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Piano music

Felt piano hammers

One of the most important features of the 18th century was the development of the piano from a wooden-framed instrument with leather-covered hammers to an instrument with an iron frame and felt-covered hammers much like the upright and grand pianos of today. The greater strength of the frame allowed for longer, thicker strings and as a result, a much warmer and richer sound.

Felix Mendelssohn

While sonatas were still written after the time of Beethoven and Schubert, there was a tendency among many composers to write shorter works, some of which could express feeling, emotion or atmosphere. Before moving on to these styles listen to part of the first movement of a sonata by Mendelssohn (1809–1847). Notice the major key and, as the excerpt develops, the use of sequence, an Alberti bass and rubato. The excerpt ends on an imperfect cadence.

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Other substantial works are also important, particularly the long and very difficult Sonata in B minor in one long movement by Franz Liszt (1811–1886).

Frederic Chopin

A prelude was a piece of music which ‘came before’. Chopin (1810–1849), one of the most important piano composers of the 19th century, wrote a set of 24 preludes. Listen to this one, ‘The Snowdrop’, which is one of the shortest, and notice the use of rubato, an important and common feature of music in this period.

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A nocturne was a piece of night music. Listen to this example by the Irish composer John Field (1783–1837) and notice the singing melody played against arpeggios in the accompaniment, again the use of rubato and, importantly in this excerpt, the use of suspensions.

This style was also a favourite of Chopin, who took up this idea and developed it further with very elaborate, decorated right-hand parts.

Piano frame

Songs without words were another important style, basically just a melody line played in a singing style, usually in the right-hand part, while accompanied by arpeggios underneath. Listen to this excerpt by Mendelssohn which is an example of all these features.

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Waltz, mazurka and polonaise were popular dances for piano and particularly by Chopin, who was originally Polish but spent most of his life in Paris.

Impromptu or compositions made up ‘on the spur of the moment’! A popular style with Schubert and Chopin. Many of these shorter styles of piano music were in ternary form with the second section a contrast to the section at the beginning. Listen to this excerpt in a major key and notice the difficulty of the music, the rubato, sequence, the repetition of the first section, the change of tempo and key as the second section starts and the seemingly ‘impromptu’ nature of the composition.

Barcarolle, as the title suggests, is music which has to do with boats. It is associated with Venetian gondoliers and usually has a swaying rhythm in 6/8 or 12/8 time. Listen to this example and notice the rhythm in the left-hand part after the introduction, the rubato, repetition and sequence.

Four ages of Liszt

Ballade, often quite extensive, expressive and difficult pieces. Listen to this excerpt from the Ballade in G minor by Chopin. Notice the difficulty of this music and, at times, the very ornate melody line and the contrast of the start of the very romantic middle section which comes towards the end of this example.

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. Another great and important composer of this time is Franz Liszt (1811–1896). He wrote music in similar styles but is renowned for music of great difficulty as he had very large hands. Many pianists play this music but often have to split up chords into fast arpeggios as they are unable to play chords which he was able to play with ease. Listen to this excerpt from his Ballade No. 1 in Db major and notice the large chords and the flamboyant nature of the music.

Liszt as an elderly man

Theme and variations was still a popular form and one of the few to survive from the Baroque period. Listen to this example of variations on a theme of a well-known Christmas carol, ‘Adeste Fideles’, better known to many as ‘O come all ye faithful’. Listen to the introduction using the first phrase of the carol in the minor key before the main recognisable theme is played, followed by variations on parts of the theme.

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Johannes Brahms

Choral prelude was an organ style made popular by J S Bach in the Baroque period. Brahms was a very important romantic composer who wrote all styles of composition and who used the classical styles and forms in his compositions although the compositions themselves were longer than those of Mozart and Haydn. Here is a short example of his piano work, a chorale prelude.

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These developments were also reflected in the piano concertos of the time and it is worth a little revision or research of the romantic concerto.