerto is a joy to behold.
Clara Schumann – Piano Concerto
Clara Schumann was one of the most revered pianists of the 19th century and an exceptionally gifted composer. Astonishingly, Clara Schumann began writing this piece at just 13 years of age. The gifted composer premiered the finished Piano Concerto in 1835 before reaching 16 years old.
While working on this concerto, Clara (then Clara Wieck) was a student of Robert Schumann, her future husband. It’s well-documented that Robert Schumann made some revisions to Clara’s concerto.
The reason these revisions are important is that many teenagers, no matter how prodigal, would concede to the changes made by such a renowned pianist and composer. However, when premiering the concerto, the young Clara Wieck reverted to her original work, choosing to ignore Schumann’s direction.
As a female composer leading her generation aside giants like Chopin and Liszt, Clara Schumann is a monumental figure in classical music, and her Piano Concerto embodies that.
Chopin – Nocturne in E flat Major (Op. 9, No. 2)
Chopin composed this piece between 1830 and 1832 when the legendary virtuoso was just around 20 years old. The Nocturne in E flat Major comes from a set of three that he dedicated to one of his students, Maria Pleyel.
Nocturne in E flat Major is now Chopin’s most famous work and a stunningly beautiful composition. Depending on the pianist’s interpretation, this piece can either be overtly sentimental, highly polished and refined, or anywhere in between.
Even with the notation on a sheet, Nocturne in E flat Major is a piece that almost dares the pianist to express themselves. In this case, the overwhelming emotion may be determined to some extent by the performer’s mood. Of course, I’m talking about the nuances of articulation rather than any significant changes.
Whether Chopin would approve of how any pianist interprets this work today is another matter, as he’s known to have been a harsh critic when comparing students to his immaculate standards. However, it’s suggested that he once admitted Franz Liszt may be the only person to play Op. 3, No. 2 as beautifully as he did.
Claude Debussy – Clair de lune
You don’t have to be a classical music lover to appreciate the rare beauty of Claude Debussy’s Clair de lune. Even if you don’t recognize the title, you know the composition; it’s featured in many movies and TV shows, most notably, a famous scene from the blockbuster “Ocean’s Eleven” (or Twilight, if you prefer).
Clair de lune is one of the most romantic and dreamy classical piano compositions ever written. Although full of romance, the piece is also sad, reflective, mournful over what might have been, and evocative of any other emotion you might feel staring into the night sky.
A Paul Verlaine poem that discusses the sad but beautiful light of the moon is the inspiration for Clair de lune.
Aspiring pianists will be glad to hear that Debussy’s ethereal classic isn’t the most technically challenging piece on the list. The downside is that playing the right notes is never enough; playing them with the right feel is all that matters here.
Sergei Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 3
More than most composers, Sergei Rachmaninoff had an undeniable ability to write beautiful music that terrified musicians. So much so that the pianist this concerto was dedicated to, Josef Hofmann (an outstanding musician), never performed it publicly.
Rather than Josef Hofmann, Rachmaninoff premiered the piece himself, often declaring it his favorite composition. This particular piano concerto is often a measure of a pianist’s ability because performing it well is such a monumental task.
It’s arguably the most technically challenging concerto on the list, thanks to its many lightning-fast runs and immense chord structures.
For all of its technical challenges, and there are many, I like it most for its simplicity (in some areas). The opening melody is absolutely breathtaking in its simplicity and one of my favorite lines in all classical music.
The same can be said of the harmonic arrangement in some areas; Rachmaninoff wasn’t afraid to keep things simple when simple is enough, and that’s a mark of a true genius.
Johannes Brahms – Piano Concerto No. 2
Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 2 came more than 20 years after his first, but it was worth the wait by all accounts. Everything about this piano concerto is unapologetically epic! Everything from the first note to the last is played with purpose and intent.
The concerto lasts almost an hour, making it one of the longest ever written. Given its length, the popularity of this concerto confirms how captivating the music is to the audience over four movements. Nothing is rushed or forced; Brahms uses the duration and develops themes slowly.
