“You write to become immortal, or because the piano happens to be open, or you’ve looked into a pair of beautiful eyes.” - Robert Schumann
The piano is one of the most popular instruments for musicians to learn and its popularity never seems to waiver. There’s always a piano within reach. Throughout the history of music, the piano’s played a hugely important role and many pianists can serve as a fine example to the younger generations.
Forget about famous composers like Mozart, Chopin, Bach, Franz Liszt, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev, in this article we're going to talk about some of the greatest British pianists!
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Allan Rawsthorne hailed from Lancashire and studied at the Royal Manchester College of Music. Throughout his career, he put together an impressive repertoire of music.
He wrote one ballet and a number of symphonies for the orchestra. Of all his works, Symphonic Studies, a concerto for orchestra, his viola sonata, and his two piano concertos are some of his most popular works.
He was also responsible for the soundtracks for a large number of films during the 1940s and 1950s.
Britten attended the Royal College of Music and was heavily influenced by classical music in his early years since his mother wanted him to follow in the footsteps of Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, by adding Britten to the list. That said, Britten claimed that his creativity was stifled by constantly studying and playing their work.
Throughout his illustrious career, he created many a composition including operas, church parables, ballets, orchestral pieces, concertante, and instrumental music including solo piano pieces.
He also founded the Aldeburgh Festival, an arts festival devoted to classical music which takes place in June in Aldeburgh, Suffolk.
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If you're thinking that Benno Moiseiwitsch doesn't sound very British, you'd be right. Moiseiwitsch was born in Odessa in the Russian empire in 1890 before moving to the UK in 1908.
He regularly played Romantic pieces, including works by Rachmaninoff. In fact, Rachmaninoff himself said that Moiseiwitsch was his “spiritual heir”.
Moiseiwitsch was given a CBE for his contributions during the Second World War as he regularly played to the armed forces.
Unlike some of the other greats you find in lists of famous pianists, you can actually listen to recordings of the virtuoso himself as a lot of his performances were recorded.
Cipriani Potter is one of the older pianists on our list, having been born in 1792. He was a staff member of the Royal Academy of Music in London in its early days before becoming principal for nearly 30 years!
He came from a musical family and was taught by two people who were students of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (one of them being his own father!). He was accepted into the Philharmonic Society as an associate member at the age of 21 (he would later become a full member).
He created a number of orchestral symphonies, concertante, and many piano pieces. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra has produced commercial recordings of a couple of his piano concerti if you'd like to listen to his creations.
Donald Francis Tovey
Another British pianists worth mentioning is Sir Donald Francis Tovey. In addition to his playing, he also extensively studied music and wrote essays on music. While he didn't compose as many pieces as the other pianists and composers in our list, his contribution to the study of music more than makes up for it.
That said, he still wrote a number of piano pieces, chamber music, orchestral symphonies, an opera, and choral music.
Best British Pianists: Frederic Hymen Cowen
Cowen was actually born in Kingston, Jamaica, but moved to the UK when he was four. He came from an artistic family with one sister being an actress and another a painter. He published his first composition when he was just six years old and created an operetta at the age of eight.
He won the Mendelssohn Scholarship in Germany, which would have paid for him to attend the Leipzig Conservatorium for three years. However, his parents sent him as an independent student in order to retain control over him. He eventually had to return following the Austro-Prussian War.
He specialised in lighter orchestral pieces rather than serious pieces.
While there are very few records of Pinto's family life, there's a lot more information available on his music. He was born in 1785 and started learning music from the age of 8. By the age of 10, he was part of London's music scene. He also performed in Bath, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Oxford, and Paris.
While he usually played the violin rather than the piano, Pinto had stated that the piano was his favourite instrument. He was also a fan of J. S. Bach.
He died at the age of 20 having fallen ill the previous year.
Irene Scharrer studied at the Royal Academy of Music and, like many of the other pianists on our list, got started at a very young age. She first performed in London at the age of 16 and regularly performed until throughout her life.
She would often play four-handed compositions with Myra Hess, another British pianist of note. Her playing favoured grace over power and she was at her best when playing Romantic pieces.
Johann Baptist Cramer
Though born in Mannheim, Germany, Cramer moved to London as a child and lived and worked there most of his life.
He was a talented pianist and when impressed Beethoven when he visited Vienna. He was also friends with Haydn. He was famous for his technical precision when playing the piano and wrote 200 sonatas for the instrument. He also a number of piano concertos.
Pianists from the UK: John Lill
John Lill is one of the few living pianists still on our list since you usually have to have stood the test of time before you can be classed as one of the greats. However, Lill is certainly deserving of appearing in this list.
He was born in 1944 and from a very young age was shown to be very talented. He attended the Royal College of Music and made his first performance at the age of 9.
There are recordings of his playing available to those interested in hearing him tickle the ivories. He is particularly famous for his incredible interpretations of Beethoven's works.
John McCabe, who passed away in 2015, was dubbed as “a pianist of formidable gifts and wide-ranging sympathies”. He started composing at a young age and by the time he reached the age of 11, he had written thirteen sympnonies.
Even though he regularly composed music, he initially became famous as a pianist who could play almost anything from Classical to contemporary music.
While the other pianists on the list mainly play classical music, John Taylor was a jazz pianist. In fact, he's also the only pianist on this list who's self-taught!
He got involved in the jazz scene when he moved to London in 1964. He worked with a number of different acts and employed a style that was inspired by both jazz and classical music.
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Other British Piano Virtuosos
Of course, we can’t fit all the great British pianists into one measly article. Here are a few more pianists that you might want to check out for their piano playing:
- Johnny Pearson
- Jon Lord
- Julius Drake
- Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji
- Kathryn Stott
- Michael Finnissy
- Michael Nyman
- Mike Pinder
- Myra Hess
- Paul McCartney
- Paul Williams
- Percival Mackey
Whether you’re looking for a classical or contemporary pianist or a composer or a jazz pianist, there are plenty of talented Britons to listen to.
The piano has made a home for itself in the UK and, as a result, we have plenty of internationally famous pianists. Classical training has helped these pianists make a name for themselves. However, you won’t be able to join them if you don’t know what any of the words mean.
In a number of our articles on music, we've included a short glossary at the end. If you want to become fluent in music, you'll have to read them all!
This is when two distinct melodies are played over one another.
This is an Italian term which means that the piece should be played expressively and with freedom.
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