"Mozart is the greatest composer of all. Beethoven created his music, but the music of Mozart is of such purity and beauty that one feels he merely found it-that it has always existed as part of the inner beauty of the universe waiting to be revealed." - Albert Einstein

Many people have played the piano throughout the centuries... but only a few can be truly counted as belonging amongst the greats.

In this list, we'll be focussing chiefly on some of the greatest classical pianists of all time. From Rachmaninoff's concertos to Ludwig van Beethoven's magnificent piano sonatas, there is so much talent to cover!

Many gifted virtuosos such as Clara Schumann, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn, Johannes Brahms, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Franz Schubert and Sergei Prokofiev have all made their mark on musical history.

Oh, and don't let us forget Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!

But who invented the piano? 

We can trace back the invention of the modern pianoforte to one man: Bartolomeo Cristofori.

In the following article, we'll be taking you on a tour of the 10 best piano virtuosos to ever have tickled the ivories.

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1. Learn the piano with... Frédéric Chopin

Writing chiefly for solo piano, Chopin left us with so many wonderful pieces and recordings - including concertos, waltzes, preludes and his famous nocturnes. No wonder Chopin's name is one of the first that comes to mind when classical piano starts playing!

Frédéric Chopin playing the piano
Chopin - one of the greatest pianists of all time. (Source: 139904)

There is so much room for interpretation in Chopin's gorgeous, often loosely wandering melodies.

“If you hear the same piece from Chopin twice, you’ll hear two different pieces”

Chopin made his unique imprint on the piano world by marrying poetic sensibility with virtuosic technique. His melodies often came from his improvisations, creating captivating sounds that would crown him as one of the greatest ever pianists.

Interestingly, his hands were small, but his fingers were quite long and slender, especially his fifth (or pinky) finger was longer than usual. For anyone who knows what playing the piano is like, that is particularly useful!

Chopin was no producing a sound similar to pianists of his day: he hated any kind of force at the instrument, and his style of virtuosity was inspired by the likes of Kalkbrenner and Paganini. His playing was a transformative experience for Liszt and others who came after, and whose maturity and technique owe a great deal to Chopin explicitly.

Not sure where to start with Chopin? Check out "Les Quatres Ballades pour Piano", or "Nocturne Number 2 in E Flat"

2. Ludwig van Beethoven

Tragically, Beethoven went deaf at the tender age of 27. However, he kept composing and went down in history as one of the greatest composers of all time.

He left us with 35 piano sonatas alongside 9 symphonies. Perhaps you've heard talk of Beethoven's 5th? That's his 5th Symphony in C minor - arguably his most famous of all time.

Alongside famous composers such as Gluck, Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven falls within the school of Viennese Classicism.

In contrast to the Baroque music of earlier periods, which featured more complex melodies, Viennese Classicism accentuates an initial, simplified theme (melody). In this school, the "rules" of harmony are strictly adhered to.

Although, while all his music is generally considered classical music, he wrote for anything ranging from symphonies to operas, piano solos to string quartets, choruses, and everything in between and outside of those instrumentations, and he created an enourmous volume of works.

Ready to dip into the moving, dramatic world of Beethoven's music? You could start with a piece you probably already know- Fur Elise - and work up to listening through to his nine symphonies.

3. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Alongside Beethoven, Mozart is one of the best-known classical composers and musicians.

Mozart's written musical scores
Mozart's magical music. (Source: WikimediaImages)

A prodigy on both piano and violin, Mozart started performing in courts and salons at the age of 4.

Alongside Beethoven, he is is one of the richest and prolific classical repertoires - the Köchel Catalogue was created to assemble all his pieces in chronological order, and it counts 626 different pieces!

Like any composer, Mozart didn't develop his unique style alone - throughout his life he rubbed shoulders with other composers and instrumentalists who influenced his musical development. He would often copy and replay pieces of theirs, adding his own flourishes.

