Music History

Learn About Famous Piano Players Throughout History

By Jesse

Read through our list of famous piano players and you’ll be inspired to play!

Are you interested in learning about famous piano players throughout history? In creating this list, it was our goal to include important pianists from many different musical and cultural backgrounds. There have been so many talented and hardworking pianists in the history of the world that it would be difficult to include every one of them, but our goal is to inspire you with their artistic output. 

Who are some famous piano players? What made them famous?

At the bottom of this article is our comprehensive list of many famous classical, jazz, and popular pianists, but before you scroll down, we’d like to highlight some of these famous pianists and their achievements. Who were these famous pianists and why were they famous?

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is the earliest keyboardist included on this list, but he certainly wasn’t the first pianist or even the first famous pianist. In fact, he wasn’t a pianist at all, since the piano was invented during his lifetime and wasn’t popular yet. Bach mostly played the predecessors of the piano, such as the clavichord, harpsichord, and organ, but he was a virtuoso (a person with outstanding technical ability) and was a master at creating fugues. The fugue is a complicated form that was popular during the Baroque period (c. 1580-1750). Learn more about the fugue here! Bach understood the art of the fugue so well that he was known to improvise complicated and beautiful fugues on the spot, certainly earning his place among some of the greatest keyboardists and composers in history!

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) was a Polish composer and virtuoso pianist during the Romantic period (c. 1800-1910). Unlike many pianists of his day, Chopin detested large public performances and instead grew famous in the salon culture of Paris: private parties, often given by wealthy patrons of the arts, which hosted some of the most famous musicians, writers, and artists of the time. The majority of Chopin’s output was for solo piano. He was truly a pianist at heart, occasionally writing for other instruments and ensembles, but it’s his piano works that are most remembered today. Chopin’s piano music has been described as “pearly, subtle,” with “exquisite delicacy and liquid mellowness.” He had surprisingly small hands, but those fingers were flexible, dextrous, and moved around the piano with enviable ease. Read more about him here!

Another virtuoso pianist from the Romantic period was Hungarian composer Franz Liszt (1811-1886), who was a master showman on stage. Before his day, it was common for pianists to perform from sheet music like other instrumentalists, but he changed that tradition by performing completely from memory. Liszt was a true rockstar and experienced a fan frenzy named Lisztomania or Liszt fever, which was an intense following of fans that no virtuoso pianist had ever had before. Some still regard him as the greatest pianist who ever lived. His own works can be extremely showy and challenging and are a testament to his brilliance as a pianist. Listen to his famous Paganini Etude “La campanella” here! Also, you may be familiar with his “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2,” which has been featured in Looney Toons and other cartoons. Listen to this piece here.

German pianist and composer Clara Schumann (1819-1896) is commonly considered to be one of the most distinguished pianists of the Romantic period. She was married to famous pianist and composer Robert Schumann, but she was known to be the more brilliant pianist. Robert Schumann and composer/pianist Johannes Brahms both composed pieces for Clara to perform, including Robert Schumann’s famous “Piano Concerto in A Minor” (here played by Martha Argerich). You can check out one of Clara Schumann’s own compositions, “Piano Concerto in A Minor,” here

Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was an American composer and pianist who is now well-known as the King of Ragtime! He was partially responsible for popularizing a new era of music. Maybe you’ve heard his famous piece, a ragtime gem released in 1899: “The Maple Leaf Rag.” His compositions would later spark the beginning of swing music, which later evolved into jazz. You can read more about Joplin and listen to his music here!

One thing that Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) was well-known for was the size of his hands. While the average reach for most pianists is a ninth interval, Rachmaninoff could supposedly comfortably reach a twelfth – that is an octave PLUS a fifth, which is a huge reach! Naturally, his pieces contain lots of enormous chords that most people have to roll in order to play, but Rachmaninoff didn’t! He was one of the finest pianists of his day and due to technological advances during his lifetime, we can still enjoy recordings of his performances. Here is an audio recording of Rachmaninoff himself performing his famous “Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor,” often considered one of the most challenging works in the genre. 

Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) was a Polish pianist who is well known as one of the greatest classical pianists of all time, and especially well-known for his Chopin interpretations. Listen to him play Chopin’s “Piano Concerto No. 2 in F minor” here!

Martha Argerich (b. 1941) is an Argentine classical concert pianist who is widely considered to be one of the greatest pianists who ever lived. She made her concert debut at age eight, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major. In 1965, Argerich won the VII International Chopin Piano Competition and became the first and only South American pianist to win that award. She has produced many famous recordings of classical works, including pieces by Bach, Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, Ravel, Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, Bartok, Ravel, Ginastera, etc. Check out this jaw-dropping performance of her playing Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s Danzas argentinas no. 3 “Danza del gaucho matrero”!

A modern showman in the style of Liszt is Chinese pianist Lang Lang (b. 1982). One interesting fact about Lang Lang is that at the age of nine, he was expelled from his piano teacher’s studio for “lack of talent.” Now, he is one of the most in-demand and well-recognized pianists in the world. He has performed for world leaders such as President Barack Obama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, King Charles III of the United Kingdom, and Queen Elizabeth II. Check out his performance of Chopin’s “Grande valse brillante” here!

Called the “Maharajah of the keyboard” by Duke Ellington, Canadian pianist and composer Oscar Peterson (1925-2007) is commonly considered one of the greatest jazz virtuosos in history. Here is a beautiful and amazing recording of Peterson playing in 1999. 

