15 Romantic Pieces to Fall in Love With

15 Romantic Piano Pieces to Fall in Love With

Max Filkins
July 5, 2022

If you were to ask any random group of classical pianists which is their favorite composer’s music to play, it’s likely the majority of pianists will list a composer of the Romantic Era. Whether it’s Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Liszt, Brahms, Schumann, Mendelsohn, or the later music of Beethoven and Schubert, the Romantic era—spanning roughly 1820 to 1910—encompasses a large proportion of the most iconic and beloved pieces in the classical piano repertoire. The predominance of this one era of music in today’s classical piano culture is hard to understate, but why did this single era give birth to so much of the music we associate with classical piano music, and why are pianists especially so continually drawn to this one epic musical era?

The Romantic era in music was a direct reflection of humanity adapting to our modern world as it began to take shape economically, technologically, socially, and ideologically.

The Birth of the Modern Piano

Although the earliest pianos date back to circa 1700 (towards the end of the Baroque era), the piano underwent centuries of subsequent development to become the instrument we know and love today. The beginnings of the Industrial Revolution towards the end of the 1700s accelerated this advancement in piano technology and with that, a whole new world of pianistic possibilities opened up for 19th-century composers.

The range of the piano was steadily increasing, with more keys being added both on the low bass and high treble ends of the piano, ultimately reaching the full 88-key keyboard we know today. Advancements in designs such as cast-iron plates—which hold much more string tension than wooden frames—and the cross-string layout allowed for a much larger dynamic and expressive musical range with a deeper, fuller, more “modern” sounding tone quality. The development and strengthening of both the sustain (damper) pedal and the soft (una corda) pedal also allowed for many new modes of compositional expression. By the late 1800s, the piano had roughly achieved its modern form.

More Pianos for More People

The Industrial Revolution fueled a vast increase in the production of pianos along with lowering their cost of production. Pianos were no longer exclusive to the high rungs of the aristocracy; they were becoming increasingly affordable for the upper to middle classes. Advances in shipping technology and piano design also made it more feasible and cost-effective to ship pianos worldwide. With many more people embracing the piano for the first time, demand for new exciting music and skilled musicians who could play it skyrocketed. Public concerts were increasingly more affordable and accessible as more powerful instruments could fill larger concert halls. Famous virtuoso pianists such as Franz Liszt were becoming the first “modern” performing superstars, touring all over Europe with crowds of enthusiastic fans cheering them on.

Along with this massive increase in musical demand, composers no longer were forced to seek patronage from the nobility to make a living. The changing economics of the musical world meant composers were increasingly free to write music as they wished. Instead of composing at the behest of wealthy patrons, they were free to express their own musical ideas without interference.

Increasing Diversity and Emergence of a More Modern Musical Culture

Compared to the earlier Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical eras, the Romantic era of music represented a “democratization” of music. Overall, musical styles were becoming evermore diversified with influences from many cultural groups. Oftentimes this expansion of cultural influences was tied to strong nationalist sentiments that were gaining prominence in this time period. The strict adherence to musical forms and conventional structures such as the Sonata that predominated in the classical era were loosening up—rules were being broken and musical innovation was accelerating.

Composers were no longer clinging to rules and conventions dictated by the “stiff upper lip” of the aristocracy and clergy; musical innovation and pushing the boundaries was the spirit of the times. Harmonies were becoming more expansive and colorful, rhythms were becoming more complex and more modern-sounding, and the emphasis was increasingly on writing highly emotional, vibrant, more free-form music that speaks most directly to the human condition. Sudden changes in tempo, rhythms, modulations, syncopations, and cadenza-like passages were employed to give Romantic era music a more improvised, free feel.

The “democratization” of music in this era also meant composers were inspired to write in styles with more immediate broad appeal with highly lyrical, memorable melodies, captivating rhythms, and a more “heart-on-your-sleeve” mushy approach to emotionality. This was also the age of increasing piano showmanship or virtuosity; audiences increasingly demanded to be amazed by incredible shows of technical mastery at the piano, leading this era to encompass much of the most challenging piano music written to date.

As a college-educated classical pianist with two decades of piano experience, half a decade of professional teaching experience, and three years of professional experience in the music/piano industry, I have always been passionate about bringing excellent lesser-known pieces to life and out of the depths of obscurity. The interpretative freedom of bringing these lesser-known works to life outside the confines of decades of performance tradition and strict audience and academic expectations is worth its weight in gold in the heavily tradition-based world of classical piano performance!

For every Clair de Lune, Liebestraum, and Fantasie-Impromptu, there are hundreds of equally riveting and memorable Romantic-era musical works out there waiting for their chance to shine. While the most famous Romantic pieces deserve their beloved status, the Romantic era is such a large and colorful era of music that one could live a lifetime within it and still not soak up all the beauty and enjoyment it has to offer. All fifteen of the pieces in this list would make excellent candidates for performance or just casual enjoyment. Some of these pieces are very obscure, others might be passingly familiar to more steadfast fans of classical piano music, yet all of them, in my opinion, will give back many times over every ounce of love and energy you put into them.

Notes on Ranking Difficulty: There are many different philosophies and ranking systems for assigning difficulty levels to piano pieces, some of the most internationally recognized being ABRSM and RCM exam rankings, used in international piano exams, as well as the Henle level system. As ABRSM and RCM rankings are designed for students from beginner levels up, there’s more distinction in rankings of beginner and intermediate level pieces and less distinction among advanced pieces. G. Henle Verlag rankings have the opposite tendency, with more graded distinction for advanced level pieces and less for easier pieces. As these lesser-known romantic pieces I’ve selected all tend to fall into the mid-to-late intermediate level and up, I will be ranking them in relation to each other. I will be taking into account the technical challenges each piece poses, examining musical aspects such as note density, rhythmic, harmonic, articulative, and structural complexity as well as tempo, length, ease of note reading (modulations, accidentals, chord structures, key and time signature, etc.), and interpretative difficulty. Ranking pieces by difficulty is inherently subjective; every pianist approaches their music from a different perspective and possesses different musical strong and weak points. Familiarity or lack thereof with certain styles, harmonic structures, composers, etc. can have a large impact on how difficult a certain piece is for a pianist. For example, pianists with a strong preference for Romantic-era music might find the unique demands of Baroque counterpoint especially difficult even if the notes on the page, tempos, rhythms, etc. may imply a lower difficulty level.

1. Waltz No. 9 Op. 39 in D minor – Johannes Brahms

Composed: 1866

Difficulty Explanation: Short waltz piece with slow, sparse notes, rhythmically simple. Fairly difficult interpretation (slurred figures, melodic shaping, musical phrasing). Frequent ledger notes, particularly in LH.

The Brahms Waltzes are thoroughly exhilarating representations of mid-era Romantic music filled with expansive, colorful harmonies, rhythmically exhilarating figures, and wide emotional range from deep melancholy to the utmost liveliness—all with an energetic Brahmsian flair! While fairly recognized among long-time classical music fans, they tend to be less well known individually compared to the famous Chopin or Strauss waltzes, with the exception of the famous Op. 39 No. 15 waltz in A♭ major.

This Waltz piece is short and slow with a heavy emphasis on harmonic development. Interpreting this intricate chordal development is a far greater challenge than the notes on the page alone making this an excellent piece for working on harmonic expression and musical phrasing independent of melody. The deep, serene, soulful nature of this melancholic waltz encapsulates a measure of intensity, tenderness and solace expressed with simple sincerity—a well-thought-out performance of this piece demands emotional foresight and intricate musicality more than technical virtuosity.

2. Am Bergsee, Op.51  Hermann Wenzel

First Published: 1904

Difficulty Explanation: Lyrical piece mostly consisting of single-line melody with arpeggiated or chordal left-hand accompaniment. Remains largely diatonic throughout with simple modulations into C minor (relative minor) and A♭ major (IV). The rhythm is steady, some dotted rhythms. Occasional accidentals. Repeats large sections of material. The greatest challenge is melodic shaping and achieving the proper balance between accompaniment and melody.

Hermann Wenzel (1863 – 1944) was a lesser-known German composer particularly noted for his piano “salon pieces,” light classical music pieces with catchy melodies and pleasant harmonies meant for casual enjoyment in salons or for domestic entertainment. Although his work was quite well known in the early 1900s, Wenzel faded into relative obscurity following the Second World War.

This lyrical piece Am Bergsee is a great representation of the delightful flowing and memorable melodies with relatively simple but engaging harmonies that made his Salon works so popular in his day.  The ease with which this piece fits under the fingers makes for a low-stress, beautiful, lyrical piece to play for you and yours!

3. Valse mélancolique Op. 2 No. 3 – Vladimir Rebikov

First Published: c.1900

Difficulty Explanation: Short waltz piece with repeated material, slow tempo. Occasional ledger notes and accidentals. Remains largely diatonic to B minor and F♯ Major (V), with some chromaticism. Difficulty mostly derives from relatively complex chord structures featuring polyphonic inner voices, countermelodies, and high interpretative demands.

Vladimir Rebikov (1866 – 1920) is a lesser-known Russian composer cited as a founding figure in the musical development of the “modern” school of Russian composers. Lacking exposure to much of the classical music of Western Europe in his earlier years, his compositional influences came from the music most commonly found in Russia, including the heavy influence of Tchaikovsky.  He was particularly renowned for his piano “miniatures,” short character pieces such as this Valse Mélancolique. He was also known for his development of the use of the whole-tone scale, a musical feature that would later permeate the works of impressionist composers such as Debussy (which Rebikov would point to when claiming his more-famous peers achieved their musical prominence by stealing his musical ideas!).

This waltz is relatively short and self-contained but jaw-droppingly beautiful with a gut-wrenching somber tone permeating throughout. Written in a simple ABA ternary form, this piece is structurally well balanced and leaves a lasting impression with its memorable melody line and open-voiced chord structures, making for an excellent piece to hold in your piano repertoire!

4. 24 Preludes, Op. 11, No. 9: Andantino – Alexander Scriabin

Composed: 1888-1896

Difficulty Explanation: Short waltz piece with repeated material, slow tempo. Occasional ledger notes and accidentals. Remains largely diatonic to B minor and F♯ Major (V), with some chromaticism. Difficulty mostly derives from relatively complex chord structures featuring polyphonic inner voices, countermelodies, and high interpretative demands.

Vladimir Rebikov (1866 – 1920) is a lesser-known Russian composer cited as a founding figure in the musical development of the “modern” school of Russian composers. Lacking exposure to much of the classical music of Western Europe in his earlier years, his compositional influences came from the music most commonly found in Russia, including the heavy influence of Tchaikovsky.  He was particularly renowned for his piano “miniatures,” short character pieces such as this Valse Mélancolique. He was also known for his development of the use of the whole-tone scale, a musical feature that would later permeate the works of impressionist composers such as Debussy (which Rebikov would point to when claiming his more-famous peers achieved their musical prominence by stealing his musical ideas!).

This waltz is relatively short and self-contained but jaw-droppingly beautiful with a gut-wrenching somber tone permeating throughout. Written in a simple ABA ternary form, this piece is structurally well balanced and leaves a lasting impression with its memorable melody line and open-voiced chord structures, making for an excellent piece to hold in your piano repertoire!

5. Nocturne No. 2 – Erik Satie

Composed: 1919

Difficulty Explanation: Slow, legato piece featuring extensive use of dissonance and unconventional, complex harmonies with many accidentals. Clashing harmonies and overlapping voices obscure the sense of tonality and make note learning and interpretation difficult. Multiple subtle tempo changes and one key modulation.

Satie’s nocturnes are a significant deviation from what one might expect both from Satie and the concept of a nocturne. If you’re expecting something reminiscent of Satie’s highly famous Gymnopedies No. 1, this is not that. The characteristic ethereal nonchalance permeating through most of Satie’s music gives way to a more distinctly somber kind of music with a sense of purpose and narrative. Satie’s nocturnes take a more serious tone; heavily embracing dissonance and obscured tonality creating a stark departure from our expectations of the melodic, lyrical nocturne while crafting a mood I can only describe as serene uncanniness.

Written in 1919—6 years before Satie’s death—these nocturnes are one of Satie’s final pieces written for solo piano. Although meant to be performed as a set, I find Nocturne No. 2 one of the more memorable of the set of five nocturnes and works wonderfully as a short standalone performance piece. Written about twenty years after most musicologists consider to be the end of the Romantic era, in many ways these utterly fascinating nocturnes can be looked at as a modernist homage to the Romantic era taking one of the era’s most beloved musical forms infusing modern concepts of atonality, tonal obscurity, and emotional cynicism.

6. Pensées lyriques, Op. 11, No. 5 in A♭ Major – Sergei Bortkiewicz

First Published: 1909

Difficulty Explanation: Short and sweet lyrical piece with a moderate, flowing tempo. Frequent use of accidentals with one unconventional modulation to E Major. Use of chromaticism and occasional hands overlap. High LH ledger notes. Achieving a proper balance between RH and LH and between LH intervals is a challenge as well as maintaining the ¾ rhythmic pulse and musical phrasing.

Born in present-day Kharkiv, Ukraine, Bortkiewicz (1877 – 1952) was heavily influenced by Chopin, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff. Although he lived until well past when the Romantic era is commonly understood to have ended, his more traditional compositional style and often lyrical and nostalgic musical moods align his music cleanly into the Romantic era stylistically.

His “Pensées Lyriques” (Lyrical Thoughts) is a collection of short lyrical character pieces; each movingly beautiful, short and sweet, and thoroughly romantic. Op. 11, No. 5 is perhaps my favorite of the bunch; written in a simple ABA form with modulation from Ab major to E major in the B section. This piece would be a great piece to learn for any pianist looking for a (relatively) obscure, short, memorable, delicately beautiful piece with which to swoon an audience or a special someone!

7. Ständchen – Franz Schubert, arr. Horn

Originally Composed: 1828

Difficulty Explanation: In this arrangement for solo piano, the pianist fulfills both the accompanist and vocalist roles. Melody line is often doubled with legato 3rds and 6ths with a moderate, moving tempo. Left-hand accompaniment features large leaps each measure and large chord stretches. Harmonies are large, mostly diatonic with some chromaticism and modulation. Proper melodic shaping and correct balance between RH and LH is difficult to achieve. Frequent 3-on-2 polyrhythms and some polyphonic figures.

Written near the end of Schubert’s life as part of his Schwanengesang cycle of 14 songs, Ständchen (English: Serenade) was originally written for a baritone singer with piano accompaniment. Schubert is often considered to have been at his very best and most at-home writing Lieder, or German Art Songs, with his legendary Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin song cycles representing some of his most renowned musical works. Unlike Winterreise and Die schöne Müllerin—which were entirely set within one longer narrative poem each—Schwanengesang’s text comes from multiple poems from three different poets. For this reason, Schwanengesang is described as a “collection” of songs instead of a cycle; each song is more of an independent entity instead of a part of a single, larger musical and poetic narrative.

Several arrangements of Schwanengesang for solo piano exist. I chose this arrangement by Horn as it remains the most faithful to the original composition, places high emphasis on the melodic line, and fits great under the fingers. The arrangement by Franz Liszt is also extraordinary but considerably more virtuosic and adds a fair amount of Lisztian flair, making it more of a Lisztian showpiece composition instead of a faithful, straightforward solo piano arrangement. Horn’s arrangement really allows the beautiful sweet and sorrowful lyrical melody to be highlighted centerstage at all times. Pianists looking for a flowing, lyrical, highly expressive romantic piece that showcases your ability to really make a melody line sing will have a great time with this piece!

8. Bagatelle Op. 126 no. 3 in E♭ Major – Ludwig von Beethoven

Composed: 1824

Difficulty Explanation: High demand for clarity, balance, and expression throughout. Diatonic chorale opening gives way to a succinct cadenza, a high sustained trill, and ultimately a flurry of fast, chromatic figures of 32nd RH high ledger notes. Bringing out the inner voices and proper musical phrasing are challenging here.

Beethoven’s Bagatelles are collections of short character pieces that showcase his compositional originality, creative genius, and are, in my opinion, some of his very finest work outside of the confines of larger musical structures for which he’s most celebrated (i.e. the Piano Sonatas, Symphonies, String Quartets, Piano Concertos, etc). In many ways these Bagatelles are a very pure and intimate form of expression from Beethoven, who was always most “at home” in writing for solo piano, free from the confines of larger musical forms could express his musical ideas in a pure, unrestrained manner. 

The Opus 126 Bagatelles are a set of 6 pieces which, unlike his prior two sets of Bagatelles, are specifically meant to be played in a cycle (though No. 3 here is quite effective as a standalone piece). Written a few years after his very last piano sonata, Op. 111, two years before his death, these final Bagatelles can be seen as Beethoven’s emotional “Adieu” to the solo piano as his beloved compositional home. After the completion of the Op. 126 Bagatelles, Beethoven would spend the last two years of his life exclusively writing for the String Quartet. Beethoven remarked to the original publisher of the Op. 126 Bagatelles that they were “probably the best I’ve written,” in reference to his other two sets of Bagatelles, Op. 33 and Op. 119.

Beethoven is often considered to be the bridge between the Classical Era and the Romantic Era and the works of his late period—like these Bagatelles—are definitely on the Romantic side. (Personally, I would argue that in many ways Late-era Beethoven is entirely its own musical genre, but that’s a whole other matter!) In Op. 126 Bagatelle No. 3, many of the defining characters of his late-era style are evident: from the chorale textured opening to the glittery cadenza to a long sustained high trill to sparklingly high treble run of 32nd notes that took advantage of the greatly expanded range pianos underwent throughout Beethoven’s life. (Beethoven had long pressured piano builders to increase the range of the piano to fulfill his musical needs!) Brimming with sentimentality and heartfelt desire, his Opus 126 No. 3 Bagatelle perfectly exemplifies his late style, perfectly crafted without a single extraneous note.

9. Nocturne Sentimental, Op.232 – Charles Mayer

Composed: Unknown, mid 1800s.

Difficulty Explanation: Slow, lyrical nocturne featuring arpeggiated LH harmonies (largely diatonic, with a fair amount of chromaticism and accidentals) and RH melody often doubled as octaves, thirds, or triadic chords. Rhythm remains fairly simple. Occasionally enters 4-part voicing. Expressive melodic shaping, interpretation, and proper balance are challenging.

Charles Mayer (1799 – 1862) was a lesser-known Prussian composer who was more renowned as a teacher and performer than as a composer. He wrote nearly exclusively for solo piano and had studied under John Field, the Irish composer who originally popularized the Nocturne as a musical form. Much like Field, Mayer’s style tended towards calm, sentimental moods. It did not often veer into the realm of flashy virtuosity, remaining focused on lyrical beauty rather than pianistic showmanship. His Op. 232 Nocturne Sentimental is a fantastic representation of his expressive, passionate yet relatively uncomplicated style which allows for a great deal of musical focus on his splendid, yearning melodies. Pianists looking for a beautiful, melodic Romantic nocturne without the intense expectations of performance tradition that come with the Chopin nocturnes will find refuge in Mayer’s work!

10. Valse Sentimentale, Op. 51, No. 6 – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Composed: 1882

Difficulty Explanation: Thick harmonic textures with large LH chord leaps, a moving tempo, and maintaining the rhythmic pulse of a Waltz while shaping a highly expressive melodic line is the central challenge. Often uses syncopation with a particularly challenging passage mid-piece where LH picks up the main theme. Material repeats with a short but challenging cadenza passage in the coda.

While Tchaikovsky’s solo piano works often tend to take the backstage to his Ballet Suites, Symphonies, Piano Concertos, and other large form works, he was more than capable of transposing his rich harmonic textures, sensuous melodies, and energetic rhythms onto solo piano. His Valse Sentimentale is a great example of his ability to adapt his expansive, rhythmically propulsive, and highly emotional compositional style to full advantage within a self-contained, shorter solo piano piece. The melody is highly expressive and lyrical with an expansive range and becomes instantly memorable upon first listening. The harmonic textures are perfectly calibrated to allude to his characteristic fullness of sound without becoming overbearing.

Tchaikovsky is right at home within the rhythmic framework of a waltz and manages to weave his lively, exotic rhythms into the waltz in an energetic and convincing manner. While much of Tchaikovsky’s solo piano music is highly virtuosic, this piece is not overly demanding and allows for a great deal of attention to be given to its musicality instead of eternal note struggling!

11. Nocturne No. 9 – John Field

Composed: 1832

Difficulty Explanation: Moderate, moving tempo nocturne with an ornament-rich lively melody and a robust LH chordal accompaniment (later becomes moving arpeggiated figures). Balancing LH chordal harmonies against RH melody is challenging. Modulation into E♭ minor in the midsection of the piece. Consistency of pulse, melodic shaping of the intricate melody, and musical phrasing add to the complexity. Plenty of accidentals and a high note density along with cadenza passages in the coda combine to make this a Nocturne that would rank among the more difficult side of the Chopin nocturnes.

