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Four of the Greatest Modern Classical Pianists of All Times

Jul 9, 2008
Every serious piano student eventually learns to play some of the most well-known classical pieces during his or her studies. Nary a pianist didn't learn Palchabel's Canon in D or Beethoven's Fur Elise. Even non-musicians recognize names like Bach and Mozart.

But what about modern classical pianists who have also made notable contributions to cultural history? Here are four the most well-known modern classical pianists and their contributions:

* Glen Gould: The eccentric Canadian-born classical pianist spent more of his prolific career in the recording studio than on stage. Gould covered many of the original classical greats, such as Bach and Beethoven. Gould may be best remembered though for his recordings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Gould was widely acclaimed for his unusual technique and eclectic renditions of famous classical works. Though he spent many years on the road, touring several countries, he gave up concert performances in 1964 at the age of 32. Though he could have spent decades longer on the road, he preferred to live out the remainder of his career in the studio.

Gould's career was cut short by an untimely stroke at the age of 50, which ultimately took his life. Still, his recordings live on today and have been released and re-released numerous times.

* Arthur Rubinstein: He has been referred to as one of the greatest piano virtuosi of the 20th century. Born in Poland in 1887, Rubinstein's family recognized a depth of unique talent in him, despite the fact he didn't speak until age three. A childhood filled with unusual behavior and outbursts fuel speculation that Rubinstein may have suffered from a learning disorder or autism.

Eventually, Rubinstein's temperament gave way to the talent for playing the piano that he eventually became known for. Rubinstein made his concert debut in New York in 1906 and toured until 1976. He reluctantly retired from public performance at the age of 89 when his hearing and eyesight began to fail. Though he passed away in 1982, Rubinstein is still highly acclaimed among modern musicians.

* Sergei Rachmaninoff: This Russian classical pianist was also a composer and conductor. Perhaps it was his unusual 12-inch hand span that helped him become a legend for his technical proficiency. Rachmaninoff not only commanded the stage, but at a height of 6 feet, 6 inches, commanded a room as well. Though he began piano study casually under the tutelage of his own mother, his extraordinary talent quickly emerged.

Rachmaninoff was mediocre in academics, even failing many of his subjects for lack of motivation. However, his piano instructor, who recognized his potential, insisted on a strict and disciplined practice regimen. If not for him, Rachmaninoff may have given up on his musical studies as well. A later meeting with Peter Tchaikovsky also served as inspiration for him to continue his musical career.

He managed to overcome several setbacks in his career, including scathing public reviews and a long period of writer's block. After several years of performance and changes in location, Rachmaninoff moved to the United States in 1918. He continued performing until February of 1943, just a month before his death from cancer.

* Myra Hess: This British pianist stands out in a genre typically dominated by men, especially during her years of public performance. Even as a young child Hess exhibited extraordinary talent. She was admitted to the Guildhall School of Music just two years after beginning lessons at age five. She gave her first public performance at the tender age of 17 in 1907, when she toured throughout Europe for several years. Eventually Hess debuted in the United States, where she realized almost instant acclaim. In an effort to boost morale during World War II, Hess organized a series of free public concerts in London. Her efforts during a time that saw the closure of concert halls and art galleries due to the war was deeply appreciated and received by the public. Hess herself performed at many of these lunch hour concerts. It may have been these efforts that endeared her to the public and stirred lasting interest in her music and career.
About the Author
Duane Shinn is the author of the popular online newsletter on piano chords, available free at "Exciting Piano Chords & Chord Progressions!"
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