From Grandma’s Piano Bench

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Copyright 1936: None of these pieces were new at the time; now all are in public domain

(Post for my NEC students about what to study in European Classical Music. For those bemused or frustrated by the main body of this essay, I offer more conventional repertoire suggestions in the postscript.)

Download this beauty: 59 Piano Solos.

The great jazz pianists had a casual relationship to European Classical Music. They knew some of it, enough to get by, but they weren’t scholars or notable practitioners of what were then called “The Three B’s” (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms).

Truthfully it would have been easier to learn some of it rather than avoid it: Around the time the first wave of serious jazz virtuosi — Jelly Roll Morton to Art Tatum, let’s call it a 20 year swath from 1920 to 1940, encompassing figures like James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and many others — European Classical Music was just part of the American environment, much closer to local folklore than it is now.

Back then, there was a piano in most American homes, and American children were told to practice. (A caustic and amusing account of this peak of American keyboard activity can be found in a book by Arthur Loesser, Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History.) America was a segregated society but, black or white, the kids practiced the piano.

Much of the classical music played in those American homes was not the very best classical music. Indeed, the breadth and depth of “The Three B’s” was probably not properly appreciated by anybody who wasn’t a serious professional. (There are five Beethoven concertos, all familiar to concert audiences today. In 1910, the board of the New York Philharmonic overruled Gustav Mahler and Ferruccio Busoni’s request to program one of the first four Beethoven concertos, saying something to the effect of, “Any of the others are too esoteric and demanding, please play the popular one, the Emperor Concerto, instead.”)

In the halls of the New England Conservatory today, all the classical students understand “The Three B’s” better than ever. Yet many of the composers in the volume I uploaded above would be unfamiliar.


59 Piano Solos You Like to Play is blurbed on the back as, “…Well-known favorites of lasting appeal.” This blurb is correct. In 1936, almost all of these pieces were well-known, standard repertoire for pianists possessing varying levels of proficiency.

Not all of these pieces are masterpieces. Some are nearly trivial. But even the weakest pieces “sound good” as piano music. Every selection offers correct voice leading and straightforward compositional sense.

59 Piano Solos is a notable example of its kind, a massive tome that Schirmer kept in print for half a century, but there must have been hundreds of anthologies of intermediate piano music produced in America in that era.

If you know any budding classical pianists, you will know that they own stacks of modern professional editions with intimidating names like Henle and Bärenreiter. These expensive editions are in competition with each other to prove who is the most authentic to the composer’s intent.

A budding jazz pianist doesn’t necessarily need all that. Just go to the piano in your eldest relative’s house and open up the bench. Even money says there is some old anthology in there. Pick it up, place it on the music desk, and read through it from beginning to end.

While this music might be only “just some stuff made by the B-team,” it’s still stuff that is basically well-made and plays by the old European rules.

I guarantee James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and the rest sight-read out of these kind of anthologies. They didn’t need to study “The Three B’s” in depth, for the “B-team” was just as good for getting some basic grammar together.

I’ll play through four once-popular piano pieces from 59 Solos that strike me as quite “jazzy.” These pieces may not be very “good” music. I’m certainly not going to stand up at a symposium on composition and make a case for their profound depth. That’s not the point.

The point is how the echo of this kind of harmonic/melodic thinking in unquestionably present in unquestionably profound jazz. Playing these pieces feels a bit like playing Scott Joplin, James P. Johnson, Erroll Garner, etc. (They also sound like pre-1945 Hollywood scores. Movies were one of the biggest sources of inspiration for classic jazz musicians.)

I deliberately did not tune my piano before these candid iPhone video “performances.” An out-of-tune piano is actually more authentic to the tradition of “Grandma’s piano bench.” And while I  could have spent all day trying to get perfect renditions for posterity, these were simply first takes with wrong notes, mediocre dynamics, and insecure phrasing. The moral I am trying to impart to my students: Perfection is not required when goofing off with European Classical Music! Just have fun!

(NB: the WordPress interface lacks subtlety, that’s why the videos are dismayingly large. Also, please do not rip these videos and upload them to YouTube. They are for DTM educational use only.)

