Music is how we connect in the world. Throughout our lives, we all have been fortunate enough to add music to our daily routines.
For some, music is how they overcome and gain insight into their problems, and for others, it’s just a great way to start the day. Be it pumping up a song with good beats while you're traveling to work, or simply sitting in your favorite chair with a book in a hand, music resonates with everyone.
When we talk of piano, it comes across as one of the most loved and admired instruments of all time. It takes years of planning, training, and precision to master the art of hitting the right note at the right time. An insane amount of hand coordination is needed to twist and turn your fingers in a way that produces timeless music.
The Western world has been fortunate to have had a great number of musicians who mastered this art and have given us some amazing compositions for the piano, so much so that it’s rather difficult to put all of them into one list.
So, who’s the greatest pianist of all time? It depends. The best musicians have left an unparalleled legacy that continues to inspire and motivate future coming generations. Let's have a look at some of the greats, who have had a deep impact on our collective heritage.
1. Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli
He started his journey into music at the tender age of three by learning the violin. His father, who was a lawyer by profession, also had an inclination toward music, so it's safe to say that Michelangeli had music in his blood.
He was a perfectionist that created magic with his keyboard. Trained with absolute precision by Italy's finest music teachers, Michelangeli won the seventh prize in the 1938 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, when he was all but 18.
Soon enough, this achievement was eclipsed when he won the Geneva International Piano Competition, with Alfred Cortot as a jury member. Cortot was so impressed by his tunes, that he went on to claim that, with Michelangeli’s appearance on the music scene, "a new Liszt is born.” How’s that for top marks?
An avid learner, Michelangeli was also a fully qualified pilot and a doctor of medicine. He also dipped his feet into teaching and went on to share his skills with the likes of Maurizio Pollini, who reported that his teacher was “the absolute peak of piano playing.”
Founder of the International Piano Festival of Brescia and Bergamo, one of the biggest international events dedicated to the piano, Michelangeli is known to be equally brilliant for his solo compositions. One of his most famous arrangements are 19 a cappella Italian folk songs which he composed for the Coro Della Società Alpinisti Tridentini, a men's chorus from Trento (Italy).
2. Sergei Rachmaninoff
Born and brought up in a musical family, Sergei Rachmaninoff is a well-known name in the world of music, and no list of contenders for the greatest pianist of all time is complete without him. The last great figure of the age of Russian Romanticism, Rachmaninoff picked up his art when he was only eight years old.
The early start is what made him one of the leading maestros of his time, and he went on to compose several pieces that are engraved in our hearts and minds even after all these years. One of these leading compositions is the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, first brought to public attention in 1934.
A Russian composer and piano player, he was heavily influenced by the likes of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Balakirev, and Mussorgsky. His life was full of turmoil and nothing short of a rollercoaster, which only contributed towards polishing his art.
One incident, in particular, belongs to the era of the Russian Revolution, when he moved to Dresden with his family in 1906. There he composed three of his scores, the Symphony No. 2 in E Minor (1907), The Isle of the Dead (1909), and the Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor (1909).
After the revolution ended, he went into a self-imposed exile and switched residences between Switzerland and the United States. While there weren't many original pieces he produced after this time, he pushed himself in re-composing his old tunes to suit a more modern and advanced crowd in the States.
3. Arthur Rubinstein
One of the most iconic figures of the music industry of the 20th Century, Arthur Rubinstein has a legacy that spans almost eight decades. People say that he had a certain sense of spontaneity in the way he touched the keyboard, which made him one of the greatest Chopin interpreters of his time.
Born in 1887 into a strict Jewish family, Rubinstein showed an immense talent for the piano from the age of two. A child prodigy, he began his training under none other than Heinrich Barth in Berlin, and made his first public appearance when he was all but seven years old. It’s said that Rubinstein used to practice for 16 hours straight to compose new pieces and polish up the old ones.
His brilliance is clearly depicted in the way he performed on stage and his unparalleled collaborations with the likes of Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky, Henryk Szeryng, Emanuel Feuermann, and Pierre Fournier.
Apart from being an excellent pianist, he was also a renowned author and has exceptional pieces to his name, including his two-volume autobiography, My Young Years (1973) and My Many Years (1980).
4. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
A name that needs no introduction, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in the year 1756. From his early childhood, he showed prodigious abilities in music, especially the keyboard and the violin.
He started composing musical scores from the age of five, and had the opportunity to perform before European royalty. When he was 17, he was engaged as a musician at the Salzburg court, but soon grew restless of the position and traveled around the country in search of something which satisfied his musical genius.
Widely recognized as one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music, Mozart composed in a range of musical genres and excelled in each and every one of them. His command over his form and his versatility set him apart and make him one of the most revered maestros of his time.
He composed his first opera, Apollo et Hyacinthus, when he was 11 years old, which is still considered to be one of the most finely crafted operas by someone of that age. Throughout his career, he arranged 626 symphonies which had a profound impact on modern music and artists, including on none other than Ludwig van Beethoven.
While there is no list that can encompass all his renowned melodies, some of his greatest masterpieces include: Serenade No. 13 “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”, Clarinet Concerto, Don Giovanni, and The Marriage of Figaro.
5. Vladimir Horowitz
Vladimir Horowitz was a Russian-American classical pianist born in the year 1903, especially famous for his virtuoso delivery. It is said that his flawless technique and orchestral quality of tone really set him apart from his contemporaries. He became a member of the Kiev conservatory at the age of 12 and made his concert debut in 1922.
His most notable performance included a series of 23 recitals in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the Soviet Union, with absolutely no duplications, which added to his spectacular success across the European countries.
