My First Piano Playlist

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Piano, Illustration by James Mayhew

There are different kinds of piano. Some are big and some are small. But they all have one thing in common: a keyboard with white keys and black keys.

When you learn to play the piano, you use one hand first. Then you use the other hand. Then you play with both hands together. When you become really good you can play things fast, with fingers moving at different speeds in different directions! And you can play all your favourite tunes.

In this playlist you can hear some of the best piano music written by famous composers. It is played by very good pianists. These pianists started to learn the piano when they were young children. They all like playing the piano better than anything else!

Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

1. Lyric Pieces, Op. 54 No. 3: March of the Trolls

Keyword: Monsters

Old stories say that trolls were monsters with funny faces who lived deep in the countryside of cold countries like Norway and Sweden. They were big, hairy and a bit stupid. The composer Grieg wrote music to go with the story of Peer Gynt. Peer Gynt has lots of trolls. Listen to them marching along!

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550107


Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov (1844–1908)

2. The Tale of Tsar Saltan: Flight of the Bumblebee (arr. Rachmaninov)

Keyword: Buzz

You can almost see this bumblebee. Its wings are beating fast as it flies from flower to flower, collecting nectar. If you could look at the pianist’s fingers you’d see only a blur because they’re moving so fast – like the bee’s wings. Phew! Can you imagine the bee as you listen?

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550107


Béla Bartók (1881−1945)

3. For Children: No. 27: Jest

Keyword: Joke

This music is a bit of a joke. You start dancing to the music, but then… it… slows… down – for no reason! Then it speeds up again. Then it’s over!

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555998


Béla Bartók (1881−1945)

4. For Children: No. 61: Pleasantry

Keyword: Hungarian

This is another piece by Béla Bartók, who was born in Hungary. He liked music from the Hungarian countryside. This is another funny piece. It’s like a little puppy, exploring. You don’t know where it’s going next.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555998


Franz Schubert (1797−1828)

5. Marche militaire in D major, D. 733 No. 1

Keyword: March

Soldiers are marching. But do you think they sound like real, strong soldiers… or more like little toy soldiers? This is played by two pianists. They sit side by side and all four hands are on the keyboard. Schubert wrote it for two girls who were learning the piano.

Performers: Jenő Jandó and Zsuzsa Kollár, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553441


Fryderyk Chopin (1810–1849)

6. Waltz No. 6 in D flat major, Op. 64 No. 1 ‘Minute’

Keyword: Minute

This is called the ‘Minute’ Waltz. So a lot of people think that the pianist can play the piece in 60 seconds. But ‘minute’ in this title means ‘little’: it is a little waltz. A waltz is a dance. Some pianists try playing the waltz in 60 seconds anyway, just for fun. It sounds a bit crazy though – they have to go really fast. Our pianist plays it properly!

Performers: Idil Biret, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550365


Scott Joplin (1867−1917)

7. Maple Leaf Rag

Keyword: Rags

‘Piano rags’ are not bits of old cloth on the piano. They are ‘ragtime’ music – a type of dance music from a hundred years ago in America. It was played particularly by black musicians who loved its fast, catchy rhythms – or ‘ragged’ rhythms, as they were called.

Performers: Alexander Peskanov, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.559114


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

8. Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2 ‘Moonlight’: I. Adagio sostenuto

Keyword: Imagine

This is a very famous piano piece. When Beethoven wrote it, he didn’t think of moonlight. But when other people heard it, they imagined things as they listened. One person imagined moonlight shining on a lake at night. So now the piece is known as the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata. Close your eyes and listen. Can you imagine the moonlight?

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550294


Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)

9. Dolly Suite, Op. 56: I. Berceuse

Keyword: Lullaby

‘Berceuse’ means ‘Lullaby’. This gentle piece is perfect for rocking you to sleep. The day has been busy with lots of running around and playing. Now it is time to lie down quietly and let the thoughts of the day disappear into silence…

Performers: Pierre-Alain Volondat and Patrick De Hooge, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553638


Gabriel Fauré (1845–1924)

10. Dolly Suite, Op. 56: VI. Le Pas espagnol (‘The Spanish Dance’)

Keywords: Wake up!