Isaac Albéniz, Tango in D (1890). “Café tango” was very important to American music. Tango in D was once very famous; indeed, it was almost “pop music” and heard in every conceivable arrangement and transcription. Leopold Godowsky’s fabulous amplification is still occasionally heard in concert halls today. Albéniz was a great composer who also contributed the formidable suite Iberia to the repertoire.

tango 1tango 2

Cécile Chaminade, Scarf Dance (1891). One of my own early “piano bench” anthology finds included this novelty number, which I soon concluded used a similar kind of harmonic language as my first LP of Thelonious Monk. Chaminade was a stunning pianist as well as a valuable composer; the slender discography of Chaminade playing Chaminade is worth seeking out.

scarf 1scarf 2

scarf 3

Zdeněk Fibich, Poem (1893). I’ve never come across Fibich’s name except for this rather corny number that once enjoyed great popularity. Total Hollywood! There’s no doubt in my mind that George Gershwin and Harold Arlen knew this Poem. The 12/8 meter foreshadows slow-dance triplet-driven rock and soul from the 50’s and 60’s.

poem 1poem 2

Selim Palmgren, May Night (1906). The harmonies are quite advanced for the era, exotic  to a fault, almost sinfully chromatic. (Soon jazzers would make these kinds of moves commonplace.) On the second page the “bells” of Red Garland appear for two white key phrases. For fans of modal jazz, the coda includes moments of lydian and phrygian. As far as I know, May Night is the only Palmgren work to ever have common currency in America.

may night 1may night 2may night 3

Other compositions of interest in 59 Piano Solos:

C.P.E. Bach, Solfeggietto. Like millions before me, I played this at a talent show in 5th grade. It’s also Bud Powell’s source for “Bud on Bach.”

J.S. Bach, two preludes. Ray Charles preferred learning Chopin to Bach, saying the non-stop motoric patterns of Bach made him nervous. Nina Simone’s comment is more typical: “When you play Bach’s music you have to understand that he’s a mathematician and all the notes you play add up to something, they make sense. They always add up to climaxes, like ocean waves getting bigger and bigger until after a while when so many waves have gathered you have a great storm.”

In these old anthologies, the editors had a lot of power. Too much power? In the C major prelude, a bar is added to “fix” the old Lutheran’s unlikely bass progression. When I was a young teen, discovering this grand error of judgement went some ways to establishing my life-long suspicion of the printed page.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with playing from over-edited 19th-century editions in the privacy of your own home. For whatever it’s worth, I just had a good time with all the heavy-handed markings of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc. in 59 Piano Solos You Like to Play. The glorious B-flat minor prelude sounds wonderful with those 19th-century dynamics. Even that incredible added bar of non-Bach in the C major makes sense in this context. Jazz musicians never care that much about the Urtext, anyway…

L.V. Beethoven, Variations on “Nel cor più non mi sento” and Minuet in G. Ah, I loved this set of variations as a tyke! Beethoven “blows choruses” on a pop song. Total jazz! The Minuet in G has a large part in Meredith Willson’s musical The Music Man.

J. Brahms, Hungarian Dance and Waltz. The dance was a very popular bit of cultural appropriation, but, fair warning, in this arrangement it is one of the hardest pieces to play in the whole volume. The waltz is famous as a lullaby for babies.

F. Chopin, five pieces. Chopin is intertwined with 20th culture in myriad ways. Much of the time he was shorthand for lowbrow “classical glamor” but his raw musical materials were also crucial.  “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” and “Till the End of Time” (associated with Judy Garland and Perry Como) are literal lifts of Chopin melodies. Jobim took the E minor prelude for “How Insensitive.” Certainly all the jazz pianists played the easiest preludes, nocturnes, waltzes, and polonaises. Great music, invaluable for basic piano perspective. (The G-flat “Butterfly” etude is a rag, Charlie Haden adored the slow and chromatic E-flat minor etude.) 

