Primer of classical piano pieces from Samaritan member

Kathryne Fassbender

Samaritan Ministries member Kathryne Fassbender not only started the Dementia Letters Project, but also is a classically trained pianist. We asked her to recommend a primer of classical piano pieces for those new to the genre as well as talented nonclassical pianists. You can hear a related playlist on Spotify here.

There are many great and lesser-known composers out there, but I hope this offers a thin foundation covering more than the popular Canon in D or Fur Elise. Even within classical music, there is so much that can be influenced by a personal taste that would indicate what someone would gain from listening to, or learning to play, a particular piece. What we also don’t always realize is that classical music fills our lives in ways unknown and in quiet moments. We know much more than we think: It influences movie music. We hear it in commercials. It has undertones in pop music. It fills our Fourth of July celebrations. It is in our churches, malls, airports, and other community spaces.  Here are five that I would recommend to a general audience today. 

1. Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (Italian, Baroque) A great way to show the beautiful storytelling of music. How swells of sound and moments of near stillness can influence the emotions of what the composer is trying to convey to all that listen. Most people, music lovers or not, probably already know this piece so it is a great launching point. Once we understand music is a form of storytelling, we are set to appreciate if not love classical music. This is not strictly piano but layers the beauty of many musicians to understand the full sound of an orchestra. I felt an orchestral piece needs to always be included. 

2. Allegro Brillant A-dur Op. 92 by Felix Mendelssohn (German, Romantic) This piece for four hands  helps to take what was discovered in Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and translates it to the use of a single instrument. 

3. Clair de lune by Claude Debussy (French, considered by many to be the first Impressionist composer) This piece shows the great control needed by a pianist, leading to a deeper depth in sound, in emotion, in connection. Many believe this piece is part of the mandatory repertoire needed to be considered classically trained in piano. 

4. Six Sonatina, Op. 36 by Muzio Clementi (Italian, Classical) Clementi’s connection to Mozart brings in not only another style of playing and using music to convey emotion, but it allows some history of the greater picture of classical music. Everyone has heard of Mozart, but not many outside of the musical world have heard of Clementi. Clementi also is considered mandatory repertoire by some. 

5. Concerto No. 2 in C Minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff (Russian, Romantic) Rachmaninoff offers darkness the other pieces don’t carry with them. 

For non-classical piano, I would have to go with anything Jon Schmidt/Piano Guys. There is a great joy radiated when they play both in sound and in watching them perform. They blend classical with non-classical in a way that pulls you in to want to hear more. To listen to them play makes me want to be a better musician. As with the previous answer, there are so many it is next to impossible to narrow it down, but anything by The Piano Guys might be the best overall. They wrap up much of what I love about music. 

Suggested pianists for one’s musical library are Lang Lang, Christina and Michelle Naughton, Yuja Wang, Lorie Line, and, well, of course, Emanuel Ax. These six pianists share a wide range of style of playing and types of music one can play. Listening to them can be a great lesson in and of itself. 

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