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Great Piano Works Explained

Discover the magnificent works for solo piano in the classical tradition and deepen your understanding and enjoyment of these great creations.
Great Piano Works Explained is rated 4.8 out of 5 by 22.
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Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful course Ms. Kautsky brings enthusiasm, passion, and great technical skill to every lecture in this course. It brought back memories of my piano teacher that I was lucky to have as a young boy. She was able to dive deeper into what makes a piece great while keeping things approachable. A great refresher for Beethoven, my favorite, and a great learning experience being introduced to the other composers.
Date published: 2022-11-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Superb Explanation and Demonstration The more I watch these videos -- I'm halfway through the course now -- the more excited I become about finally learning what makes so much of the music I have loved all my life work. I have never had any training in music theory, nor do I even play the piano. Prof. Kautsky is helping me understand the tools the great composers have used to build their masterpieces and what makes their handling of those tools so remarkable. And she does it with humor and a contagious passion. I can't wait to hear the rest.
Date published: 2022-11-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Bravo! And thank you! I’ve always wanted to learn about some of the piano greats, but felt intimidated because, except for desultory piano lessons as a child, I know very little about the subject. It seemed that now, as a senior, I should have been further along than simply liking whatever I happened to hear on the radio or a boxed set. Finally, a friend suggested that I give Dr. Kautsky’s class a try and I’m grateful that I did. I have taken in so much more than I’d have imagined would be possible, given how little I knew about musical theory—nothing, really—when I started. I deeply appreciate Dr. Kautsky’s warmth, humor and accessibility, and the way she somehow manages to imbue her “lectures” with great humanity—“lecture” seems an inadequate word to describe her teaching method, infused as her enormous knowledge is with her own excitement about whichever musical genius she is explicating, and with her abiding concern to make sure that her audience is with her at all times. And of course there is the pleasure of hearing her play—a true thrill. She is a jewel and my only regret is that I waited this long to savor her talent and skills.
Date published: 2022-11-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Wonderful lectures full of colorful insight. This lecture series is both thoughtful and beautifully played. Ms. Kautsky is obviously passionate about the music she is playing and teaching. I learned so much and enjoyed her relaxed and colorful presentation. Would recommend to students and professionals alike.
Date published: 2022-11-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from superb, moving This is a truly wonderful course, taught by a pianist who brings deep insights into how classic works of piano actually work. Kautsky has a warm, engaging manner, and the learning is layered, so if you weren't sure you heard the effect she was talking about, she comes back to it. We have gone back and listened to the full pieces and then returned to hear her discuss them again, and it makes such a difference in how we understand the music. She interweaves history and biography and brings it all to bear on different composers. I have already sent it to friends. Altogether outstanding.
Date published: 2022-11-07
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Fantastic if well-versed in music theory I'm an average music listener who has studied some music in college. I thought I purchased a course to make me fall deeper in love with piano classics. It's true but I wasn't aware that I had to know music theory first. The presenter assumed I knew about chords and scales were. I knew some but not as much as this person ASSUMED.
Date published: 2022-11-07
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Not all of the literature I expected I was hoping to learn more about pieces such as Chopin's B Minor Sonata that are artistically very brilliant and demanding. For instance, Chopin did not compose many sonatas. Why did he write this one which is so difficult that only the best artists are usually willing to attack it in public? The course is aimed at those who have not studied piano for many years; I should have known.
Date published: 2022-10-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Beautiful Music*Fantastic Teacher*More Please! I've viewed many of the Great Courses, on DVD, in a variety of subjects. Some are very good, others disappointing. Great Piano Works Explained, with Catherine Kautsky, DMA, is of the highest quality - content, organization, beautiful music played beautifully, and, explained in easy to understand terms. Dr. Kautsky has helped me to have an even deeper appreciation and understanding of this music. She also shares a bit of her family background, which I very much enjoyed. I've loved listening to the music of these composers all my life, and now thanks to Dr. Kautsky, I have a better idea of what I'm actually hearing, what were the composers's techniques, and what they were trying to convey. Dr. Kautsky is an exceptional teacher and presenter - easy to understand, a calming presence. I hope you will have her return, again and again, to teach more Great Courses. I highly and wholeheartedly recommend Dr. Kautsky's course Great Piano Works Explained. I'm watching this online, and I've also purchased the DVD.
Date published: 2022-10-30
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The glorious repertoire for solo piano includes many of classical music’s most beloved masterpieces. In this course, you’ll study key works of many composers, from Bach and Mozart through music written in the 21st century, and unpack their structure, the musical materials that drive them, and the specific features that affect listeners so strongly, giving you a clear grounding in how to approach and hear this great music.


Catherine Kautsky

Of all the musical instruments in the western world, the piano can do far and away the most things.


Lawrence University

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.”

By This Professor

Great Piano Works Explained
Great Piano Works Explained


J. S. Bach and The Well-Tempered Clavier

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.

30 min
Bach’s French Suites

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.

36 min
Joseph Haydn’s Early Classical Piano

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.

35 min
Mozart’s High Classical Piano

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.

31 min
Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor, K. 457

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.

36 min
Beethoven’s Sonata in F Minor, Op. 2, No. 1

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.

37 min
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, Movt. 1

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.

38 min
Beethoven’s Sonata No. 31, Op. 110, Movts. 2–3

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.

29 min
The Songs of Franz Schubert

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.

25 min
Schubert’s Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960

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.

31 min
Robert Schumann’s Romantic Dream World

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.

31 min
Clara Schumann and the Plight of Women Composers

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.

32 min
Frédéric Chopin: Piano’s Quintessential Romantic

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.

33 min
Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades

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.

36 min
Johannes Brahms: Piano’s Dark Poet

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.

38 min
Franz Liszt: The Consummate Pianist

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.

28 min
The Rise of the Russian Pianists

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.

29 min
Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern

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.

43 min
Claude Debussy’s “Clair de lune”

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.

37 min
The Preludes of Debussy

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.

36 min
French Piano in the Early 20th Century

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.

32 min
Charles Ives, Sergei Prokofiev, and Béla Bartók

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.

26 min
Marginalized Composers

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.

31 min
New Sounds for a New Century

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.

36 min