Antonín Dvořák, Humoresque. Art Tatum played this, as did everyone else. At the moment it is transposed to G (the original is G-flat) for domestic use.

E. Granados, Spanish Dance. The grace notes and pianistic style are an attempt to emulate a guitar. Therefore, it’s not much of a stretch to find some “blues piano” in this famous piece.

Edvard Grieg, four pieces. Donald Lambert’s version of Anitra’s Dance is one of the greatest examples of stride piano. To Spring has gentle 2:3 polyrhythms and superb pianistic layout.

G.F. Handel, Largo. “Handel’s Famous Largo” is a religious-sounding instrumental transcription of the aria “Ombra mai fù” from the opera Xerxes, where the singer originally praised a tree. (True story! “Never was a shade/of any plant/dearer and more lovely/or more sweet.”) A very important piece of music! If you read anything out of this old anthology, read Handel’s Famous Largo.

Pietro Mascagni, Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana. Like many Americans of my generation, I was first exposed to this extraordinary theme when watching the movie Raging Bull.  This piano arrangement of the orchestral texture is a little light, I’ve seen richer and better ones. Still, the immortal theme is the immortal theme.

Jules Massenet, Élégie. Art Tatum played this one too!

Felix Mendelssohn, three pieces. Glenn Gould said, “I think [Mussorgsky’s] observation that Mendelssohn was a strait-laced man who liked nice, tidy sixteen-bar paragraphs was quite correct. What we forget to notice was that Mendelssohn was inventive on another level altogether. In order to comprehend his invention, one has to first accept the placidity that is the most abundant feature of his music. Having accepted that, Mendelssohn can then surprise you by the gentlest movement.” The familiar Spring Song is a good example, as it starts off with a normal 8-bar phrase before going absolutely bonkers.

W. A. Mozart, Rondo Alla Turca. There’s no Scott Joplin without this warhorse. After all the orientalist foot stamping, Wolfgang writes a climatic shout chorus with prog-rock phrase lengths.

S. Rachmaninoff, two preludes. The C-sharp minor prelude was so famous that the composer nicknamed it “The It Prelude”: At every Rachmaninoff recital, the audience would beg him to, “Play It!” Duke Ellington recorded a band version in 1938. “It” is not as hard as it looks (part of its charm?), but the masterful G Minor prelude may be for virtuosos only, especially the middle section with a “third hand” required for melodies in duet.

Anton Rubinstein, two pieces. In Men, Women, and Pianos, Arthur Loesser writes of Kamennoi-Ostrow and Melody in F: “The nonsense syllables of the former title (they make sense, of course, in incomprehensible Russian) helped render the piece easy to ask for in a music store;  whereas the latter composition achieved the crowning American success of having words fitted to it and sung in elementary-school assemblies.” The harmonies and tune of Melody in F are really like a jazz standard. Art Tatum (again) recorded it, but even better is the relaxed version from Teddy Wilson.

Camille Saint-Saëns, The Swan. This familiar melody is well-known in transcription. I once saw Yo-Yo Ma play it on his cello as an unforgettable encore. As with Tango in D, the pianistic Leopold Godowsky amplification is pure catnip for those that like that kind of thing. (Admittedly, Mark Morris once overheard me practicing the Godowsky Swan and said, “Isn’t the original goopy enough?”)

Xaver Scharwenka, Polish Dance. Not, perhaps, a timeless masterpiece, but for some reason once very popular. Scharwenka gives Chopin’s mazurka style a hint of sonata form, and the right-hand figurations go straight into novelty ragtime and stride piano.

F. Schubert, two pieces. Marche Militaire was a big influence on Sousa. Carl Tausig did the amplification performed by virtuosos like Vladimir Horowitz. The Moment Musical is proto-ragtime and harder than it looks.

R. Schumann, two pieces. Träumerei has almost exactly the form of a jazz standard, AABA. After Handel’s Famous Largo, this is the piece all my students better damn well read through. (Can you even call yourself a pianist if you’ve never fooled around with Träumerei?) Glenn Miller recorded a bad arrangement.

