Keyboard works: A keyboard compendium

Classical Academy | BachBeethoven | Mozart | Rachmaninov | Chopin

J.S. Bach Organ Works

J.S. Bach Harpsichord Concerti

Horowitz, Octaves and the case of a certain Scherzo

The Legacy of a Great Teacher

Piano Concerti Iconic and Curious


The keyboard is perhaps the most intuitive of musical instrument designs, but in terms of what the keys actually do it's intriguing to realise how diverse this group of seemingly similar instruments really is.  There are many theories as to the origins of the keyboard.  One is that it was invented by an Italian monk, Guido d'Arezzo, in the 11th century; another is that it evolved from the hurdy-gurdy!  Here's a selection of musical examples involving a wide range of different keyboards. Play now

J.S. Bach: Partita in B Flat, BWV 825

This is one of many of Bach's works which were written for the clavichord, in which strings are struck with fret-like metal hammers.  Such works are often played on the harpsichord or the piano to their benefit or detriment, depending on your point of view.

James Nares: Lesson No.2 in D Major
This 18th century English composer was the possibly the first to publish sets of formal keyboard studies.  This lively piece in four sections is one of  '8 Setts of Lessons' played here on the harpsichord, which differs from the clavichord in that the strings are plucked rather than struck by the mechanism.

Fanny Mendelssohn: Bright Be the Place
In 1713 Couperin complained about the harpsichord's limitations, saying that he would be grateful to anyone who could 'contrive to render this instrument capable of expression'.  A century later, the fortepiano, which differed from the modern piano in that it had leather rather than felt hammers, was a step in the right direction.  It is used here to accompany an attractive parlour song.

Prokofiev: Five Sarcasms for Piano
With the development of the modern piano the keyboard repertoire became even more significant as composers began to write for this much more responsive instrument.  This set of witty miniatures from 1916 is nowhere near as crass as the title implies!

Widor: Toccata
In the meantime, the pipe organ, often alluded to as 'the king of instruments', continued to add to its own unique history.  This popular and instantly recognisable piece is makes the most of the organ's power and expressive capacity.

Dvorak: Bagatelles, Op.47
The harmonium is a more-or-less transportable organ in which reeds rather than pipes are used to create the sound.  It was widely used in small churches and chapels, by missionaries and of course in musical homes.  This neat little set of works for harmonium and string trio were written in 1878, originally for a group of friends who played informally in a Prague apartment.

Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste
The celeste, or celesta, produces sound by a mechanism which causes felt hammers to strike metal plates.  Its ethereal sound is very distinctive (as in, for example, Tchaikovsky's 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy' ); this piece by Bartok is one of its best-known outings.

James Primosch: Sonata-Fantasia for Piano and Synthesiser

Synthesiser keys are essentially little more than switches, but they can unleash some highly sophisticated sounds.  This is a contemporary American piece, highly listenable and full of assured musicality, in which the synthesiser's sounds complement and extend the sonorities of the piano.

Will Ezell: Barrel House Man

In jazz as in many areas of music, the range and dynamics of the piano effectively allow the instrument to act as an entire band, as in this vintage piano item.

Devotional Melodies of India
As with the violin, the harmonium was usefully imported into Indian music.  The instrument's ability to produce both melodies and sustained drones fitted perfectly, as demonstrated by this ensemble of harmonium, tabla and sarangi.