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10 pieces of piano music that everyone should know, from Bach to Chopin to Beethoven

Editorial Staff

By Michael Morreale

With hundreds of years of piano repertoire, there's so much music to explore. You hear it every day in commercials and maybe you remember taking lessons as a kid, but there's no denying that the amount of great piano music allows for a lifetime of discovery.

That's why CBC Music is featuring 10 gems from the solo piano repertoire that go beyond "Für Elise" — not that there's anything wrong with it — and highlight the versatility and range of the instrument. You'll fall in love with the piano all over again.

See the list below for 10 pieces of piano music everyone should know.

1. Debussy: L'isle Joyeuse

Take a look at Jean-Antoine Watteau's painting, "L'Embarquement de Cythere," which was Debussy’s inspiration here. It shows colourful pilgrims heading to (or from) the birthplace of Venus, the god of love. You can only imagine what sort of mood these travellers were in, and Debussy's writing captures it perfectly.

2. Chopin: Polonaise in A major, op. 40 no. 1, "Military"

No time is wasted on a flowery introduction. The heroic tune starts with a burst of unrelenting chords that leave the pianist breathless by the time the athletic piece thunders to a close.

3. Beethoven: "Moonlight" Sonata No. 14, iii. Presto agitato

Everyone knows the quiet undulation of the famous first movement, but what comes next deserves to be equally well-known. The third movement is the only movement in the sonata that's actually sonata form but let's not get too technical: its stormy and tempestuous qualities are what draw us in.

4. Ravel: Le tombeau de Couperin

Ravel's music is as refined and well put together as his tailored three-piece suits and silk handkerchiefs. This was Ravel's last piano piece and he later dedicated each of the six movements to friends he lost during the Great War.

5. Liszt: La Campanella

This is what Liszt wrote when he wanted to show off a newly-invented piano that could play twice as many notes as the old model. It translates to "little bell" and is among the most challenging of the nearly 1,400 pieces he wrote.

6. Southam: Glass Houses No. 5 (Revisited)

Petrowska Quilico imagines this energetic music as, "shimmering and shifting patterns of light on water." New material gradually comes into focus as rapid fingerwork transforms the music to unveil new sound worlds.

7. Glass: Metamorphosis 1

Glass adapted this from his score for the film Thin Blue Line about a wrongfully convicted murderer. His evocative music lends itself to so well to the cinema and this piece shows why Glass is one of the most important composers of our time.

8. Bach: Prelude & Fugue in B flat major from the Well-tempered Clavier, book 1

Technically, Bach composed this long before the piano existed, but his music means so much to pianists that he’s a worthy exception. All 48 selections from the Well-tempered Clavier deserve attention, but we love the way Bach turns everything upside down in the prelude and gives the melody to the left hand in the lower half of the piano.

9. Handel: Suite No. 5 in A major

Handel ends this charming suite with a set of variations that have come to be known as the "Harmonious Blacksmith." It shows that periwigged composers knew how to have a good time.

The "Harmonious Blacksmith" bit begins at 8:18.

10. Prokofiev: Piano Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83: iii. Precipitato

Composed in Russia during the peak anxiety of the Second World War, Glenn Gould praises this sonata for its "schizophrenic oscillation of mood." Hold on tight.