Sonatina Op. 100

This piece by Russian composer/pianist Nikolai Kapustin is a dream composition for all who have OCD with numbers. Written in 2000, it is quite a simple piece compared to Kapustin’s other piano music.

Kapustin is thought of in the classical world as a classical composer who uses jazz idioms, but the Captain believes this to be rubbish. He will argue that Kapustin, on the contrary, is a jazzer at heart who happens use standard classical titles. Perhaps if he had titled his works with “jazzier” titles the perception of him would change.

The Sonatina itself is the only of the kind written by Kapustin, and it begins ironically with a very classic ending riff in jazz in which the bass goes up the scale using the degrees 1, 3, 4, #4, 5, followed by a cadence:Screen Shot 2017-05-05 at 9.40.03 AM.png

The piece also contains jazz cadences such as the following one. In addition to the upper extension voices (9th, 11th, 13th), note the Movement down throughout the whole line. The first chord could pass as a rootless D chord with an added 6th which moves down to a C13 chord (if the chord has a 6th degree with a 7th, it is a 13th chord – without the 7th it is just called a 6th). Then it moves down to a B9 chord before going to an Eb9 chord. Because of the voicing in the right hand being as it is, the bass could be a tritone substitution for Bb (meaning it the bass was a Bb instead, it would still be a dominant chord), which carries the descending progression to A7 before a riff in the bass goes down to D. See the descent continue in the last two measures as well:

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And of course, as in any other jazz piano piece, it is full of saucy right hand licks like this:

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Publishers of Kapustin’s music include:

  • Schott Music

Notable performers with recordings of this piece include:

  • Ilya Petrov
  • Kapustin himself

Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:

Kapustin’s music is great if you want to play jazz but either don’t know how OR need people to believe you are playing classical music. The harmonies, licks, and left hand bass patterns are tricky but very enjoyable to learn. This specific piece is one of the most approachable Kapustin pieces that undergrads could have a go at.


The Banjo, Op. 15

Louis Moreau Gottschalk wrote this piece in 1853 as a fantasy imitating the american banjo. It was published in 1854.


The banjo has 5 strings, with 4 main strings being tuned similar to a guitar, and a shorter string higher in pitch. It differs in the guitar because of the placement of this string – a guitarist may expect the strings to go in order of pitch from lowest to highest, but the banjo begins with the highest (short) string, then goes from lowest, next lowest, middle, second highest:



Because of this order of strings, characteristics of the banjo include up-picking, in which the highest pitch string is frequently played interpolated in a melody, and downstroking, where the banjo picker strokes the string the way opposite of a guitar, but still is able to voice out the top.

 Gottschalk employs these techniques with striking accuracy in his piece, and for this reason it has been transcribed to banjo, and is a popular encore performance among pianists. Here is an example of up-picking in the piece, you can see the right hand leap up to a high F# (on the banjo it would be a G) frequently:

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Publishers of Gottschalk’s music include:

  • Schott Music
  • Schirmer

Notable performers with recordings of this piece include:

  • Cyprien Katsaris
  • Cecile Licad

Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:

This is a really fun piece. It is perfect for an encore, especially perhaps if one is a foreigner playing a concert in the USA, or if an american pianist is playing a concert in a foreign nation. The “boom-chuck” accompaniment is perhaps the trickiest part of the piece.


Transcendental Études, S. 139

These Etudes, written by Franz Liszt, were a revision if a series of etudes written in 1837 (which were actually elaborations on a set written in 1826). Published in 1852, they are among the most difficult pieces in the entire keyboard repertoire.

No. 1 (Preludio) – C major

The first etude can be played in under a minute if the presto marking is followed. It begins boldly in C major, and has a very difficult passage in which the bottom two voices ascend in chromatic thirds at an eighth pulse, while the top voice has straight sixteenth-notes:

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No. 2 (Molto vivace) – A minor

This piece highlights alternating and overlapping hands. It also has very quick and large right hand leaps, which is why it was given the nickname “Fusées” (rockets) by Ferruccio Busoni in his edition.