This is a lively Spanish Dance. The Dolly Suite was written by the French composer Gabriel Fauré. It describes a lovely little girl he knew. She had blonde hair and she had the nickname ‘Dolly’. Like tracks 5 and 9, it is played by two pianists. Lots of fingers can play lots of notes!

Performers: Pierre-Alain Volondat and Patrick De Hooge, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553638


Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

11. Lyric Pieces, Op. 43 No. 4: Little Bird

Keyword: Hop

If a bird ever got in through the window and decided to walk along the keyboard just for fun perhaps this is what it would sound like. Listen – he’s a bit surprised at first. Then he thinks, ‘Ah! I’m going to play around and have some fun before someone comes in!’ And he hops around, making up tunes. Is he a robin with a red breast, or a chaffinch with different colours in his feathers?

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550052


Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757)

12. Keyboard Sonata in G major, K. 125

Keyword: Nimble

Quick, light fingers play on the keyboard: they are so nimble that the keys are pressed gently but fast. The hands move smoothly over the surface and make fantastic musical lines. Sometimes they are decorated with little twiddles called ‘trills’.

Performers: Chu-Fang Huang, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572107


Robert Schumann (1810–1856)

13. Album für die Jugend (‘Album for the Young’), Op. 68: Reiterstück (‘The Horseman’)

Keywords: In the saddle

This horse is a grand horse. It moves across the yard in an upright, graceful trot, never putting a hoof in the wrong place. It moves perfectly with its rider sitting tall on its back.

Performers: Rico Gulda, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555711


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756−1791)

14. Piano Sonata No. 11 in A major, K. 331: III. Rondo alla turca (‘Turkish Rondo’): Allegretto

Keyword: Turkish

‘Turca’ means ‘Turkish’. In this piece Mozart was trying to copy the sound of a Turkish band. The band would have had lots of percussion instruments – drums and cymbals. But Mozart only has a piano! So he makes the piano sound like a noisy band with a strong beat.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550448


Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

15. French Suite No. 5 in G major, BWV 816: VII. Gigue

Keyword: Lines

Now here’s a challenge. The music is written in lines – can you hear more than one line going on at the same time? Listen to the first tune. Then see if you can hear almost the same tune come in lower down while the top one carries on going. And again… and again! That simple little tune keeps coming back. It’s as if a group of people were all singing the same tune but beginning it at different times and on different notes. But thanks to Bach, it all fits together perfectly.

Performers: Wolfgang Rübsam, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554041


Jacques Ibert (1890−1962)

16. Histoires (‘Stories’): II. Le petit âne blanc (‘The Little White Donkey’)

Keywords: Little hooves

Have you seen a donkey? It has smaller hooves than a horse. The French composer Jacques Ibert knew that. Listen to the little hooves of his white donkey. Donkeys are good at walking over rough surfaces though – better than horses. It sounds like this little donkey has to go over a few bumps!

Performers: Hae Won Chang, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554720


Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)

17. Piano Sonata in D major, Hob.XVI:37: I. Allegro con brio

Keyword: Papa

Joseph Haydn was a composer who lived 250 years ago. Everyone liked him because he was such a nice man. He was known as ‘Papa Haydn’, because he was like a father to everyone. This is such happy music – you can hear what a cheerful, kind man Haydn was.

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553128


Claude Debussy (1862−1918)

18. Suite bergamasque: III. Clair de lune (‘Moonlight’)

Keyword: Moonlight

You heard moonlight from Beethoven on track 8. Well, the French composer Claude Debussy really did think of the moon when he was writing this piece. You can almost see the moon rising slowly. There are only a few glints to start with. Gradually it appears brightly in the sky and shines its silvery beams over an empty field. Close your eyes as you listen… can you see the moon?