It is said that Horowitz was driven by the thirst of always knowing more, constantly pursuing new skills that made him the maestro he was. His talents took much from his influences, including Beethoven, and his connection with the audience was simply spectacular.
Although troubled by his physical and psychological health, Horowitz was one of the most authentic pianists of his time. His art depicted this honesty as he composed several transcriptions and arrangements that continue to hold major relevance in the contemporary music world.
6. Emil Gilels
Emil Gilels was born on October 19th, 1916 to a Jewish family. At the age of five and a half, he began taking music lessons from Yakov Tkach, a famous piano teacher in Odessa. With an inherent love for the instrument, Emil showed quick responses and within the first few months, he was playing all the three volumes of Loeschhorn's etudes.
Although a strict teacher, Tkach was one of the most important people in his life, and helped Gilels build the foundation for his extraordinary technique. At just 12 years old, Emil got the opportunity to perform at his very first public concert. Later on, he was admitted to the Odessa conservatory into the class of Bertha Reingbald . There he received the opportunity to expand his cultural interests, which deepened his aptitude for history and literature.
A Soviet supporter through and through, Emil also performed during World War II to boost the morale of the troops who were fighting a war on the front line. In the year 1945, along with Leonid Kogan (his brother-in-law) and the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, Emil formed a chamber music Trio that gave several recitals and performances throughout their tenure.
He was awarded the Stalin Prize in 1946 and was also one of the very few Soviet artists who were allowed to travel and perform in the West. In 1952, he began his career as a professor at the Moscow conservatory where his line-up of students included Valery Afanassiev, Irina Zaritskaya, Irina Smorodinova (a Laureate of the International Marguerite Long-Jacques Thibaud piano competition in Paris), Igor Zhukov, Vladimir Blok, and Felix Gottlieb. He was also the chair of the jury for the International Tchaikovsky Competition, an association that endured for years.
7. Ludwig van Beethoven
Famed as one of the most beloved and influential creators of western music, Ludwig van Beethoven was a German composer and pianist, born in the year 1770. A predominant figure in the classical and romantic periods, his work features among the most widely performed repertoires. A truly versatile artist, Beethoven's "Immortal Beloved" is the ultimate expression of love and romanticism: a 10-page love letter that could never find its way to its intended.
Beethoven's age and era can be conveniently divided into three sections: early, middle, and the late. His early days mostly revolve around his family and his father, who was also his very first teacher and a singer in the electoral choir. His grandfather, too, was a singer in the choir of the archbishop-elector of Cologne, so one can say that music ran deep in the Beethoven family.
Watching his son's passion for the instrument develop, Johann tried to create a child prodigy out of Ludwig, following in the footsteps of Mozart. However, it wasn't until adolescence that Ludwig started getting the recognition he deserved.
While his career gained momentum, his physical health wasn't all that great. By early 1800, it was discovered that Ludwig's hearing was severely impaired, which impacted his mental health and professional life. However, being the determined soul that he was, he did not give up and continued to compose exquisite music throughout his long career.
His middle days are mostly attributed to his 'heroic' style, recognized by a fast-moving tempo and following a revolutionary tone. This style was much appreciated by the patriots, while for some, the length simply did not work. This is also when he fell in love with chamber music, a 16 string quartet that burst with creativity and beauty.
Beethoven’s final years saw the completion of three of his most notable symphonies, Missa Solemnisolemnis, the Ninth Symphony, and the Diabelli Variations. The works showed a massive shift from the earlier compositions, demonstrating his amazing knack for producing music for all ages. Although he progressed slowly, his legacy is such that musicians to date follow his compositions and arrangements, and take significant inspiration from the same.
8. Frédéric François Chopin
Nostalgia knocks on the door every time someone mentions the name of Frédéric François Chopin. Born in the year 1810, near Warsaw, Chopin belonged to a highly educated family, where everyone had a refined taste for music. With a liking for the instrument from the very beginning, he was only six years old when he started playing the piano.
A truly classical composer, Chopin was a pianist who was famous for his solo piano compositions. He gained popularity for his 'poetic genius,’ which provides the key to the lasting influence of his music.
At the age of 20, Choplin completed his musical education and went on to create several notable symphonies, lauded for their nuance and sensitivity. He is also the mind behind the genre of the instrumental ballad and was heavily influenced by Polish folk music and Mozart's style and techniques. His major piano works include études, impromptus, scherzos, preludes, mazurkas, waltzes, nocturnes, polonaises, and sonatas.
With only 30 public recitals to his name, it’s safe to say that Chopin considered himself to be more comfortable with intimate recital scenes and didn’t exactly enjoy regaling crowds at large concerts.
Chopin's work continues to inspire generations of artists. With several biographies and numerous films made about this maestro, his achievement knows no bar. The Fryderyk Chopin Institute, founded by the Parliament of Poland, was created to promote his life and work and celebrate him for the artist that he was.
The Final Key
It is always such a pleasure to go back in time and get in touch with these soulful renditions by the greatest maestros of musical history. You may have noticed that what they all have in common is that they all started very young. Each one of them either had an inherent love for the instrument or developed one as they grew up. Neither of them belonged to a strictly musical family but had some sort of a musical background that gave an all-important nudge to their dreams.
So, who’s the greatest pianist of all time? Maybe it will be you! If you’re dreaming of learning how to play the piano or are already at an advanced level, then you should make an effort to listen and retain these tunes at your fingertips. You’ll soon realize that classical music is like old wine, you need to develop a taste for it, invest in it, and then enjoy it when it fully matures. When you put your heart and soul into listening and truly appreciating these classic renditions, only then will you understand the true magic behind those monochrome keys of the instrument.