No. 3 (Paysage) – F major

This etude is slightly reminiscent of Chopin’s Etude in E major. It is more approachable than the others in Liszt’s collection, but separating melody from the thick accompanimental texture is a great challenge for the pianist:


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No. 4 (Mazeppa) – D minor

This etude is inspired by Victor Hugo’s poem “Mazeppa.” Mazeppa is a man who is punished by being strapped on a horse who is set free to run in the wild. Now, listening to this piece, critics of Liszt may be disgusted with how busy and technical it is. However, whe considering his attempt to portray the aforementioned poem, one may come to believe that Liszt was the only one who could have set this poem to music.

It is quite formulaic, with the technical challenge being rapid parallel thirds. This occurs in both hands. The sections are clearly punctuated by notorious double-octave runs that cause even the bravest crew to abandon ship. Even in the slower section, in which the melody becomes simple and the intensity of the piece calms, there are impossible accompaniment patterns around it:

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See also how Liszt sets the final line of the poem: “il tombe, et se relève roi!” (he falls then rises a king):

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No. 5 (Feux Follets) – Bb major – listened to this in class

Nicknamed “Wills o’ the Wisp,” this whimsical piece features blazing fast chromatic runs in the right hand for a greater portion of the work. The dynamics shift very suddenly and frequently. The piece is unpredictable, as is the wind.

No. 6 (Vision) – G minor

This etude has the challenges of accompaniment figures that span very large intervals, well above that of an octave. In some editions the beginning is marked to be played only with the left hand, though it is already difficult enough with both!


No. 7 (Eroica) – Eb major

The seventh etude is in Eb major and is nicknamed “Eroica” as a tip of the cap to Beethoven, whose “Eroica” symphony was also in Eb major. The heroic motive is very march like, and is much simpler than much of the entire work:


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Liszt then embellishes the motive. including more virtuosic accompaniment. It is worth noting that many composers, including Busoni, thought that the earlier versions of this etude were more challenging. With that said, the final version does contain entire sections of octaves in both hands:

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No. 8 (Wilde Jagd) – C minor

Another fast one, this was titled “Wilde Jagd” by Liszt, which translates to “wild hunt.” The A section is in C minor, and the B section is in E-flat major. The piece ends with a flurry of descending chords in the right hand:

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No. 9 (Ricordanza) – Ab major

This etude contrasts his bolder and more epic etudes such as “Mazeppa” and “Wilde Jagd” in its sweeter affect, but it maintains its virtuosity. It is perhaps more challenging for some pianists to play all of the rapid runs and thick chords at the more reserved dynamic levels instructed here by Liszt. Here is a classic Liszt cadenza that is played fairly soft:

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No. 10 (Allegro agitato molto) – F minor

This etude is one of the more frequently played of the set. It begins with rapidly alternating chords in both hands:

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The accompaniment patterns, once again, are impossible. However, the melody is much more prominent overall than many of the other movement, which is likely a primary reason that it is one of the most played.

No. 11 (Harmonies du Soir) – Db major

As indicated in the title (Harmonies du Soir), this piece is made up of lots of chords. They are usually rolled chords, and that combined with the harmonic language makes this piece sound like a precursor to impressionism. Here is an excerpt from earlier in the beginning, notice the top line:

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Compare that top line now with a section from Debussy’s Clair de Lune:

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In both excerpt we have rolled chords decreasing in energy heading to the next (busier) section.

No. 12 (Chasse-Neige) – Bb minor

This piece depicts a violent snowstorm (Chasse-Neige), and features a simple melody with both hands having tremolos underneath:

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Publishers of Liszt’s music include:

  • Henle Verlag

Notable performers with recordings of this piece include:

  • Claudio Arrau
  • Evgeny Kissen

Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:

Undertaking this work is a pianist’s suicide note. Unless you are one of the best performers in the world, with flawless technique, you will spend forever practicing this, hurt your arms, develop tendonitis, and stop playing until you heal. Then, you will move on to something else. If you do manage to learn one of the pieces, chances are nobody in the audience that isn’t interested in piano for virtuosity’s sake will enjoy listening to it. Just choose something else!!




Notable recordings: Kissen

Three Ghost Rags

This work is a set of three pianos by American composer William Bolcom (1938). Published in 1970, these rags are often describes as being true to the genre, yet containing the sophistication of classical music. As a composer, Bolcom worked to break down the barriers between contemporary genres and other
“serious” music. These pieces are an example of this effort.