Mozart died tragically early age of 35, but as mentioned earlier, left behind a magnificant amount of work for someone that age. This was due to his ability to compose at great speed with the utmost ease. He created masterpieces in every genre of classical music; symphonies, concertos for instruments a diverse as piano, violin, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and French horn, miscellaneous orchestral works , 22 operas , most of which were written when he was a boy. He also wrote world famous operas as Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, the Magic Flute, which have now been staples of the operatic repertoire for well over 200 years .

So where to start with Mozart? Try Symphony No. 41 (Jupiter) on for size.

4. Claude Debussy

Claude Debussy definitely rates a mention when it comes to the most beautiful works ever written for the piano.

On an entirely subjective note, he may be our favourite ever composer for piano.

André Boucourechliev credits him as a one-man musical revolution of the 20th century. Defying the musical conventions of his days, his non-conformist musical palette produced works that are still difficult to classify.

Debussy used his grounding in piano technique to break all the rules and express himself with complete musical freedom.

Where to start with Debussy?

Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune is definitely worth a listen.

5. Martha Argerich

Whilst we could have happily filled out our list with only long-dead composers, we feel it's very important to include some of the incredible contemporary pianists gracing stages today.

So let us introduce you to Martha Argerich.

A young prodigy, Argerish began learning the piano at the age of 2. By age 8, she was already playing Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major perfectly.

At age 14, she moved to Europe to study with some of the world's most famous pianist. Only two years later she won two internationally renowned music awards back-to-back: the Ferruccio Busoni International Piano Competition and the Geneva International Music Competition.

Intrigued? Check out her rendition of Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major.

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6. Art Tatum

When discussing piano virtuosos, it's easy to slip into the trap of only mentioning classical pianists. However, there are so many jazz pianists who light up the stage with their virtuosic improvisation and sparkling talents.

Art Tatum, it could be argued, is not only one of the greatest jazz pianists ever but also one of the most talented pianists of any genre.

Tatum is partially blind and learnt how to play the piano using braille. One evening during one of his performances, Fats Waller commented on his musicality; “I only play the piano, but tonight God is in the house”.

Blessed with a brilliant musical ear, Tatum brought an unconventional technique and undeniably mesmerising energy to his piano performances.

There's an old rumour that says Lester William Pollfuss, (commonly known as Les Paul), originally dreamed of becoming a jazz pianist. After hearing Art Tatum play, he decided to focus on the guitar as he became convinced he could never match Tatum.

Tatum's version of I Got Rhythm is unmissable for jazz and piano fans alike.

7. Sonya Belousova

Belousova is a Russian-born American pianist who started her piano journey at an early age and quickly became renowned as a piano prodigy

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Explore the world of classical and contemporary piano! (Source: Free-Photos)

Belousova began learning the piano at the age of 5 and was already composing by age 10! Only three short years later, aged 13, she was awarded the Russian Ministry of Culture Award for her compositions.

She is renowned for her compositions but is also a talented improvisational pianist.

She works with some of the premier ensembles and solo artists from around the world and composes music for ballet companies in the United States.

Online, she is known for her playful renditions of video game and movie music. You can check out her version of Tetris, music from films such as Star Wars or TV series such as Game of Thrones. Fans of the video game Street Fighter will enjoy her virtuosic reimagining of its theme tune.

8. Yiruma

This contemporary pianist and composer from South Korea is perhaps best known for his works for solo piano; River Flows In You and Kiss the Rain. 

Born in 1978, Yiruma is a contemporary pianist, and maybe the finest out there today. His piano career began at a very young age - he began playing the piano, starting with his first lesson aged 5, and later attended two music schools in England, going on to graduate from the Purcell School in 1997 and King's College in 200, paving his way to a very successful career.

He made several recordings in 2001 for his debut album Love Scene, but didn't garner widespread attention until reviews of his film score in the film Spring Waltz. 

His musical sounds perfectly balances classical and contemporary sensibilities in ways that are often soothing, uplifting and melancholic.

For listeners new to Yiruma's work, River Flows in You is a great first piece. He has also performed Kiss The Rain to thousands of adoring fans worldwide.

