Music 251B: Composition for the Piano, Winter 2000

The course is a seminar in techniques of composition for the piano. It meets on Thursdays from 3.00 PM until 6:00 PM. Anyone registering for this seminar MUST attend all three hours of all classes (no exceptions). There will be five composition assignments, due in two-week intervals. e.g. the first assignment is announced in the first week, and it would be discussed in the second week. The student would then rewrite it for review in the third week, while bringing in the second asignment. The pieces should be written in the students' own style, not in the style of the pertinent examples. It is assumed that the compositional techniques presented here are style independent.

On the last day of class, March 16, a portfolio of all written work in revised form will be turned in for a grade. Until that time, no assignment will have a letter grade on it. That means that a piece may be improved up to the last day of class.


  • Agay, Denes (ed.), The Twentieth Century (Anthology of Piano Music Vol. 4), ( (Yorktown Music Press, 1983).
  • Foye, Gerald, About Pianos, (Mass Market1997).
  • Lhevinne, Josef, Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, (Dover, 1972)
  • Xeroxed handouts of various compositions (Chopin, Schumann, etc.)

  • January 13: Introduction, defining the problem and the great truth. Chopin Fourth Ballade excerpt will be used. Also, some discussion of Chopin's compositional revision process in sections of this piece will be explored.
    The unadorned two-part texture: Slow Movement of J.S. Bach D Minor Concerto. Even though this work is not for the piano, it is the best example of how to secure musical elements in two parts. We will also look at Gymnopedie No. 1, by Satie (20thC. Anthology, PP. 26-27), and "Dirge," by Bartok, P. 82.
    Assignment 1 (due 1/20): produce a movement, using only two parts.
  • Jan.20: Chordal textures. "The Alcotts," by Ives (20th C. Anthology. PP. 101.103). Transcription and the piano-orchestra.
    Read Foye, complete and come prepared with questions about the construction of pianos. Also, be prepared to give a ten-munute review of a piano book that you have found on your own (oral presentation).
    Study of "Piano Piece," by Ernet Krenek (20th C. Anthology, PP. 138-139) as a modern example of use of chordal textures.
    Study of Liszt's solo piano transcriptions of Schubert songs.
    Use Kodaly's "Moderato Triste," (20th C. Anthology, PP. 58-59) and Prokofieff's "Legende," (PP. 152-153) to show combination with melody.
  • Jan. 27: Gestures, unseen notes, and registral shifts.
    Using examples from various Beethoven sonata movement openings, we will explore the nature of the initial musical gesture as it is best utilized in piano composition (preparation for assignment 3). Registrals shifts in works of Schumann.
    Assignment 2 (due 2/3): chordal textures and foreground. Using Debussy's Sarabande from Pour le Piano (20th C. Anthology, PP. 41-43), produce a movement with thick chordal textures. Assignment 1 revisions will be reviewed.
  • February 3: Figuration. the First Arabesque of Debussy (20th C. Anthology, PP. 36-40) (preparation for assignment 4)
  • Feb. 10: Uses of the classic forms. The uses of tone painting.
    How do variation technique, thematic develpment, and cadential procedures adapt to the solo piano medium? Is there a relationship between song forms (like ABA)and piano cycles of the past and present? Use the little pieces of Kabalevsky (20th C. Anthology, PP. 174-194) as a point of departure.
    Assignment 3 (due 2/17): produce three openings of movements for a projected multi-movement work. The openings should be at least 30 seconds long each.
    Bring in illustration of piano sound effects (e.g. "Carillon," by Alfredo Casella (20th C. Anthology, PP. 136-137).
  • Feb. 17: Piano interpretation. Counterpoint and the piano. The Chopin Polonaise Fantasy
    In preparation, read "Chopin's Last Style," by Jeffrey Kallberg (xerox handout last week).
    The time of the class will be divided between these two areas of discussion.
    Hindemith's "Dance Piece," (20th C. Anthology, PP. 140-141) and Rieti's "Invenzione," (PP. 144-145) as two and three-part example.
    Read Lhevinne, Basic Principles of Pianoforte Playing, complete.
    Examples from Beethoven Opp. 101, 106, 111 and from Brahms "Fugue" from "Variations on a Theme of Handel, as well as some 20th C. examples will be studied (e.g. "Passacaglia," by Walter Piston (20th C. Anthology, PP. 200-203 and Hanns Jelinek's "Two-Voice Invention," PP. 206-207).
    Prokofieff's "Vision Fugitive No. 16" (20th C. Anthology, PP. 154-155) and a combination with figuration.
  • Feb. 24: Aesthetic changes over the 200-year reign of the piano. Bring in your own articles. Also we will discuss the persistence of dance forms (e.g. Shostakovich's "Three Fantastic Dances," 20th C. Anthology ,PP.168-173, Khachaturian's "Waltz," , PP. 208-211, and Henry Cowell's "Sway Dance," PP. 228-229).
    Assignment 4 (due 3/2): produce two sections of pieces that use figuration to propel the structure. The figurations should be different from one another.
  • Mar. 2: Contemporary techniques and the influence of other musics (e.g. jazz).
    Start with Webern's "Piano Piece," (20th C. Anthology, PP. 146-147).
    Bring in three examples from piano works written after 1945 that show techniques not present before that time.
    Assignment 5 (due 3/16): use the same techniques to produce some music of your own. (Those students unterested in avant-garde techniques may substitute a solo piano transcription of an Ives, Ravel, or Barber song.)
  • Mar. 9: Review. What happened to the solo piano recital?
    the recital as a dusty archive in today's concert milieu. In the last century, the solo recital was a forum for innovation (e.g. the recitals of Liszt, et al.).
    Revisions of Assignment 5 and any later revisions of previous work will be examined.
  • Mar. 16: Some Conclusions will be drawn. Portfolio due.

  • Questions may be addressed by e-mail: