The 32 piano sonatas that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827) composed over nearly three decades are among the greatest works of the piano literature. The Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat major, Op. 31/3, is the last of a set of three sonatas published together, which contains an equally famous sonata with the nickname “The Tempest”. These sonatas date from 1802, when the composer had just fully accepted the fact that he was going deaf. However, in the Piano Sonata No. 18 in E flat major there is no hint of the gloomy thoughts then going through Beethoven’s mind (he wrote the “Heiligenstadt Testament” not long after finishing this sonata). To the contrary, the atmosphere is light hearted, often almost jocular. The sonata has a four-movement layout, but it surprisingly contains no slow movement. The opening movement in sonata form begins with a striking figure with a chordal response. The first theme develops the material of this motivic introduction (which reappears several times during the movement). Unusually, the second movement, Scherzo, is also in sonata form and is in 2/4 metre (scherzos are usually in 3/4). Next comes a graceful Menuetto. Beethoven gradually abandoned use of the rather old-fashioned minuet; this is the last instance of a minuet in his sonatas. The energetic concluding Presto con fuoco is a geyser of musical ideas.
Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951), the chief representative of the Second Viennese School, was largely self taught as a composer. His early works are in the style of Late Romanticism (like the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande or the cantata Gurre-Lieder), but in ca. 1908 he decided to depart from the traditional tonal system and began exploring the world of atonality. He soon abandoned free atonality and laid the foundations for his own dodecaphonic compositional technique based on the principle of a 12-note series from which all of a work’s thematic material is derived. The Suite for Piano, Op. 25, was written between 1921 and 1923, and it is one of the composer’s first dodecaphonic works. As can be seen from the titles of the individual movements, it was inspired by the form of the Baroque suite. Although the work was once criticised for being excessively academic, the composition is actually pulsating with life.
The musical education of György Ligeti (1923–2006) was interrupted by the Second World War, in which some of his family members perished. After graduating from the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest, where Zoltán Kodály was among his teachers, Ligeti devoted himself to research on Hungarian folk music in Transylvania (many of the compositions from his early creative period are arrangements of folk songs). He later returned to his alma mater as a member of the teaching staff. The bloody suppression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 by an invasion of Soviet tanks forced him to flee to Vienna, and from there he went to Cologne, where he joined Karlheinz Stockhausen and Gottfried Michael Koenig in working on the advancement of electronic music. In the 1960s he taught at the Darmstadt Summer Courses for New Music, which became a centre for the avant-garde after the Second World War. Many film fans know his music—it is heard, for example, in Stanley Kubrick’s famous film 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). His 18 Études for piano solo, composed between 1985 and 2001, have also become popular with audiences. Regarded as one of the greatest contributions to the piano literature from recent decades, they bear witness to Ligeti’s deep immersion into the complex compositional techniques of that period. They were published in three volumes. The composer dedicated Automne à Varsovie (Autumn in Warsaw), the last etude in Book I, to his Polish friends. The etude is strikingly polyrhythmic, with a mixing of several layers of rhythm. L’escalier du diable (The Devil’s Staircase) is from Book II. Ligeti composed this etude in 1993. The inspiration for its title is an imaginary staircase the rises endlessly. The chromatic scale serves a thematic structural function, constantly rising and falling to create the impression of infinity and to generate the necessary tension.
Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin (1872–1915) was born in Moscow to the family of a lawyer and diplomat. His first piano teacher was an aunt who fostered his love of music. As an adult, he took a deep interest in philosophy, various spiritual disciplines, and mysticism. This is one reason why he often accompanied his compositions with commentary. The Piano Sonata No. 3 in F sharp minor, Op. 23, was composed in 1897–1898, and it consists of four movements. One striking feature is the very unusual conclusion: after a recollection of the theme of the slow movement, instead of a grandiose finale, we get a return to the tonic key of F sharp minor and an abrupt ending that leaves us with an unsettled feeling of incompleteness. Scriabin later gave the sonata the title States of the Soul and described the individual movements as follows. First movement: The soul, free and wild, thrown into the whirlpool of suffering and strife. Second movement: Apparent momentary and illusory respite […]. Third movement: A sea of feelings, tender and sorrowful: love, sorrow, vague desires, inexplicable thoughts, illusions of a delicate dream. Finale: In the turmoil of the unbound elements, the soul is tossed about in a daze. From the depth of being rises the fearsome voice of creative man, whose victorious song resounds triumphantly. […] But still too weak to reach the acme, he plunges, temporarily defeated, into the abyss of non-being.
A native of Catalonia, Isaac Albéniz (1860–1909) was regarded as a wunderkind—he gave public concerts from an early age, and when he was just seven he passed the entrance examination to the Paris Conservatoire (in the end he was not admitted because he was too young). Later, he studied at the conservatoires in Leipzig, Madrid, and especially Brussels. He made his mark in a number of genres, but the bulk of his legacy consists of piano music (he was himself an excellent pianist). He earned a place in music history mainly thanks to compositions inspired by traditional Spanish dance music. Today, we also hear many of his piano pieces in arrangements for guitar. The piano suite Iberia is a masterpiece of Albéniz’s late creative period. He wrote it during the last years of his life, which he spent in Paris. With its Spanish rhythms and colour, but also with melancholy and flashbacks to the distant past, Albéniz’s Iberia consists of twelve impressionistic pieces in four volumes. Lavapiés, a piece characterised by alternating rhythms (we hear the habanera, for example) and great dynamic contrasts, is one of the most technically difficult pieces in the suite.
The Ukrainian composer and pianist Nikolai Kapustin (1937–2020) studied piano at the Moscow Conservatoire. He composed ca. 160 works, but it has only been since the turn of the millennium that he has won greater fame worldwide. Many of his works are piano pieces that combine the musical forms of the Baroque and Classical eras with jazz elements. One example is the Suite in the Old Style (1977), in which he employed Baroque forms with jazz improvisation. He composed his cycle of 24 Preludes, Op. 53, in 1988. Like Frédéric Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Op. 28, these little pieces cover all of the major and minor keys. In Kapustin’s 24 Preludes, there is a succession of various jazz styles. In Prelude No. 10 in C sharp minor there are hints of gospel music, and in Prelude No. 11 in B major we hear the blues.