It is sometimes quite a task to single out particular classical pieces from the extensive piano repertoire and label them as most popular, however, there are clearly some pieces that return time and again to the top of the hit list. Whilst covering every one of those current pieces is not possible in a single article, I have enjoyed choosing a selection of classical piano pieces that remain unshakable favorites.
Most Popular Classical Piano Songs
1. Prelude in C major by JS Bach (BWV 846)
Bach composed many preludes and fugues during his lifetime but the ’48 Preludes and Fugues’ are probably the most popular collection of this kind of keyboard work. What is just as remarkable is that during the entire collection Bach writes a prelude and fugue in all 24 keys of the tonal system; each with their unique characters. The first set of 24 compositions was completed around 1722, the second set following some twenty years later.
The C major prelude is essentially continuous flow of broken chords that sound from the opening through to the conclusion of the composition. The idea is beautifully simple and through Bach’s sheer ingenuity he sustains the piece across many gentle changes of mood and feeling. As a piece, it is approachable by relatively inexperienced pianists but avoids over pedaling.
2. Impromptu in A-flat major Op.90 (D.899); No.4 by Franz Schubert
This A flat Impromptu is part of a set of eight such pieces that Schubert composed in 1827. The opus 90 collection is four of these compositions, the A flat Impromptu arriving as the final piece in the set. A little like the Bach Prelude mentioned above, this piece uses arpeggios throughout for its initial theme. Schubert begins this Impromptu with flurries of descending arpeggios in the right hand of the piano.
Interestingly, Schubert chooses not to open with arpeggios in the tonic key but instead he uses the tonic minor (A flat minor). This gives a bittersweet tone to the start of the music that brightens with the introduction of the secondary theme heard in the left hand of the piano. Schubert effortlessly weaves his narrative through a variety of developmental sections and keys including B major (C flat minor), and B minor. The title of these pieces was supposedly not given by the composer himself but added by Schubert’s publisher.
3. Piano Sonata No.14 (Op.27; No.2), in C# Minor By Ludwig van Beethoven
The entire Sonata for piano was completed by Beethoven in 1801 and gained popularity quickly amongst the people of the time. That popularity has endured, especially for the opening movement that gained the nickname ‘Moonlight Sonata’ for the composition. It was the German critic Rellstab who felt that the opening movement of the sonata conjured the image of moonlight upon the lake of Lucerne. This nickname was adopted a few years after Beethoven had died, so we do not know how he would have reacted to this new title.
Beethoven himself composed this sonata in the manner of fantasy. This is the subtitle he gives to the sonata and one that should not be overlooked when considering the performance of the work. It would seem that Beethoven wrote the piece as if it were an improvisation, more loosely structured than previous sonatas. This is not to imply that the sonata is in some way inferior to his other piano sonatas, just that Beethoven’s intentions were different.
The opening movement is slow and pensive, kept in gentle motion by arpeggio triplets that support the simple, march-like theme. Beethoven transitions through many moods during this piece and the solemnity of the movement is never compromised for sentimentality.
4. Nocturne in E Flat Major Op. 9; No.2 by Frederick Chopin
Chopin’s ‘Nocturnes’ have become some of the most performed and celebrated pieces ever composed for the solo piano. They were composed between 1830 and 1832, putting the composer around the tender age of twenty. A challenge for any pianist, this nocturne shows so many of the features that came to be known as only Chopin.
An example of this is the steady, rhythmic and harmonic support of the left-hand whilst the lyrical melody flows in ever more decorated variations over the top. Melodically the nocturne is instantly recognizable and sings over the accompanying figure with a carefree abandon. The final mini-cadenza is another Chopin trait that just for a fleeting moment allows the nocturne to indulge in a final flourish of playfulness before softly closing.
5. Piano Sonata No. 11, in A Major (K.331) by WA Mozart
This three-movement, the middle period piano composition was written in 1783 and is one of the most loved of his output. In spite of the skill and delights that Mozart includes in the first two movements, it is the third that has attracted the most attention. Like many of Mozart’s Sonatas and Concertos, he finishes this work with a Rondo. It is said that Mozart loved this musical form as it gave him almost endless options to create new musical material.
The final movement is titled, ‘Alla Turca’, which is understood to indicate its likeness to a Turkish March. Mozart is thought to have followed the fashion of his time in imitating the timbres of a Turkish Marching band. True or not, this rondo is a delightful and challenging piece to play. It begins in the slightly sullen key of A minor, brightening almost immediately with the following material in C major. As each new theme is introduced Mozart lifts the mood of the opening, traveling as he does through A major, F# minor and eventually settling on a coda in the tonic major.
6. Bagatelle No.25 in A Minor by Ludwig van Beethoven
From the title above you could be forgiven for not recognizing the piece. Its popular name is ‘Für Elise’ and is amongst the most played classical piano pieces. A bagatelle is a simple and modest piece with no pretense, yet this remarkable work only discovered after Beethoven’s death, is full of great craftsmanship.
The piece is composed in a rondo form and in the key of A minor that gives it a certain bitterness. Like so many of Beethoven’s pieces, the subtle shifts of mood dominate the flow of the music that derives its movement from the repeating arpeggios from the left hand. It is a piece of mystery and intrigue as the true identity of Elise is still a matter for speculation.