Christian Sinding, Rustle of Spring. Deep into the then-exotic Minor Modal style, and much easier than it looks. Willie the Lion Smith may have been answering Sinding with his stride piano masterwork, “Echoes of Spring.”

Johann Strauss, On the Beautiful Blue Danube. Like many Americans of my generation, I was first exposed to these extraordinary themes when watching the movie 2001. In that recording, the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Herbert von Karajan performs the waltz with a strikingly uneven beat. There are a lot of different kinds of music in 59 Piano Solos, from many lands and traditions. At times the rhythms are notated as superficially as they are in jazz: In other words, you need be an initiate to play them right.

P. Tchaikovsky, three pieces. “None But the Lonely Heart” is almost a standard, having been sung by Frank Sinatra and others.

Verdi and Wagner, selections. The collection lacks a strong finish, as these arrangements of a few operatic themes are too basic. Perhaps ignore these and look for a nice anthology of opera themes and overtures instead…

I love the avant-garde music of Scott Wollschleger. Check out the CD American Dream, compositions of Wollschleger played by Bearthoven, a bonafide “piano trio” comprised of Karl Larson, piano, Pat Swoboda, double bass, and Matt Evans, percussion. “Gas Station Canon Song” is for quiet solo piano, “We See Things That Are Not There” is for hesitant piano and vibes, and the dramatic centerpiece “American Dream” is for the complete trio. The performers are all great and the production is top-notch. Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti contributed helpful liner notes.

Scott is a friend, and we share a passion for music “from Grandma’s piano bench.” One of the reasons I got so interested in Scott (before we were friends) was a comment from an interview:

As I mentioned, I love sight-reading, especially works by obscure composers. For instance I’ve recently read through Domenico Alberti’s sonatas. They’re awkward but super charming. I love getting a sense of “what Mozart didn’t do.” Sometimes knowing what was rejected in history is just as interesting as knowing what was successful. Another recent discovery has been Sibelius’s piano music. I love it – it’s so spacious. Isaac Albeniz and Agustín Barrios Mangore are also high on my list. In a way I have bad taste, and I’m okay with that.

Yes indeed! This is my kind of musician.


However, I certainly understand that “having bad taste” is not necessarily what one should teach. If the music “from Grandma’s piano bench” simply lacks enough mastery for interest, here is a list of easier piano music by consecrated great composers. (There’s no doubt that many of the jazz greats knew much of this music, too.)

BACH. The French suites, German suites, English suites, and Partitas are comprised of wonderful dance movements. Each one has a slow Sarabande of unearthly beauty that is comparatively easy to play.  The Well-Tempered Clavichord is an encyclopedia of genius, and not all of the preludes (and even some of the fugues) are difficult. The celebrated teacher Heinrich Neuhaus recommended the three preludes in C minor, C-Sharp major, and D major from WTC 1 as important stepping stones to pieces that require more facility. The two-part inventions are a crucial part of the human legacy, but they are also harder than they look. In general you don’t have to worry about the ornaments or trills too much unless you really want to buckle down and work on that topic.

HANDEL. A D minor Sarabande with variations is easy and beautiful. The suites are well-made and easier than Bach’s suites, but there is certainly an argument that you should be playing Bach suites instead of Handel suites as soon as possible.

MOZART. 59 Solos omits piano sonatas in the classical style with the exception of the potboiler Rondo Alla Turca. Sonatas tend to be a bit fussy and troublesome compared to standalone pieces. The many Mozart piano sonatas are gorgeous but also harder than they look, with momentary left-hand passages that vex even professional players. Then occasionally the slow movements go on and on: two of the easier and more immediately satisfying slow movements are from K. 330 and K. 332.  Probably the best intermediate piece to fool around with is the D-minor fantasy.

HAYDN. A gazillon sonatas, all great. However the ironic style is hard to figure out if you haven’t played Mozart or Beethoven yet. The tasty E minor sonata is often heard at a student level.