9. Yann Tiersen

Yann Tiersen is a French performer and composer who is perhaps most well-known for writing the soundtrack for the film Amélie. Whilst the film became an instant classic, Tiersen's whimsical and melancholic soundtrack, evocative of the streets of Paris, sold more than a million copies. Whenever the film is mentioned, talk of the incredible soundtrack is sure to follow.

Tiersen is also an accomplished musician in his own right. A multi-instrumentalist, he also plays guitar, violin and accordion. His music is at once vibrant, touching, timeless and intensely human.

His first album, La Valse des Monstres, brings together 11 of his songs written for two different plays. After the success of  Amélie, Tiersen became an internationally renowned composer and two of the songs from this album exploded in popularity; La valse des monstres and Le banquet.

Best live pianists
For inspiration, attend live piano recitals to see the pros at work. (Source: Free-Photos)

You may already know one of his more famous pieces from the Amélie soundtrack: Comptine d’un autre été: l’après-midi.

10. Peter Bence

A Hungarian producer, composer and pianist, Bence is best known for his covers of famous songs.

He also held the record for the fastest pianist in the world in the Guinness World Records from 2012-2017. To achieve this record, he played 765 keys in a single minute!

Contemporary in all sense of the word, Bence is popular online and you can find his work through his YouTube channel or on his Facebook profile.

Pianists drawn to the piano from the world of pop or rock will appreciate his modern sensibilities - a great place to start might be with his cover of Michael Jackson's Bad. 

Hungry for more great pianists? Check out some of the best pianists from the United Kingdom here.

Honourable Mentions

Sergei Rachmaninoff

It feels a bit harsh to leave such a well known legend of the piano world out, but we had only 10 places there have been so many piano genius' throughout history.

Rachmaninoff was born in Russia in 1873, he was a virtuoso pianist in the 'Romantic Era'. He took his first lesson at the age of 4 (Like all these genius' they start very young), and later attended the Moscow Conservatory. His initial production, Symphony Number 1, received bad reviews by the public, which led to Rachmaninoff suffering several years of depression.

He regained his confidence and toured and performed his sound around the world, before relocating to New York following the Russian Revolution.

With his main source of income coming from piano and conducting performances, demanding tour schedules led to a reduction in his time for composition. Between 1918 and 1943, he completed just six works, including the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Symphony No. 3, and Symphonic Dances.

Overall, Sergei Rachmaninoff was a leading figure of Russian music in the late Romantic era. He stunned audiences with his virtuosity and touch, touring widely and performing his own music.

Franz Listz

Perhaps he should be top of the list given his surname, but seriously, Franz Listz was stiff to miss out on a place in our top 10. Born way back in 1811, the Hungarian pianist was a pioneer in many way, and is regarded by most as one of the greats.

Liszt gained noriety in Europe during the early nineteenth century for his extensive virtuosic skill as a pianist. He became a friend, musical tour promotor and partner to the other famous names of his time, including Frédéric Chopin, Charles-Valentin Alkan and Richard Wagner.

Listz created many compositions, he was one of the leading representatives of the New German School (German: Neudeutsche Schule). In his legacy there is a diverse body of work that influenced his creative comtemporaries and sveral trends that appeared in the 20th century can be traced back to Listz's original compositions. His famous contributions include the symphonic poem, where he developed thematic transformation as part of his creative nouse, and also made radical innovations when it comes to harmony. 

Johannes Brahms

Another classical pianist from the romantic period, Brahms was born in 1833, and his career spanned from 1850 until his death in 1897. So why was he famous?

He had a gift for combining the more complex harmonic practices of the Romantic era with the clear musical structures of the Classical era, yet he is considered a more conservative composer.

Many of his works have become staples of the modern concert repertoire. Brahms, an uncompromising perfectionist, destroyed some of his works and left others unpublished.

He was a master of counterpoint, the complex musical art which Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and other composers are similarly famous for.

Conclusion

So you there you have it. No doubt many will find our list controversial! With so many legendary pianists over the last two centuries it really is difficult to pick out a top 10.

Comment below what your top 10 be, or who you think we missed out. Does Franz Listz make it into your top 10?

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Erin

Erin is an Australian musician, writer and francophile living in France.