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88 Days Celebrate 88 Keys

An overhead shot of a piano, made of warm-colored wood. A book of sheet music is open above the keys.
Lorenzo Spoleti

The 88th day of the year is a special day for pianists and fans of piano music alike. Since pianos have a total 88 keys, piano lovers petitioned that March 29th should be recognized as World Piano Day!

Last September I wrote a blog about September being National Piano Month. Since Piano Day is a one day version of National and World Piano Month, I thought we could explore some shorter pieces that pack all the instrument’s magic into a smaller package.

When we think of the big names of 19th century piano music – Chopin and the Schumanns, (Robert and Clara), the Mendelssohns (Felix and Fanny), and Schubert, Liszt, and Saint-Saëns, we often think of big piano blockbusters.

French composer Camille Saint-Saëns had been bitten by the travel bug and traveled throughout Europe, Asia, and North and South America, but he was fascinated by Northern Africa, what some called his “spiritual home.” He often visited Egypt and would spend winters in Algiers, where he would eventually die at age 86.

Here's his Africa, Fantaisie for piano and orchestra, Op. 89. Saint-Saëns specialist, pianist Jean-Philippe Collard, joins conductor Andre Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

If this one caught your attention (and imagination), then let me recommend another by Saint-Saëns, also with a tourism bent although he stays in France this time. Here is his Rhapsodie d’Auvergne, played by Collard, with Previn and the Royal Philharmonic again.

Other shorter Saint-Saëns pieces you might like to explore include his Wedding Cake Capriccio-Valse Op. 76, and his Allegro Appassionato, Op. 70.

Felix Mendelssohn’s large output for piano includes Six Preludes and Fugues, Kinderstücke (Children’s Pieces), Op. 72, and sets of Preludes, Etudes, and Caprices. His Albumblatt (Album Leaf) in E Minor, Op. 117, takes you on a four-minute mini relaxation vacation. Here’s Daniel Barenboim.

His Serenade and Allegro giocoso, Op. 43, has a main theme that is pretty enough to stand alone, but grows full and grander as the minutes tick by. Here’s pianist Ragna Schirmer, and the Saarbrücken (Germany) Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Others that are a bit longer by Mendelssohn that you might enjoy include his Capriccio brilliant, Op. 22, and his Rondo brilliant, Op. 29.

Clara Wieck wrote her Three Romances, Op. 11, while she was on a concert tour of Paris in 1839 and dedicated them to her then fiancée, Robert Schumann. From the start of the first one you hear all the emotions. He loved them all and even published the second one in his music/arts journal. Here is pianist Jozef De Beenhouwer with all three.

Her Soirées Musicales, Op. 6, is a collection of six pieces, often performed separately. They would be a fun set of miniatures to explore, as would be her emotional roller coaster of a set of 4 Pieces Caracteristiques, Op. 5.

Franz Liszt channeled his Hungarian roots and the music he heard growing up into his Hungarian Folk Songs, Nos. 1-5. He also wrote a series of short pieces he called, appropriately enough, Short Piano Pieces, Nos. 1-4. I have always loved hearing, and playing, his collection of Consolations. Here is Consolation No. 3, S. 172, with Vladimir Horowitz.

Other miniatures by Liszt include his Fantasy on Hungarian Folk Themes, Fantasy on Beethoven’s Ruins of Athens, and his three Liebesträume (Dreams of Love).

Chopin, a composer and concert pianist, never wrote a piece in which the piano didn’t figure prominently. He wrote 20 waltzes, 21 nocturnes, 23 polonaises, 27 preludes, 27 etudes (studies), and 59 mazurkas. Here’s his Nocturne in E-flat, Op. 9, No. 2, played by Maria João Pires.

And one more from Chopin. The story goes that before he left his native Poland, he went on a research mission. He knocked on doors asking elderly Poles to sing or hum the old Krakowiak tunes (dances named for the city of Kraków) they remembered growing up. He worked a number of them into his Krakowiak, Op. 14. Here’s pianist Garrick Ohlsson joining the Beethoven Academy Orchestra conducted by Grzegorz Nowak.

Other Chopin miniatures you would enjoy include his Fantasy on Polish Airs, Variations on La ci darem la mano (from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni), Op. 2, and his Grand Polonaise Brilliant, Op. 22.

I hope by now you agree with me that good things come in small packages, at least if they’re piano miniatures. Happy World Piano Day!

Coda: Since it’s spring let’s end our romp through these works with one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, Op. 62. There were 48 in all. Here’s pianist Jongdo An playing “Spring Song.”

And check out Piano Day events going on around the world!

Laura Carlo is the Morning Program Host for CRB.