Once this idea popped into my head, I found I had a harder time than I expected. The majority of classical “one-hit wonders” (or Oneders, to nod to the image I chose) seem to be in the orchestral realm. Luckily, we pianists have a few of “those” pieces that we can match to a composer and feel smart. Here are my top 5.
5. Arthur Benjamin: Jamaican Rumba
Most audiences might know this best in its orchestral iteration, with groovy percussion and fun instrumental colors. But the composer originally composed it as a duet for duo-pianists Joan and Valerie Trimble. It dates from 1938, a time when light pastiches of “island” music were in vogue. Good luck getting this tune out of your head!
Sheet music: Duet Version | Solo Version
4. Louis-Claude Daquin: Le Coucou (The Cuckoo)
A Baroque favorite that turns up time and time again in mixed-composer collections. It’s a little silly, a little poignant, and quite pleasing overall. The “cou-COU” gesture is everywhere, usually accompanied by an obsessive ostinato figure. Was his inspiration an actual cuckoo or perhaps an unruly clock? The piece serves as the first movement of his third suite for keyboard, and I’m curious to check out the rest of his work. Who knows what other gems are lying in wait.
Sheet music: Schirmer | Schirmer Performance Edition
3. Christian Sinding: Rustle of Spring
I first encountered this tour de force of busy arpeggios in an ancient piano collection with brittle, browned pages. The piece was nestled among other Romantic salon favorites: Leybach’s Nocturne No. 5, Schumann’s Reverie, and the like. Listening to it again just now, I think it portrays its subject pretty well. The “rustling” in the right hand, paired with a hornlike melody below, gives way to a more rhapsodic treatment of the melodic and harmonic material. Short, sweet, memorable, difficult-sounding but not overly demanding. There’s a reason it was a hit.
Sheet music: Schirmer
2. Mily Alexeyevich Balakirev: Islamey
Balakirev really delivered a quintessential showpiece. It’s all fleet-footed, quick as a wisp, showing off a pianist’s agility and ability to keep cool in a storm of notes. When you look at the music, you see common technical themes. Repeated notes. So many repeated notes. Cascades of thirds, up and down. Broken chord patterns of all sorts. A buoyant, festive mood prevails over this whole exhibition, making it a sure crowd-pleaser.
Sheet music: Henle
1. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji: Opus Clavicembalisticum
I laughed a bit including this one, but I had to. Can you call it a “hit” if it’s four hours long, and in fact has been described as the longest and most difficult piano piece ever? Ironically, looking deeper into Sorabji’s catalog you find that he wrote pieces that are both longer and harder. But somehow OC (you’re welcome for the abbreviation) has gained special notoriety. It’s become a punchline of piano virtuosity. But it kind of deserves more than that. I’ve listened to it. Multiple times. And there are passages in this music of some of the most earth-shattering piano writing I’ve ever heard. Moments of absolute transcendence and ecstasy. Luxuriant textures that drip like chocolate. Lonely landscapes of single notes hovering in the air, where you feel the composer slowing down time. Yes, there’s also tedium, and sameness, and ugliness. But sometimes life is like that. You get it all. I would never devote a whole blog post to this piece, because we don’t, um, sell it. Also because I’d rather write a whole big essay about Sorabji and the unique community that has sprouted up around his music.
Sheet music: The Sorabji Archive