Performers: Péter Nagy, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550141


Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)

19. Bagatelle in A minor, WoO 59 ‘Für Elise’

Keyword: Mystery

‘Für Elise’ means ‘for Elise’. Who was Elise? We don’t know! Maybe she was a pupil of Beethoven’s or maybe she was someone he liked. Perhaps the mystery of Elise makes this music even more special. It’s one of the most famous and popular piano pieces of all.

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550647


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)

20. Variations on ‘Ah, vous dirai-je, maman’, K. 265 (extract)

Keywords: Dressing up

Are you looking at the title? Are you thinking, ‘Why doesn’t it say Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star?’ Well, Mozart knew that same tune as Ah, vous dirai-je maman. It means ‘Ah, I will tell you, Mum’ and they are the words that French children used to sing instead of ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’. Mozart liked the tune and decided to write ‘variations’ on it. Giving a tune variations is a bit like dressing it up. First of all we hear just the tune. Then Mozart puts different clothes on it, with more buttons and frills. Then he disguises it a bit more – like putting on face-paint. Then he makes it run around like a fast mouse, but you can still hear it. He even makes it stand on its head! See if you can sing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’ whenever you hear it.

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550218


Antonín Dvořák (1841–1904)

21. Slavonic Dance in A major, Op. 72 No. 7

Keyword: Dance

A lively dance. This is another duet – like tracks 5, 9 and 10: there are two pianists at the piano. So a lot of hands and fingers are making a bigger, fatter sound. But can you hear how quietly all those fingers can play, too?

Performers: Silke-Thora Matthies and Christian Köhn, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553138


Edvard Grieg (1843–1907)

22. Lyric Pieces, Op. 43 No. 1: Butterfly

Keyword: Flutter

When you watch a butterfly in the air, you never know where it is going next. It flutters all over the place. So does this piece. Close your eyes: it is summer. The garden is full of flowers. And there is the colourful butterfly, fluttering happily around.

Performers: Balázs Szokolay, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550052


Franz Liszt (1811–1886)

23. Transcendental Études: No. 2 in A minor: Fusées (‘Rockets’)

Keyword: Wow

No, there aren’t two pianists here – there’s only one! This music is really hard to play. The composer Franz Liszt was an amazing pianist and he had big hands. So his music has to be played by a ‘virtuoso’ pianist – that means a pianist whose hands can do gymnastics! This piece is called ‘Rockets’. Do you think it sounds like rockets shooting off from the ground?

Performers: Jenő Jandó, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553119


Claude Debussy (1862–1918)

24. Children’s Corner Suite: VI. Golliwog’s Cakewalk

Keyword: Jerky

Listen carefully, and you will hear three sections in this piano piece. 1: A jerky, jazzy dance. 2: A slower section: it wanders around, as if it could go anywhere. 3: The jazzy tune is back again!

Performers: François-Joël Thiollier, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.555800


Felix Mendelssohn (1809−1847)

25. Songs Without Words, Op. 67 No. 4 in C major, ‘Spinning Song’ or ‘The Bee’s Wedding’

Keyword: Spinning

Hundreds of years ago, women sat at a spinning-wheel to spin wool. The spinning-wheel would go round and round, and the women would sing. Can you imagine the wheel going round when you listen to this music?

Performers: Péter Nagy, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554055


Johannes Brahms (1833−1897)

26. Wiegenlied (‘Cradle Song’) (trans. Péter Nagy)

Keyword: Goodnight

A mother is gently rocking the cradle. The baby’s eyes are gradually beginning to close… they open again just a bit, to look at the mother smiling down… and then they close finally as the baby falls asleep.

Performers: Péter Nagy, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550216


Sergey Rachmaninov (1873–1943)

27. Polka italienne (‘Italian Polka’)

Keyword: Fun

To finish off, the piano says farewell to you with a bright polka. It’s another duet so two pianists are playing it. A polka is a dance. So you can get up and dance if you like! What fun music can be!

Performers: Balázs Szokolay and Péter Nagy, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550107


Note writer: Nicolas Soames

Music selection: Sylvia Helsby

‘My First’ series editor: Genevieve Helsby