Great Piano Works Explained
Catherine Kautsky is the George and Marjorie Olsen Chandler Professor of Music and the Chair of Keyboard at Lawrence University. She earned her Master of Music degree from The Juilliard School and her Doctor of Musical Arts degree from Stony Brook University. She is a performer, teacher, writer, and lecturer who has performed and given classes on six continents, winning accolades for both her playing and her far-ranging commentary. The New York Times lauded her as “a pianist who can play Mozart and Schubert as though their sentiments and habits of musical speech coincided exactly with hers.”
01: J. S. Bach and The Well-Tempered Clavier
Begin the course with the sublime keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Learn about the musical form of the fugue, based in the interplay of different musical lines or “voices,” employing a basic musical idea or subject in successive variations. Study two of Bach’s fugues and contemplate his genius in using their formal materials to create music of astonishing beauty and dramatic power.
02: Bach’s French Suites
Delve into the riches of Bach’s dance suites, multi-part works built on simple musical elements. In his French Suite No. 5 in G major, study the individual movements, from the peaceful Allemande and the lively Courante to the pensive Sarabande and the final, joyous Gigue. Grasp how Bach creates endless variations of motion, rhythm, texture, and tension/resolution in this magical keyboard piece.
03: Joseph Haydn’s Early Classical Piano
Take a first look at sonata form, a key formal structure in classical music. In Haydn’s brilliant Sonata in C Minor, see how the first movement leads from the opening exposition through development and recapitulation, and how Haydn uses musical detours, transitions, and tonal modulations to create an engrossing and often surprising musical narrative, bearing his own unique expressive signature.
04: Mozart’s High Classical Piano
Enter the world of Mozart’s superlative writing for the piano. In excerpts from his piano sonatas, observe how he creates perfectly balanced phrases, making exquisite use of the musical conventions of the classical era. Find the essence of his musical voice in his use of melodies, drawing on the lyricism of opera, and his ability to move seamlessly from one emotional state to another.
05: Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor, K. 457
From the dramatic opening of the great C Minor Sonata, hear how the sonata functions as a dynamic conversation between opposing ideas, expressed in the interaction of different musical voices and themes. Learn about the uses of the pedals in piano music, about Mozart’s markings in the score, and the slurs (the linking of notes), harmonies, and modulations that give this passionate work its power.
06: Beethoven’s Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1
Witness how the composer challenged expectations in this piece by enlarging the structure of the sonata and infusing it with more drama and contrast than previous composers had done. See how Beethoven ingeniously uses small musical ideas to create huge structures, fusing logic and emotion with unforgettable expressive force, and using longer forms, louder dynamics, and combustible energy to distinguish himself from his classical predecessors.
07: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, Movt. 1
In this late Beethoven masterpiece, travel into the architecture of the first movement, to see how the composer creates a compelling musical narrative. Follow the unfolding themes, their development through multiple modulations, and the uncanny return to the original tonality that make the movement a remarkable journey. Then hear the complete movement, in Professor Kautsky’s sensitive playing.
08: Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, Movts. 2–3
In the majestic conclusion of the sonata, Professor Kautsky guides you through the short and dramatic second movement, leading into the mournful melody which begins the finale, and from there to the great concluding fugue. In Professor Kautsky’s playing, hear how the earlier lament returns, before the fugue surges back to life, ending the sonata on a glorious note of triumph and victory.
09: The Songs of Franz Schubert
As a core element of Schubert’s keyboard writing, look at his use of modulations, the changes of key and tonality that infuse his music. Grasp how he uses modulations for expressive purposes, to evoke the boundaries between emotions. See this at work in two of his famous songs, as they move between minor and major, and also in the beautiful and haunting Impromptu Opus 90 No. 4.
10: Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960
Find the expression of Schubert’s genius in the first movement of this beloved and iconic sonata. From the luminous opening theme, hear how the music moves from serenity to joy, passionate exultation, sorrow, and beyond—a journey through unexpected keys, silences, unfinished thoughts, and unpredictable outcomes, raising questions rather than offering answers.
11: Robert Schumann’s Romantic Dream World
As a first encounter with Romantic piano music, learn about Schumann’s piano “cycles,” multipart episodic pieces that allowed him to express himself freely. In his great Kreisleriana, Papillons, and Carnaval, hear how he speaks through different musical personas and musical “codes,” creating solo piano works of profound sentiment; harmonic freedom; and wild, unbridled imagination.
12: Clara Schumann and the Plight of Women Composers
Look into the phenomenon of women composers, particularly in the 19th century, and take account of the cultural thinking and lack of musical education that barred most women from composing music. Hear nocturnes by Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, noting their originality of phrase structure and harmonies, and consider whether these works may represent promise not wholly fulfilled.
