Famous Piano Composers Across the Eras
Take a trip through piano history, from the Baroque right up to the Contemporary period, and learn more about the composers that defined each era.
by Michael Lane
A guide to Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Contemporary Piano
"Classical music" can mean a lot of different things. Most confusing is that the Classical genre takes in multiple eras: from Baroque to Classical, Romantic to Contemporary.
Here we go on a journey through the history of piano music, illustrating each era with a few examples of famous composers who characterised the time periods. You'll notice that each era changes around the time that piano as an instrument evolved. From the harpsichord to the pianoforte, then onto the modern piano we know and love.
A few things to bear in mind:
- The dates aren't exact. There was nobody decreeing "Baroque is over, it's Classical now". Tastes and styles change gradually, so the periods overlap a lot.
- These composers are limited to Western classical music. This is because we're interested in the piano, which didn't travel much until late in this timeline.
- This isn't an exhaustive list of composers. It just gives a good idea of how each era was different through some of the most influential names.
We already gave a taste of famous pieces in our article on 14 Famous Classical Piano Pieces, this is more to give you a taste of what the eras mean and who was writing when.
Before this, there was nothing much like a piano beside the organ. Then, the harpsichord was invented in the 1500s and grew to define Baroque piano music. While the piano tone you know is created by hammers hitting strings, harpsichord strings are plucked. This meant that every note had the same volume, with no sustain.
This precise and "formal" tone shaped Baroque music. It's characterised by independent but harmonising parts in both hands ("complex tonal counterpoint”) over a continuous bassline ("basso continuo") combined with the beginnings of structural ideas of theme and variation.
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685 – 1750)
J.S. Bach (not to be confused with the other 50 musicians and composers in his family) was the master of Baroque. Listen to the Aria from his legendary Goldberg Variations for an idea of how he used counterpoint between hands and how organised it all was.
George Frideric Handel (1685 – 1759)
Handel's music gives a sense of how Baroque music could also be powerful, combining his native German influences with those of England, where he spent most of his life. You can't listen to Handel without imagining the splendour of the royal courts where it was played.
Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741)
Vivaldi was a priest for a brief period, so we see the religious elements of Baroque music at play. His 'Four Seasons came' late in the Baroque period and here you can feel the Classical style starting to creep in.
This can be a little confusing. We use "Classical" as a genre to refer to all of the music in this article, but this refers to the Classical era. It was now when the harpsichord was replaced by the "fortepiano" (shortened to "piano"), which soon became the main keyboard instrument. The increase in dynamic range gave players more control and expression, which partly defined the change in style.
Classical music has a lighter texture than the density of Baroque music, generally moving towards clearer melody lines over chords. It was an era of elegance rather than seriousness.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Mozart went from child prodigy to one of the most influential composers of all time in his 35 years. We have a full article going through Mozart's best-loved music, from his first composition to his final masterpiece released after his death. But for a piece that perfectly captures Mozart’s style and Classical music overall, here is 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik'.
Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)
As a friend of Mozart and one of Beethoven's tutors, Haydn sits perfectly in the middle of the two. Haydn is a good representation of the Classical era in the way that he took small motifs and expanded on them within the formal structures of the time.
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 – 1827)
Beethoven is so prolific and innovative that his music is often split into three periods. In his early period, he mastered the "Viennese" style of Mozart and Haydn but brought more expression and scale to his compositions.
During his middle period, Beethoven was at the forefront of pushing Classical music into the Romantic era, moving from the rigid Classical structures to something more expressive. Moonlight Sonata is the perfect example as it was published in 1801, marking the start of the next era.
Romantic (1800 - early 1900s)
The industrial revolution brought with it the modern piano that you know. The expanded 88-key range and powerful sustained tone allowed for the expression and emotion of Romantic music. While the Baroque and Classical eras focused on specific musical forms, with defined structures, Romantic music was more about conveying a feeling.
More freedom meant new types of pieces - nocturnes, fantasias and preludes - that weren't afraid of using dissonances or progressive textures. More travel meant that composers were no longer limited to royal courts or well-established schools of music. Influences from around the world started to creep in and composers began using music to paint pictures of countries - their own or abroad.
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Like Beethoven, Schubert straddled Classical and Romantic eras, with the style changing through his life. Looking back, it's easy to see how he progressed from Classical compositions like 'The Trout', which he wrote at only 22...
...to the deeply Romantic, dramatic, style of his compositions during his final months.
Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)
Chopin wasn't just a virtuoso pianist and composer. He was probably one of music's earliest celebrities, complete with high-profile love life and a mysterious persona: he only performed in public around thirty times during his lifetime.
Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897)
Brahms is also known for his meticulous compositions based on Classical forms, but with more of a deep romanticism at their heart. He pushed away from the opulence of other Romantic composers, moving towards what many called "pure music".
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840 – 1893)
Speaking of opulent Romantic composers… Tchaikovsky represents the grandiosity of the period very well. His music was majestic, mystical and with a nationalist view of his native Russia, transcending the stereotypes of Russian and Western music of the time.
20th Century and Contemporary (early 1900s - 2000)
This is around the time that the piano started to be used for other genres. Blues, jazz and musical theatre at the beginning, sowing the seeds for rock, pop and electronic music to come. Classical piano music was just as important, but faced with the rise in recorded music and genres from around the world, composers started to branch out. Some - like George Gershwin - even composed popular and classical music.
All this made the early 20th Century a jumble of subgenres, from impressionism to post-romanticism and expressionism. More styles came after WWII, like Neo-Romanticism, Experimentalism and Minimalism. You can discover the details on your own, but for now it's enough to know that this was where piano music took on many lives.
Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918)
Debussy took the freedom and expression of Romanticism even further, creating what he called "symphonic sketches". He is widely considered as the first impressionist composer - even though he rejected the term. Just listen to the strange yet evocative 'Clair de Lune' to see how he developed his own style of harmony and musical colour.
Erik Satie (1866 – 1925)
The end of Romanticism was all about experimentation and Satie was definitely an inventor. Eccentric in the best possible way, he preferred to call himself a "phonometrician" (someone who measures sounds) rather than a musician and invented the term "Gymnopédie" for his most well-loved series of pieces.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)
Like many other Russian composers, Prokofiev put a lot of his homeland into his music but spent most of his life in the US and Europe. Listen to his piece 'Historiette' to hear these influences combine - as well as how he used dissonance and clashes to evoke emotion.
This is not the end by any means. Classical piano music lives on. We rely on it to convey emotion in film scores, like Michael Nyman’s modern masterpiece ‘The Heart Asks Pleasure First’ from ‘The Piano’ or on a grand scale in Hans Zimmer’s music for ‘Interstellar’.
As new media progresses and we move into the future, we even see some amazing piano scores for games. Read our article on Video Game Music on Piano for more.
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