John Field (1782 – 1837) was an Irish composer who was very highly regarded by his contemporaries and widely celebrated as the “Father of the Nocturne.” His works would go on to influence many of the most well-known composers of the Romantic era, among them Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Brahms. Field’s nocturnes can be seen as early prototypes for the later Chopin nocturnes. However, his style tended toward lighter harmonic textures, more pleasant, gentle lyrical melodies, and overall contain more emotional restraint and a lighter mood than the later Chopin Nocturnes. This makes perfect chronistic sense given Field’s compositional life spanning the gap between the Classical Era and the Romantic Era. Field’s work was better known in the past and although not widely played today, many fans of classical piano music have some passing familiarity with his nocturnes, No. 5 is perhaps the most well-known. 

Nocturne No. 11 in E♭ Major contains a very memorable, pleasant, and energetic melody with a propulsive, full-figured harmonic underlay. It’s highly charming and remains deeply engaging without becoming emotionally tiring or repetitive. In many ways, this is an early conception of the nocturne that sees the form not as plunging into the emotional depths of the darkest nights, but as a more emotionally restrained, highly charismatic nocturne with largely classical-era musical sensibilities.

12. Consolation No. 5 in E Major, S. 172/5 – Franz Liszt

Composed: 1844-1850

Difficulty Explanation: Written in a vocal ensemble style, much of the difficulty is in balancing a light piano accompaniment alongside multiple melodic lines interchanging between hands which must be properly melodically shaped and given deep interpretative thought. Frequent accidentals, ledger notes, and overall note density make note learning a challenge. Wide Lisztian chord/interval stretches. Occasional 3-on-2 polyrhythms.

Franz Liszt’s (1811 – 1886) set of six Consolations is modeled after the nocturne form with each piece taking on a distinct compositional style. Each piece is relatively short (1 to 4 pages) and self-contained with contemplative, nostalgic moods. All six Consolations are written in either E-major (a key signature Liszt tended to reserve for works of religious significance) or D-flat major. Written between 1844 and 1849, these pieces offer a more reserved, sentimental, and perhaps spiritual style of composition that is still markedly Lisztian while leaving out much of the flashy, bombastic virtuosic showmanship commonly associated with Liszt’s piano works. Consolation No. 3 in D-flat is the most well-known of the set but each and every piece is equally fantastic in its own way. They make for excellent opportunities to explore Liszt’s impressive musicality in a shorter, non-ostentatious form! 

Consolation No. 5 is brimming with sentimentality and nostalgia. Built entirely around and propelled by a simple dotted rhythm motif, the piece opens with a single cantabile melody line which is gradually expanded to great effect mimicking a vocal ensemble with light piano accompaniment. With fascinating, textured romantic harmonies, a simple but effective memorable main motif, and a reflective tone, Consolation No. 5 turns the piano into a full vocal chamber ensemble and showcases a pianist’s interpretative and expressive skills across many related yet shifting musical textures.

13. Romance in B minor, Op.69/4 – Anton Rubenstein

Composed: Unknown, mid to late 1800s

Difficulty Explanation: Maintaining a highly expressive, legato melody line on top of a complex, syncopated harmonic structure demands excellent musicality and balance between parts. The thick harmonic textures and high melody line necessitates wide stretches of the hand and excellent control over weaker RH fingers. Frequent use of accidentals, high and low ledger notes, the complexity of the harmonies and the overall note density adds considerable difficulty to note learning. This piece demands supreme attention to detail, clarity, expressiveness, and mature, disciplined musical interpretative skills.

Anton Rubinstein (1829 – 1894) was a Russian piano virtuoso widely considered among the greatest piano players of the 19th century (a century filled with legendary pianists!). Although more famous for his highly expressive and dynamic playing style than for his compositions, he was highly prolific with twenty operas, six symphonies, five piano concertos, and countless solo piano work. Having studied extensively in Berlin, his musical style is heavily influenced by the great German composers, chiefly among them Schumann. His reverence for German styles of composition learned in Berlin leaves relatively few hints of Russian character throughout his music.