I. Graceful Ghost Rag

His most famous rag, and probably also his most famous work, this rag was written in memory of his father. The A section begins in a delicate and light Bb minor. It is described as a more sophisticated rag because in addition to the rag progression and style (a “boom-chuck” bassline with a melody in octaves or chords, one that often has dissonances on the strong beats), it has more difficult (perhaps even virtuosic) techniques, such as counterpoint within voices of a single hand (typically the right), as shown in this example in the B section:

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Instead of returning right to the A, Bolcom adds an extended C section. It is very beautiful, modulating to Gb major. It sounds almost reverent (keep in mind this piece is dedicated to his father), and makes its way back to the A section with a very interesting chromatic line with flats galore:

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II. Poltergeist

A poltergeist is a folklorish ghost that is able to interact with physical objects. Poltergeists were often blamed for unexplained disturbances with inanimate objects (whether falling or breaking unexpectedly, etc), leading them to be characterized as rather mischievous ghosts. This is not lost to Bolcom, who uses this characterization to create a mischievous rag. The main theme is quick, quiet, and chromatic, and the piece contains areas of sharp dynamic contrasts. Notice the section below in which Bolcom contrasts wispy pianissimo figures with a fortissimo chord clusters…very mischievous!

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III. Dream Sequence

A fairly challenging rag with some sections that sound as grand as some of the romantics, this rag seemingly is not played as much as the first two, because it is more difficult to find exceptional recordings of it on the internet. This could be because the left hand plays a lot more three note chords in the left hand in which the outer voices are tenths. The Captain has had experience with such accompaniment patterns and unless you have big hands you will need to scoop them:

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Publishers of Bolcom’s music include:

  • Edward B. Marks Music Company

Notable performers with recordings of this piece include:

  • Daniel Berman
  • William Bolcom himself!

Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:

Rags are truly wonderful. Both classical folks and jazzers love them. This piece of american culture is one that the Captain is most proud of, and though these rags are not quite as special as Joplin’s, they do give the rag a classical flavor. The Graceful Ghost Rag is both the most well known and the most approachable for undergrads and intermediate pianists who like to walk the classical/jazz line. As long as the performer is swinging it, the Captain is digging it.

Sonata No 1, Op 1

This is the first published work of Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), who actually wrote his second sonata first, but thought this work was of higher quality and decided to have it published in 1853. Both sonatas were sent to Breitkopf & Härtel with a letter of recommendation written by Robert Schumann, who, along with his wife Clara, had heard Brahms play and were very impressed. Both of the Schumann’s foresaw the bright future Brahms went on to have as a composer. The sonata is dedicated to Hungarian violinist and musician Joseph Joachim, who was a close collaborator of Brahms.

There are four movements:


Written in C major, the first theme of this movement is an homage to Beethoven, specifically, to Sonata No. 29 in Bb major, Op. 106 (Hammerklavier). Compare the openings of first the Brahms and then the Beethoven below it:

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The movement is very technically challenging with a wide range of emotional contrast – very much in the same vein as Beethoven.


This movement, which begins in the parallel C minor, is a theme and variations based off of the German song Verstohlen geht der Mond auf (stealthily the moon rises). See below the statement of the theme, in which Brahms provides the text as well:

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Allegro molto e con fuoco — Più mosso

The third movement is a scherzo with a rather odd key scheme of E minor – C major – E minor. The Piú mosso changes to a 3/4 time signature from the 6/8 that the beginning section was in, in addition to moving to C major.

Allegro con fuoco — Presto non troppo ed agitato

The fourth movement is somewhat of a rondo, but the theme is changed significantly upon each return. Written in 9/8, the opening is metrically ambiguous, as Brahms places accents on off beats, such as beat nine in the first and third bars:

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Publishers of Brahms’ music include:

  • Breitkopf & Härtel
  • Henle Verlag

Notable performers with recordings of this piece include:

  • Sviatoslav Richter
  • Krystian Zimerman
  • Peter Rösel

Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:

The Captain has never been a fan of Brahms, but respects his genius. The thick chordal texture is very difficult technically, and can lead to injury if one’s technical facility is not where it should be. As this is the case for the Captain, he has strayed away from Brahms.

