Top Four Piano Pieces I’d Love to (One Day) Learn

One summer I was at a music store in Melbourne, drooling over pianos I couldn’t afford.

Most of them had signs, saying I needed to ask for permission if I wanted to play them. I found a sales assistant behind a desk and, gesturing to one of the signs, I asked him if he gets a lot of learners coming in and playing Fur Elise on every piano.

‘All the time,’ he said. ‘And that other one … the theme from that movie, The Piano.’

‘”The Heart Asks Pleasure First?” I know that one, actually. I’ll show you,’ I replied, pretending to walk over to the closest piano.

‘Don’t you dare. You might be a lot bigger than me [for reference, I’m over two metres tall], but I’m a lot angrier,’ he joked.

Now these are both nice pieces, but are definitely common choices for the aspiring pianist. A question then arises: If you’re no longer a beginner to piano, do you still have pieces you’d love to learn?

Definitely. Here’s a short list of my top four if-I-had-the-time pieces …

4. Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 54: I Allegro Molto (Nikolai Kapustin)


We start off the list with an explosion of energy. Kapustin was one of those composers who masterfully brought jazz into Classical structures. What results is an incredible mix of complex rhythms and dissonant chords, all organised into a contrasting four-movement sonata.

There are moments of swing, stride and pure chaos. Listening to this whole sonata is like being pulled through a crowd and then being let go for a moment and suddenly grabbed and guided by someone else in a different direction. You’re completely at Kapustin’s mercy.

Nikolai Kapustin – Piano Sonata No. 2, Op. 54: I. Allegro molto (1989) – YouTube

My excuse? I spent a while getting the first page fluent and then realised each of the other 24 pages would probably take me just as long.

3. Gaspard de la nuit: I Ondine (Maurice Ravel)

Similarly, to Kapustin, this piece is also the first movement of a collection. Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit is a three-movement work, based upon poetry by Aloysius Bertrand. This first movement, “Ondine”, is about the water nymph Undine beckoning an observer to visit her in her kingdom at the bottom of a lake. The observer tells her he loves a mortal, so she weeps, laughs and vanishes. You can hear the cascading water and droplets in this movement.

Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit, No. 1, “Ondine” Sheet Music + Audio – YouTube

My excuse? The whole suite is famously difficult. The last movement (“Scarbo”) is considered one of the most difficult piano pieces ever written. I imagine the “Ondine” isn’t too far off that. I’ll just admire this one from a distance, thank you.

2. Java Suite: X In the Kraton (Leopold Godowsky)

As travel became more accessible a lot of European composers became fascinated by countries to the east. Godowsky wrote his Java Suite as a musical travelogue to describe his experiences in Java. This suite is heavily influenced by gamelan music and you can definitely hear the colours of Indonesia. “In the Kraton” is the tenth piece in this suite and it’s my favourite.

Godowsky – In the Kraton – YouTube

My excuse? The polyrhythms are very intimidating. The rhythmic patterns are so cleverly, but complexly, intertwined. It’s mesmerising to listen to, though. There’s so much going on and so much to listen for.

1. Happy Birthday in the Style of Maurice Ravel (Nahre Sol)

We return—although not quite—to Ravel. Sol is a (currently active) composer, performer and teacher. She has a YouTube series called “How To Sound Like …” where she discusses the stylistic traits of famous composers and then rewrites Happy Birthday, emulating her chosen composer. She’s covered Bach, Debussy, Beethoven, Chopin and others; however, my favourite of hers is her take on Ravel …

“[Ravel’s music is] almost like a very delicate flower, but frozen inside a geometric—a perfectly-shaped geometric—block of ice.” (Sol)

You can find her performance at twelve minutes and four seconds into the linked video below. If someone asked me what style of piano music I’d like to one day compose I would point to this particular piece.

How to Sound Like Maurice Ravel – YouTube

My excuse? Does Netflix count?

I wanted to keep this list short, as it’s easy to get carried away when recommending music; but there are plenty more pieces I’d like to learn out there (I haven’t even mentioned the many seemingly impossible piano arrangements of orchestral pieces). Hopefully you’ve found these pieces as inspiration as I do.

References:
Godowsky Java Suite History : Interlude
Ravel’s “Gaspard de la Nuit”: Three Devilish Sonic Fantasies – The Listeners’ Club (thelistenersclub.com)
How to Sound Like Maurice Ravel – YouTube 

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