BEETHOVEN. The first sonata in F minor is a classic intermediate level piece. Op.14 No.2  in G major is also quite easy and simply delightful; then there are two very easy sonatinas of perhaps less interest. In the other 28 sonatas, the slow movements are always good for sight-reading material. The “named” sonatas such as Moonlight, Pathetique, Appassionata, Tempest, and Waldstein are difficult, but you could (should?) listen to them with the score in hand.

(For those looking for the basic sound of a classical sonata but feel overwhelmed by the challenges of Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, the sonatinas of Clementi are recommended. Various easy-to-find sonatina anthologies have other valid examples by lesser 18th century composers.)

SCHUBERT.  The most divine melodies of any piano composer. The simpler Impromptus and Moments Musicaux aren’t that hard; neither is the “little” A major sonata, D 664, especially the beautiful slow movement in D major. However, it may be dismaying to hear a professional play an “easy” Schubert piece after trying to read it yourself. If you know a classical singer, try out the Schubert song accompaniments, they are much more forgiving.

CHOPIN. Bach and Chopin are the two most important composers for piano players. Off the top of my head, the easier Chopin pieces include:

4 or 5 Preludes
C minor Polonaise
B minor waltz
4 or 5 Mazurkas
Nocturnes! Nocturnes! Nocturnes! The two easiest are probably B major Op. 32 no. 1 and G minor Op. 15 no. 3. (I learned a tremendous amount from those two Nocturnes.)

SCHUMANN. Wrote a whole Album for the Young (not all the pieces are equally good). Much more established in the repertoire is Kinderszenen (Scenes from Childhood), where Träumerei is from. One step up in difficulty but manageable and very important is the delightful Arabesque.

BRAHMS. The book of shorter piano pieces is essential! Wow is this stuff just so great! Ballades, Intermezzi, other character pieces. The three of Op. 117 is considered an easier set; I also adore the slow death of the first of op. 119 in B minor.

LISZT.  Schubert and Liszt are notably easy to understand for a novice, partly because they are rather basic and repetitive in their arguments. I learned a tremendous amount about form and composition listening to records of great pianists performing the tuneful melodies of Schubert and the lavish narratives of Liszt.  I played Valle D’Obermann a lot in my early 20s, enjoying the rather obvious transfiguration of a theme from plaintive to agitated to heroic. (It’s good to remember that this music was written to be heard one time live in concert). Eventually Valle D’Obermann gets really hard…probably the tremolos and octaves will always be just beyond my skill level…but one can “fake it until you make it” in Liszt more than any other great composer. At any rate, I suppose if you are looking for the antecedents to Bad Plus performances like “Iron Man” and “Silence is the Question,” one must include Valle D’Obermann.

SCRIABIN. Many of the easier preludes and even some of the etudes are perfect sight-reading material, full of jazz chords and delicious dissonance. Really ideal for jazz students.

DEBUSSY. I learned the G major Arabesque pretty well when I was 10 or 11. It was a breakthrough later on when I realized that this harmonic language was similar to Richard Rodgers and Cole Porter. Now I see the two early Arabesques as “novelty rags.” Later Debussy expanded harmony much further in his Preludes and other pieces, but I still like these novelty rags. (Children’s Corner is often given to students but those pieces may be harder than they look.)

RAVEL Everyone plays the slow movement of the Sonatina. There’s also a tiny prelude in A minor that sounds just like Bill Evans.

BARTÓK. The Sonatina was my first “modern” piece. Too easy for the concert stage, it remains perfect jewel at the smallest scale. Ben Street and Aaron Parks admire the folkloric rhythms and phrasing in the piano roll made by the composer himself. Of course there is also the marvelous collection of graded repertoire, Mikrokosmos. Students who are truly uncomfortable with sight-reading may want to try out Mikrokosmos.

SCHOENBERG. The whole of Op. 19 is excellent sight-reading. Just great stuff at a digestible level. Playing through easy Bartók and and easy Schoenberg will give you a taste of two early 20th-movements against conventional harmony, “primitive” nationalism and atonality.

There’s much more intermediate repertoire than contained in this quick postscript. I may add to it over time. If you discover something that turns a key in a lock, please let me know!

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