Rubinstein’s Romance in B Minor is highly suited to his own expressive, deep, and soulful playing style for which he was famous. Written in a ternary ABA form, the deeply emotive main theme is rhythmically wrapped into a syncopated march in the A section which gives way to a harmonic, relaxed B section with large expressive harmonic block chords in the right hand supported by the arpeggiated left hand.

This piece works splendidly as a standalone performance piece with an easily memorable melody, plenty of rhythmic intrigue, and a gorgeous, complex and expansive harmonic structure!

14. Romance, Op. 24, No. 9 – Jean Sibelius

Composed: 1903

Difficulty Explanation: A proper Romantic showpiece demanding excellent balance between voices as melody transfers between hands, is mimicked, doubled, or placed into off beats as well as excellent expression and interpretation. Frequent use of chromaticism, large expansive harmonic chords, accidentals, and a particularly challenging lightning-fast cadenza section in the piece’s midpoint. Maintaining crystal clarity and expansive warmth of the melody is a central challenge along with the frequent large harmonic chords, often with clashing dissonant harmonies, that must be played subtly and softly. This is a piece that encapsulates a very wide range of expression, emotions, and pianistic techniques.

Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957) was a Finnish composer—widely considered the greatest Finnish composer!—of the late Romantic/early modern era. Although he lived well into the modern era, Sibelius interestingly almost entirely stopped composing sometime in the mid 1920’s. He is most famous for his symphonic works and wrote extensively for orchestra, chamber instrumental, and vocal ensembles. 

Sibelius’ Romance Op. 24, No. 9 showcases Sibelius’ flair for large orchestral type music beautifully adapted onto the solo piano in a manner that feels quite fluid, natural, and pianistic. At the core of this piece is a striking, indelibly beautiful melody that is developed and presented in many different orchestrally influenced textures culminating in a grand cadenza section and a recapitulation of main themes in orchestral texturing fading into a dolce, lighter texture ending with a beautiful, sighing coda. 

If you’re looking for a challenging showpiece with an unforgettable melody and endless amounts of color and thematic intrigue that turns the piano into a full orchestra, this would be my definitive recommendation!

15. Widmung, S.566 (Liebeslied) – Schumann-Liszt

Original Lied composed: 1840
Transcribed: 1848

Difficulty Explanation: A famed Schumann Lied turned into a Lizstian warhorse of a piece with a lively tempo, a pristine beautiful vocal melody that must be strong and present over a highly active accompaniment as it moves throughout the keyboard (particularly difficult to voice when the melody is given to the tenor line on the second page!). Rhythmically complex with fast dotted rhythms, polyphonic voicing, polyrhythms, and syncopation. Large Lisztian-style chords permeate throughout the piece. Overlapping hands, lightning-fast complex cadenza-like passages, and a heavy-hitting syncopated recapitulation with massive chords, polyrhythms, and large, fast chord leaps culminating in a beautiful lyrical Ave Maria inspired coda.

Widmung (“Dedication”) was originally written by Robert Schumann as the first Lied (Art song for piano and voice) in a set of 26 titled “Myrthen” for his wife Clara Schumann to be presented on their wedding day. This piece is a Liszt transcription of the original Schumann Widmung Lied. It is not a straightforward transcription; Liszt adds several sections entirely of his own making this piece equally Liszt as it is Schumann. The expansionary sections added by Liszt are highly virtuosic with glittery arpeggios, large stretching chords, and expand the melody range to encompass much of the keyboard, and nearly double the performance time of the work versus the original Schumann Lied. They also represent a dramatic expansion of mood for the piece with a thicker, more expansive harmonic structure and a more fiery, intense, and wide-ranging emotional landscape. This piece, in my opinion, presents some of the greatest voicing, balance, and melodic shaping challenges of nearly any piece in the classical piano repertoire.

Although written with the tempo marking “Vivo”, meaning lively, in the vast majority of recordings the tempo is significantly reduced from most recordings of the Schumann original Lied. This allows for more subtlety of expression which is invaluable given the greatly increased complexity of the musical material. A musically solid performance of this piece covers an impressive wide range of moods and virtuosic pianistic techniques in a relatively short but absolutely breathtaking 4 minutes, making this both an excellent performance piece that you and anyone listening will never tire of!

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