13: Frédéric Chopin: Piano’s Quintessential Romantic
Travel into the poetic and passionate universe of Chopin’s piano music, and his unique, sensuous use of the instrument. In sampling the astonishing expressive range of his piano writing, hear the otherworldly dissonance of his Prelude No. 2, and the undulating waltz Opus 69 No. 1, before concentrating on his mazurkas, iconic Polish dances which reveal Chopin’s emotionally complex sensibility.
14: Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades
Contemplate the ethereal beauty of Chopin’s famous Nocturne in Db major. Grasp how the use of rubato (rhythmic flexibility), pedaling, and exquisite modulations contribute to the piece’s hypnotic atmosphere. In the majestic Ballade in F minor, hear how Chopin propels two themes through a richly diverse musical journey filled with longing, leading to a fiery, transcendent conclusion.
15: Johannes Brahms: Piano’s Dark Poet
As an exemplar of the expressive landscape of Brahms’s piano music, delve into the six pieces of his Opus 118. Begin with the heartfelt Intermezzo No. 2 whose sinuous melodies, counterpoint, and inner voices flow so naturally. Take in the enormous range of emotion and mood in these pieces, from the turbulent No. 1 to the eerie No. 6, as they reveal Brahms’s incomparable musical voice.
16: Franz Liszt: The Consummate Pianist
Take the measure of Franz Liszt as a larger-than-life pianistic showman, the greatest virtuoso of his age, and an innovative composer with a vast command of the resources of the instrument. Experience Liszt’s piano writing in his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 6, drawn from Roma themes, and his Petrarch Sonnet No. 104, a haunting tone poem on unrequited love which dazzles with its sonic textures.
17: The Rise of the Russian Pianists
Learn about the riches of the Russian school of piano playing, through two remarkable composers. Taste the lush melodies and grand pianism of Sergei Rachmaninoff through his Prelude in G minor, Op. 23 No.5. Also, hear the piano creations of Aleksandr Scriabin, from his early, Romantic-inspired Étude Op. 2 No. 1 to his late, strikingly modernist preludes, in Professor Kautsky’s evocative playing.
18: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern
Experience the music of three Viennese modernists, reflecting the dislocations of the early 20th century and a desire to explore the unconscious. Hear Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke from 1911 with its rejection of traditional tonality and aura of psychic disorder. Continue with Berg’s neo-romantic and dreamlike Piano Sonata, Op.1, and taste Webern’s austere yet expressive Piano Variations.
19: Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune”
In approaching Debussy’s sensual Claire de Lune, learn about the artistic climate of Belle Époque Paris that influenced the composer, and his own musical personality, which sought new sounds and forms. Hear how Claire de Lune seems to exist outside of time, and note how Debussy uses supple rhythm, undulating lines and sustained pedaling to evoke a sonic atmosphere of dreams and the unknowable.
20: The Preludes of Debussy
Investigate the sensibility that imbues Debussy’s music; his attraction to apparitions, reverie, and exoticism, and how he makes these manifest in his piano Preludes. Witness how he uses harmonies suggesting Javanese music in Voiles (Veils) and evokes Egypt in Canope and Spain in La Puerta del Vino. Finish with the mercurial “General Lavine” - excentric -, portraying a famous Parisian circus clown.
21: French Piano in the Early 20th Century
France produced a spectrum of groundbreaking piano music in the new century. Encounter the striking originality and tonal beauty of Maurice Ravel in his Valses Nobles et Sentimentales and Tombeau de Couperin. Then, come to grips with the wildly eccentric Erik Satie and meet the whimsical Francis Poulenc, who created piano music that often chooses irony, parody, and humor over introspection.
22: Charles Ives, Sergei Prokofiev, and Béla Bartók
Here, encounter three 20th-century giants who forged new pathways while honoring traditional musical forms. Begin with the contemplative third movement of Ives’s iconic Concord Sonata, evoking the family home of Bronson and Louisa May Alcott. Continue with Prokofiev’s Sonata No. 3, blending romanticism with dissonant modernism, and the percussive, modal textures of Bartók’s Rumanian Folk Dances and Mikrokosmos.
23: Marginalized Composers
This lecture shines a light on composers who have been marginalized because of race, gender, or class. First, hear the remarkable Adagio in F minor by Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, an 18th-century Black composer. Follow with the eerie Prelude No. 6 by Ruth Crawford Seeger; works by the African American composer Florence Price; and Frederic Rzewski’s musical homage to Oscar Wilde, which uses both music and spoken text.
24: New Sounds for a New Century
Finish the course with three highly contrasting works of recent times. First, hear Spatials, by African American composer George Walker, an electric and atonal set of variations on an original theme. Follow that with George Crumb’s Makrokosmos, in which the pianist plays with thimbles and metal chains on the inside of the piano. Conclude with Jörg Widmann’s dreamlike Idyll and Abyss, which evokes the spirit of Schubert in 21st-century language and brings the course full circle.