However, it is clear from the first movement that it’s building toward something special. That something special comes in a final section that showcases Brahms unparalleled ability to get the most out of the piano.
It’s not quite as childlike as his most famous piece, Brahms’ Lullaby, but the final section has an infectious, joyous, playful character. The playful character almost makes the virtuosic prowess on display more frightening.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 21
I’m not sure what’s more impressive, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 or the fact that he managed to complete and premiere 21 piano concertos. If you consider his untimely death came at just 35 years old, it’s remarkable that he was able to achieve everything he did.
With so many concertos to choose from, Piano Concert No. 21 is a favorite of many classical music lovers and an excellent showcase of Mozart’s style.
One reason for Mozart’s piano concertos being so distinct is that he wrote them for himself rather than for other performers. So, he was never influenced by the style, ability, or preference of others.
Mozart had a way of storytelling through his concertos that went beyond the compositional talents of most peers. Every instrument has a specific role: heroes and villains.
Very few composers could write for so many instruments with the fluidity of Mozart, and his Piano Concerto Np. 21 is perhaps the best example.
Franz Liszt – La Campanella
Franz Liszt was a true piano virtuoso and perhaps chased that title more than any other composer on the list. Liszt displayed astonishing technique that made him something of a superstar in his day.
While showing virtuosic technique is often a byproduct of compositional choices, Liszt wanted to play pieces that were too difficult for others.
One of the great things about Franz Liszt, in his quest for virtuosic superiority, is that he was never afraid to compliment the greatness of others.
La Campanella comes from Liszt’s series of piano studies titled The Grandes études de Paganini. The melody comes from Paganini’s Violin Concerto No. 2, a sign of Liszt’s admiration for the great Italian violinist.
La Campanella means little bell, which is fitting of the spritely, playful articulation throughout the piece.
It’s far from an easy composition to perform; the speed of some passages makes them difficult enough, but maintaining such a light bell-like touch throughout is even more challenging. It’s a pleasure to hear any pianist play La Campanella well.
Johann Sebastian Bach – Goldberg Variations
Bach is possibly the most important and influential classical composer ever. Although Bach’s work is often named among the most significant piano pieces, he was not primarily a pianist.
The Baroque era composer was a multi-instrumentalist, playing organ, harpsichord, viola, and violin to exceptionally high standards. His works for keyboards aren’t just beautiful; they are milestones for technical excellence for piano students everywhere.
Bach composed many significant works, including sonatas, concertos, suites, and cantatas. However, his Goldberg Variations are undoubtedly among his most important compositions.
The Goldberg Variations take a simple theme and develop it over 30 variations. Each variation gets increasingly complex and less familiar.
Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s recording is widely considered the gold standard performance of Bach’s variations. If you have time to listen to the entire thing, it’s astounding, and if you’re like me, it will remind you that your technique needs some work!
Béla Bartók – Piano Concerto No. 2
Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2 rivals the most feared Rachmaninoff concertos when it comes to sheer difficulty. This particular piece is so tricky that The New York Philharmonic delayed a performance because they needed more time to perfect the music.
Bartók is considered one of Hungary’s greatest composers, a distinction he shares with Franz Liszt. He’s also considered one of the most influential composers of the 20th century, yet I still feel he is under-appreciated.
His influence on classical musicians is evident, but I think he’s more than worthy of the wider recognition garnered by the most famous names on the list.
While studying classical music, Bartók was my favorite because his work was so forward-thinking and never bound by expectation. Unfortunately, I didn’t pursue classical studies far enough to reach the dizzy heights of his Piano Concerto No. 2, but I deeply admire those who did.
Bartók’s arrangements for strings in his concertos have inspired most of the best cinematic composers we’ve ever known.
Ludwig Van Beethoven – Moonlight Sonata
Moonlight Sonata is a name that became more popular after Beethoven’s death, and it fits the piece perfectly (Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor).