Bill Evans (1929-1980) was an American jazz pianist and composer who led his own jazz trio and also famously collaborated with trumpet player Miles Davis and singer Tony Bennett. His compositional and performance style used impressionist harmony, block chords, and melodic lines, which continue to influence modern jazz pianists today. Listen to him perform here!

Keith Jarrett (b. 1945) is an American jazz and classical pianist and composer, famous for his improvisational prowess. One of my favorite stories about Keith Jarrett has to do with his 1975 concert in Köln, Germany. According to the story, he arrived at this performance and was provided with a poorly-kept piano without working pedals. He had already had a long and tiring journey and nearly refused to play the concert, but instead he took the limitations of the instrument into account and improvised for over an hour. His critical thinking and quick decision-making skills saved the concert, and it ended up becoming one of the most famous concerts and recordings of his career. Sadly, it is difficult to find a video recording of this concert online, but listen to him play a concert in Norway here

Well-known for his extremely fast piano skills and flamboyant clothing, Władziu Valentino Liberace, known simply as Liberace (1919-1987) was an American virtuoso rock, jazz, and popular pianist. Watch him play and talk about the boogie woogie style here

Elton John (b. 1947) is an English rock pianist and singer/songwriter best known for songs like “Rocket Man,” “Your Song,” and the musicals “The Lion King” and “Aida.” Here is Elton John playing and singing his song “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.”

Philip Aaberg (b. 1949) is an American pianist and composer from Montana. His performance and compositional style fuses elements of classical, jazz, bluegrass, rock, and New Age music. Check out these recordings of him playing his exciting pieces “Upright” and “Welcome to the Church of St Anytime!”

Billy Joel (b. 1949) is an American rock pianist and singer-songwriter best known for songs like “Piano Man,” “She’s Always A Woman,” and “Just the Way You Are.” Billy Joel is a versatile pianist who has also performed and composed in classical and jazz styles, including his “Root Beer Rag” written as a tribute to Scott Joplin and his classical piece “For Lola.”

You know the piece that Joseph Hoffman plays at the beginning of each Hoffman Academy video, “All of Me?” It was composed by New Age rockstar pianist Jon Schmidt (b. 1966)! He is also famous for performing alongside cellist Steven Sharp Nelson in their musical group The Piano Guys. Watch him perform his modern classic “All of Me” here!

Lee Ru-ma, known by his stage name Yiruma (b. 1978), is a South Korean pianist and composer famous for writing and performing in the popular New Age style. Some of thisfamous piano player’s popular compositions include “River Flows in You,” “Kiss the Rain,” and “Indigo.” Listen to Yiruma play some of these pieces here!

Utsav Lal (b. 1992) is an Indian pianist and composer whose performances and works are highly influenced by the classical music traditions of India. Here is a recording of him performing ragas on the piano! Learn more about ragas and other scales unique to world music traditions here.

There are so many pianists, we simply couldn’t discuss them all. Check out this list of famous piano players and listen to these wonderful performers on your own! A world of music is waiting to be discovered!

Our List of Famous Piano Players


 

Classical

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

Wolfgang A. Mozart (1756-1791)

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Frederic Chopin (1810-1849)

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Scott Joplin (1868-1917)

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)

Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982)

Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989)

Claudio Arrau (1903-1991)

Sviatoslov Richter (1915-1997)

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990)

Glenn Gould (1932-1982)

Van Cliburn (1934-2013)

Vladimir Ashkenazy (b. 1937)

Nikolai Kapustin (1937-2020)

Martha Argerich (b. 1941)

Daniel Barenboim (b. 1942)

Maria Joao Pires (b. 1944)

Mitsuko Uchida (b. 1948)

Stephen Hough (b. 1961)

Jean-Yves Thibaudet (b. 1961)

Marc-Andre Hamelin (b. 1961)

Helene Grimaud (b. 1969)

Evgeny Kissin (b. 1971)

Lang Lang (b. 1982)

Yuja Wang (b. 1987)

Benjamin Grosvenor (b. 1992)


Jazz

Duke Ellington (1899-1974)Count Basie (1904-1984)

Art Tatum (1909-1956)

Thelonious Monk (1917-1982)

Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

Charles Mingus (1922-1979)

Oscar Peterson (1925-2007)

Vince Guaraldi (1928-1976)

Bill Evans (1929-1980)

Herbie Hancock (b. 1940)

Chick Corea (1941-2021)

Keith Jarrett (b. 1945)

Gordon Goodwin (b. 1954)

Jon Batiste (b. 1986)

Jacob Collier (b. 1994)


Popular/Rock/New Age/Other

Victor Borge (1909-2000)

Liberace (1919-1987)

Little Richard (1932-2020)

Floyd Cramer (1933-1997)

Jerry Lee Lewis (1935-2022)

Benny Andersson (b. 1946)

Elton John (b. 1947)

Philip Aaberg (b. 1949)

Billy Joel (b. 1949)

David Lanz (b. 1950)

Richard Clayderman (b. 1953)

David Nevue (b. 1965)

Jon Schmidt (b. 1966)

Yann Tiersen (b. 1970)

Tim Minchin (b. 1975)

Yiruma (b. 1978)

Utsav Lal (b. 1992)


We hope you enjoyed our list of famous piano players and are inspired by their recordings. Happy playing!

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