A short piano lexicon

Etudes, Nocturne, Impromptu, Sonatas and Co.

Anyone attending a piano recital is often confronted with a plethora of work names, such as prélude, nocturne, sonata and étude. What do these names mean and what defines these pieces? In our short piano lexicon, we introduce you to the major genres of piano music one at a time. 

What is a mazurka?

What the Viennese waltz is to Austria, the mazurka is to Poland: a dance that is inextricably linked to the nation’s identity. Like the waltz, the mazurka is also in triple time. However, unlike the waltz, whose rhythm always accentuates the beginning of the bar, the rhythmic emphasis in the mazurka is on the second or third note of the bar, which would normally have no accent. This gives the dance a lively, archaic character, underlined by the melodies, which are mostly based on traditional folk music scales.

From folk dance to social dance

The origin of the mazurka (Polish: Mazurek) lies in Mazovia, an area near Warsaw. It was initially a popular leaping and whirling dance of the rural population, but the higher circles of Polish society began to develop a taste for it from 1600 onwards. From the middle of the 18th century, the mazurka was often used as a dance interlude in performances of opera and ballet. Its popularity spread beyond Poland, conquering salons all over Europe as a social dance.

Political statement

It is mainly thanks to Frédéric Chopin that the mazurka was introduced into the piano repertoire. The Polish composer and piano virtuoso had been living in Paris since 1831, because of the political unrest caused by Russian foreign rule in his homeland in the first half of the 19th century. During his French exile, he became an acclaimed artist. His yearning for Poland inspired him to write mazurkas – wonderfully poetic piano pieces that take up the atmosphere of Polish folk dance, stylise it and yet are something entirely original. In his mazurkas, Chopin also expressed national pride, transforming them into a statement of support for Poland’s freedom. Many Polish composers after Chopin wrote mazurkas for the piano; among the most significant are those of Karol Szymanowski, who stylistically developed Chopin’s model further and adapted it to a modern tonal language.


What is a prepared piano?

A piano can be so much more than a piano: percussion, noise machine, gamelan orchestra... For the composers of the 20th century, the piano was no longer just an instrument of melody and harmony; they turned it into an experimental laboratory for new sounds. Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev discovered its percussive qualities and used its rhythmic power. The pianist and his instrument became the rhythmic motor of a composition.

The piano as experimental laboratory

The American composer Henry Cowell had other ideas: he reached with his hands directly onto the piano strings, which he plucked, wiped and scraped. In this way, he elicited quite unusual sounds from the piano. He called this technique string piano. It was further developed by his pupil John Cage, who pulled strips of paper or felt through the strings and stuck screws, bolts, wood as well as erasers of different hardness between the strings. These objects changed their vibrational behaviour. When the pianist touched the keys, the sound of the piano was altered to such an extreme that a whole new tonal world was created. The “prepared piano” was born.

Time-consuming preparation for new sound worlds

John Cage is regarded as the father of the prepared piano. It became an inexhaustible source of discovery for him. He had very precise ideas about sound, which he recorded in detailed descriptions of how the instrument should be set up. For example, in his piece Daughters of the Lonesome Isle, the piano sounds like a gamelan orchestra, an Indonesian instrumental ensemble whose characteristic sound is produced mainly by bronze gongs and metallophones. Cage’s idea set a precedent and was taken up by many contemporary composers. However, simply sitting down and hitting the keys is not possible with works for prepared piano. Preparing the instrument beforehand is quite time-consuming and can take hours.

What is a piano sonata?

What is a piano sonata?

Anyone who plays the piano – whether professional or amateur – cannot avoid it: the piano sonata. But what exactly is it? The term “sonata” comes from Italian and has been used since the Baroque period to describe a piece of music played purely instrumentally – as opposed to the sung “canzone”. The piano sonata as we know it today is a product of the First Viennese School. The invention and development of the fortepiano opened up completely new possibilities for composers when it came to solo music for keyboard instruments: dynamics and timbres could be created in a much more differentiated way than on the previously common harpsichord.

Model of success in three movements

In addition, there was a change in musical aesthetics during the period of the First Viennese School: a musical idea was no longer established and developed as it had been in the Baroque era. Rather, two contrasting themes collided in one piece of music, which were dissected, transformed and reassembled. This contrasting principle determines the large orchestral form of the symphony as well as that of the solo piano sonata. The latter was a model of success in three movements. The first, fast movement with its two contrasting themes is followed by a slow second movement of a song-like, lyrical character. To conclude, there is once again a fast, often dance-like final movement.

From easy to difficult

Almost every composer produced piano sonatas during the First Viennese School – and at every level of difficulty. The sonata was one of the most popular forms of musical entertainment. Leading the way were Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, who set standards in the genre. While Haydn’s piano sonatas comprised an average of 255 bars, Beethoven needed 560 bars for his sonatas, which became increasingly complex and virtuosic. In the Romantic period, the piano sonata became even more poetic in expression, rich in harmonic timbre and technically demanding – although its form was already considered outdated. Thus Robert Schumann wrote that the sonata “struggles against three powerful enemies [...]. The public, the publishers, and the composers themselves, who are deterred from writing such old-fashioned things for all kinds of reasons, perhaps also internal ones”. However, the piano sonata never went completely out of fashion, as is shown by sonatas written by composers such as Béla Bartók, Leoš Janáček and Igor Stravinsky in the 20th century. And so it is still the case: anyone who plays the piano – whether professional or amateur – cannot avoid the piano sonata.

What is an impromptu?

What is an impromptu?

Many children are magically attracted to a piano: they open the lid and plunge into the white and black keys with all ten fingers! The musical result, unless they are already learning the piano, usually sounds terrible – but this is exactly what the principle behind the “impromptu”. The term comes from the French and means “unprepared”, or “improvised”. Someone performs something quite spontaneously off the cuff. In the 18th century, it was mainly understood to mean a poem improvised by an actor or actress during a theatre performance. For example, an actor in Goethe’s Singspiel Lila refers to the forthcoming performance with the following words: “A beautiful impromptu will be concocted”.

Free improvisation on the piano

In the 19th century, the term was transferred to piano music. At that time, composers and pianists mastered the art of sitting down at the piano and creating a small piece of music without preparation or prolonged consideration. What was considered particularly successful was then written down and published. The pieces by Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Frédéric Chopin, Franz Liszt and Alexander Scriabin are regarded as seminal for the genre of the impromptu. Chopin’s companion George Sand describes how narrow the line between improvisation and composition sometimes was: “Chopin’s creative work was spontaneous, admirable. His ideas came unexpectedly, without him looking for them. But then began the most excruciating labour I have ever experienced.” Chopin questioned every note, sought to improve – only to return to the first draft in the end.

Light, lyrical character

In the course of time, the term impromptu lost more and more of its improvisatory character. The distinction between it and other piano genres became blurred. The cheerful, song-like, playful character is typical. Together with similar musical miniatures such as moments musicaux, nocturnes and ballades, impromptus are among the many lyrical piano pieces that so enriched the genre of piano music in the 19th century.

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