Suite Bergamasque

From a poor family, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) was accepted in paris conservatory at the age of ten. He took Cesar Franck’s harmony class, but didn’t like the rules of harmony. Despite being a lousy student, he was a brilliant music writer, and eventually ascended to being a Prix de Rome winner. After the victory he lived in italy for two years, where he was miserable. He came back to Paris and made an effort to find more like-minded people and idols. One of these idols was Victor Hugo, whose death in 1885 was a really impactful event for many French people, including Debussy.

Debussy wrote Suite Bergamasque in 1890, but revised it significantly before publication in 1905. It is a suite of four pieces, based off of the Baroque dance suites.


The prelude, in F major, does draw some influence from the prelude style of the earliest preludes. See below the beginning measure where Debussy writes a chord followed by a long solo melody in the right hand. This was a device used in those early preludes, as the left hand would supply harmonic content and then let the right hand play freely.

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Though there are some very challenging sections, this piece is definitely a good teaching piece for students, as it is a good introduction to double thirds in the right hand (for, it has them, but very few), and has interesting harmonic shifts.


In the Minuet, there are more double thirds, adding difficulty for the student. The opening has a melody in the middle voice with the top and bottom voices playing above and below it. The opening theme is also in D dorian mode; modal music is typical of Claude Debussy.

Clair de Lune

Originally titled “Promenade sentimentale,” Clair de Lune is arguably the most well known piece of classical literature. Translating to “Moonlight,” the piece begins in a precarious 9/8, and sounds to a layperson as having no meter, or “free time”:

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The end of the opening section has a section where Debussy voices his chords in the very bottom and close to the top of the register, and like Ravel, voices upper extension voices on the top. The section begins with an Eb minor chord voicing out the 9th:

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There is then a fast section in which the main progression is a Db major, F minor, Fb major (with an Ab in the bass). This is very interesting because Fb major is not in the key of Db major. This is a borrowed chord from Db minor, a hypothetical key usually notated as C# major for the musicians convenience. The A section then comes back slightly different, and there is a small coda to end it.


Though it was composed under the name “Pavane,” Debussy ultimately decided on the Passepied, another Baroque dance. It is in F# minor, with the left hand beginning with an upstart staccato pattern:

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One of the challenges to this movement is its polyrhythmic elements, with many places of four against three. In these situations, the left hand has the sixteenth notes and the right hand has the triplets, which is atypical, as usually the hands are in separate roles, as in Chopin’s Nocturnes for example.

Some editions of Debussy’s music include:

  • Henle Verlag
  • Auguste Durand
  • Louis Schoenewerk

Some notable performers with recordings of this piece include:

  • Claudio Arrau
  • Sviatoslav Richter
  • Walter Gieseking

Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:

This is a very approachable suite. Clair de lune is especially good for young students who only want to play music they know and like, as this piece is perhaps the most well known piano piece in the repertoire.



Completed in 1903, Estampes is a three-movement set of piano pieces written by Claude Debussy (1862-1918).


This movement features exoticism from East Asia. The use of pentatonic melodies and elements of gamelan music are prevalent during the entire movement. Debussy blends east and west by creating western progressions underneath the pentatonic melodies. This can be seen even at the beginning of the piece, where the progression begins with a B major chord moving to a B dominant-seventh chord.

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La soirée dans Grenade

This movement is Debussy’s impression of the Spanish night scene, with the title translating to “Evening in Granada”. Debussy uses a Habanera dance rhythms the entire piece, using also typical harmonic language of Spanish influence, such as Phrygian progressions. 

Jardins sous la pluie

This piece translates to “Gardens in the Rain” and begins with very fast passages in  very narrow register, so narrow in fact, that the hands need to make room for each other, grappling in the same octave. The melody toward the of the piece has a scalar rise in the middle register of considerable length while the accompaniment oscillates around it.

Some editions of Debussy’s music include:

  • Henle Verlag
  • Auguste Durand
  • Louis Schoenewerk

Some notable performers with recordings of this piece include:

  • Martha Argerich
  • Sviatoslav Richter
  • Walter Gieseking

Captain Thaddius’ Hot Take:

This is a fun work for intermediate students to try. It is a good example of the exotic period of the 20th century, where composers were searching from new sounds in foreign lands.