The name Moonlight Sonata seems to come from the German poet Ludwig Rellstab, who said the first movement was akin to a boat floating in the moonlight on Lake Lucerne. This comparison came in 1830, almost three decades after Beethoven premiered the sonata.
The first movement of Moonlight Sonata is possibly the most recognizable piece of classical music ever. Despite its apparent romantic quality, the dark tones and strong octaves in the left hand also evoke feelings of despair and mystery.
If there’s ever a piece of music that confirms beauty doesn’t have to be complex, it’s Moonlight Sonata. It’s such a moving composition, and if you’re an aspiring pianist, I suggest tackling the first movement; it’s not too difficult, and the joy you’ll get from playing it is incredible.
I’d have added Moonlight Sonata for the first movement alone, but there are two more movements that aren’t as widely familiar to listeners. The second and third movements get increasingly more complex as the piece progresses.
The entire sonata is around 15 minutes long, and I’d encourage you to listen from start to finish, especially if you’re less familiar with the second and third movements.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky – Piano Concerto No. 1
Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is a sublime example of melody, harmony, and articulation in perfect unity.
The opening theme is breathtakingly beautiful and probably far more popular than many people realize. The romantic quality of the piece made it an ideal choice for many cinematic uses, from Hollywood movies to TV commercials.
Tchaikovsky was known to compose works that were both elegant and bold in equal measure. His Piano Concerto No. 1 is best known for its lush harmonies and ethereal melodies, but the piece is not without complexity.
While much of the concerto engages in sweet conversation between the soloist and the orchestra, some passages are as punchy and powerful as anything on this list.
Tchaikovsky wanted Nikolai Rubinstein, a close friend and prominent pianist of the time, to premiere the concerto. However, Rubinstein refused, declaring the work worthless in many parts and almost beyond repair in others.
I’m no one to disagree with Rubinstein, but given the concerto’s success, it seems a rather harsh judgment. Pianist Hans von Bülow premiered the concerto in Boston in 1875.
Robert Schumann – Scenes from Childhood
Kinderszenen Op. 15, or Scenes from Childhood as it’s commonly known, is a collection of 13 short piano pieces written as a gift to Clara Wieck (Clara Schumann) before marriage.
Robert Schumann originally wrote 30 short pieces but chose just 13 to include in this collection. Schumann published the remaining pieces at a later date.
Each short piece tells a story of a common childhood experience, from playing with friends to bedtime stories. The collection is dreamlike and nostalgic; as children, everything should be viewed with imagination, hope, and happiness, and that’s very much the picture that Schumann paints.
The most famous piece from the collection is No. 7, Träumerei (Dreaming), which imagines a child dreaming.
What I love about that particular piece, as well as the obvious dreamlike quality that comes from rubato performance, is that it encourages expression and unique interpretation. Although the overall feel largely remains the same from one pianist to another, you can easily hear subtle but important differences.
It’s a fantastic collection to learn and revisit years later to see how your personality as a pianist has changed.
George Gershwin – Rhapsody in Blue
It’s not easy to find anyone who will say that George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue isn’t a work of art. However, adding that work of art to lists such as this one is often met with criticism.
Many classical purists don’t acknowledge Rhapsody in Blue as a serious composition because it takes influence from many other genres, notably jazz.
Classical music has a reputation for being narrow-minded and elitist. While I think that reputation has faded somewhat over time, it isn’t gone, and it’s a real shame.
Many of the greats, including many on this list, were known improvisers. As important as tradition is, I think musicians in any genre are limiting themselves if they close their ears to everything else.
Rhapsody in Blue isn’t a traditional classical piece; for me, it’s an important piece nonetheless. It bridges a divide in music that shouldn’t exist.
Gershwin’s masterpiece is very indulgent and doesn’t try to hide the fact that it’s different, and that’s why I love it. It’s a beautiful composition that celebrates unity and creative freedom.
I could probably restructure this list 100 times and never be entirely sure that I have each composition in the right place. What I’m certain of is that every composition discussed above deserves to be on the list.
Each piece is of major significance to classical music in different ways, and as long as we can appreciate all of them, the order matters less.