I spend a lot of time listening to contemporary music, usually while following scores. In college and grad school, as a composition student, I found this essential to keep ideas flowing and expand my range of influences. Today, it’s more for pleasure. But when I really think about it…not a lot of it is solo piano music. Contemporary composers (at least most of the ones I like) are more interested in the sounds between notes and the timbral possibilities of other instruments. The amount of new, significant, boundary-pushing piano music seems to be slowing down, perhaps owing to the instrument’s fixed pitches and relatively limited extended techniques. And…you know…an absolutely massive body of existent repertoire.
It’s important to occasionally step back and see where we are on the journey with this instrument, and to recognize who’s still out there writing serious music for it. Because if we shrug and assume that all the great literature has already been written, that’s really problematic for the future.
So my question of the day is: who are the greatest living composers of piano music? Who has really advanced the realm of piano repertoire, and/or has enough of a catalog to make the case for it? I thought I could come up with a clear winner, but as the topic really came into view I saw that that would be impossible. I came up with a top 10, and I’m dividing this into two distinct groups by age from oldest to youngest.
George Crumb (b. 1929, American)
Looking back on the last century, Crumb seems more and more like a unique genius. He delved with gusto into extended piano techniques (dragging chains across the low strings, etc), and the formal structure of his music allows you to appreciate each gesture in isolation. This is not to mention the mystical, time-suspending effect of the music itself. His hand-produced scores are also works of art (the featured image is a more modest sample).
Makrokosmos I-IV (1972-1979). A towering achievement. I owe it to myself to perform excerpts from these someday. It’s music that takes you away from the present-day world and into prehistoric or cosmic realms of introspection. (Score)
Gnomic Variations (1981). Lots of plucking and stopped notes. Get inside your piano! (Score)
A Little Suite for Christmas, A.D. 1979 (1980). Taps into some of the same religious-mystical reveries as the best of Messiaen. (Score)
Nikolai Kapustin (b. 1937, Ukrainian)
I have so much trouble trying to properly assess Kapustin’s music. The man is clearly a genius. His excursions in jazz style in a variety of classical forms are both serious and fun. Pianists love to play his music, and audiences love to hear it. But is it pioneering enough? The best I can say is he’s bringing two music worlds together in a totally sincere, compelling way. And his prodigious output (with no sign of stopping) demands our attention.
24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 82 (1997). It’s a pretty big statement for someone to write a complete cycle of preludes and fugues, and these pieces are a triumph. Some of the more complex fugues blow my mind. (Vol. 1 Score) (Vol. 2 Score)
24 Jazz Preludes, Op. 53 (1988). These are excellent too. My favorite is probably the stride-piano-esque No. 17, but you may find several gems. (Score)
Sonatina, Op. 100 (2000). Kapustin has written 20 sonatas, but I’m gonna skip those over in favor of the Sonatina, which is easy enough for an intermediate-level piano student but still full of Kapustin’s brilliance, with some cute nods to classical conventions. (Score)
John Corigliano (b. 1938, American)
Corigliano brings a really solid sense of craft to his music, frequently conjures up moments of great beauty, and writes idiomatically for the piano. His harmonic language, frequently built on split thirds, is really appealing.
Fantasia on an ostinato (1985). Corigliano takes the rhythm from the second movement of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and develops a meditative fantasy with some minimalist elements later on. (Score)
Etude-Fantasy (1976). A compelling technical showcase with a memorable opening section for left hand alone. (Score)
Chiaroscuro (1997). Like Ives’s Three Quarter-Tone Pieces, this one also features two pianos with one detuned. It’s a wonderful exploration. (Score)
Frederic Rzewski (b. 1938, American)
Rzewski (CHEFF-ski) is an eclectic and mysterious figure whose music often reflects on political themes. The pieces I’ve listed below all move the literature forward in some way, with theatrical drama and some extended techniques I haven’t seen any other music. Rzewski’s musical language is frequently consonant or even functionally tonal, but also totally unpredictable. His own (controversial) performances of Beethoven sonatas and his own music show that he’s an accomplished pianist. He has made much of his music (aside from two of the pieces listed below) freely available on the Werner Icking Music Archive.
The People United Will Never Be Defeated! (1975). One of the greatest pieces of the twentieth century. Taking a Chilean protest song as his theme, Rzewski spins out 36 variations that encompass a huge range of styles and add up to something deeply human and unforgettable. (Score)
De Profundis (1991-92). A one-of-a-kind piece for speaking pianist that sets one of Oscar Wilde’s letters from prison. This is a harrowing journey that demands absolute commitment from the pianist. (Score)
Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, from North American Ballads (1979). This is probably Rzewski’s most-performed piece, an iconic depiction of machinery juxtaposed with the singing of workers. (Score)
William Bolcom (b. 1938, American)
Bolcom can safely be called an American master. His music is a delicious stew of influences from postmodernism to American vernacular forms like ragtime. He’s also a full-range keyboard composer, having written 4-hand music and significant works for harpsichord and organ.
Rags. Bolcom’s rags are treasures, full of his wit and tasteful sentiment. A few favorites: Graceful Ghost Rag, The Poltergeist, The Serpent’s Kiss, Lost Lady Rag. (Score)
12 New Etudes (1988). A remarkable set that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988. Bolcom expands piano technique while providing many humorous moments along the way. The closing “Hymne d’amour” is quite poignant. (Score)
Nine Bagatelles (1996), Nine New Bagatelles (2005). Colorful miniatures. (Score)