A Few Thoughts on Selecting Piano Diploma Repertoire

Shutterstock Background Piano Music for Website

Today’s post is the second exploring piano diploma repertoire. You can read my first post, here. As the previous article describes, there are many ways of ensuring an interesting well-balanced programme, but when it comes to choosing the music itself, how and what do you select? Which pieces make ‘safe’ choices and what constitutes an appealing, yet diverse assortment?

Personal taste plays a gargantuan role, and what suits one will not be necessarily attractive to another. Here are a few tips and suggestions, which are based on my taste and experience with pupils.

You could aim to include a larger work; a sonata is ideal because it contains several movements, allowing you to display a whole gamut of emotions resplendent in one piece, and you can convey musical understanding, through the structure and various layers of textures. Slow movements often provide an opportunity to rest technically, although musically they are demanding. Classical sonatas, typically those by Beethoven, Haydn or Mozart, make prime choices. The more dramatic works provide excitement, passion and theatrics; they are fun to play and practise, lie comfortably, and there’s plenty of scope for development and improvement whilst learning them. They also take anything from 15 to 25 minutes to perform, and therefore form a large chunk of the proposed recital.

Inclusion of works from the Classical style demonstrates an ability to play cleanly, concisely, rhythmically, with clear articulation, and brilliant finger work; if you don’t possess this final attribute at the start of learning, then you should by the end!. A Baroque Suite, such as those by J S Bach, may also make an exemplary choice; whilst they are very different stylistically to a Classical sonata, they too proffer the opportunity to display many emotions and technical elements, all wrapped up in several movements.

Delving into less popular repertoire can bring a fresh and contrasting juxtaposition to a Classical  or Baroque piece. Why not think about adding a couple of Twentieth Century works? There is colossal variety within this era; two works can represent totally opposing styles, especially if one is from the Twentieth, and another the Twenty-First Century.

Whether you decide to select early Twentieth Century works by major French composers (Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc), Russian masters (Scriabin, Shostakovich, or Prokofiev), or later Twentieth Century pieces, you’ll find a collection of fascinating and lesser played gems which can make compelling choices.

I recommend considering works from the latter half of the Twentieth Century through to the present day; students invariably love their diversity, their challenges and they seem to enjoy discovering composers who are either living or who died relatively recently. Superlative choices might encompass works by Lennox Berkeley, Peter Sculthorpe, Oliver Messiaen, Diana Burrell, John McCabe, Edwin Roxburgh, and – a new discovery for me – Douglas Lilburn (from New Zealand). These inclusions  hide on diploma repertoire lists, and are frequently sidestepped.

Devising an imaginative programme with at least ten minutes of music selected from those composers mentioned above might be a prudent choice. Combining a Messiaen prelude with a work by Diana Burrell for example, will not necessarily be conflicting stylistically. Peter Sculthorpe’s beautiful Night Pieces work well with a composition such as Douglas Lilburn’s From the Port Hills too. These options may entice and inspire pupils, encouraging them to branch out, seeking the less trodden path.

If either you or your students are in the process of deciding on a programme, or are thinking about taking a diploma, spend time surveying the repertoire on offer. Work out timings carefully, and make certain you’ve listened to all possibilities. You’ll learn more this way and may uncover exciting discoveries, which should bode well for your recital, and for the viva voce which is a necessity in some exams.

The following repertoire suggestions are from the major UK examination board’s various current performance diploma selections; please obtain the appropriate syllabus and check these listings for yourself before making any decisions. After each composer and listed piece, I’ve added the diploma to which they belong (in brackets). To download a syllabus, click on the exam board name at the top of each list.

ABRSM Diplomas:

Diana Burrell – Constellations I and II (DipABRSM)

Howard Blake – Chaconne and Toccatina: from ‘8 Character Pieces’ (DipABRSM)

Joseph Makholm – 2 of the ‘3 Impressions’ (DipABRSM)

Edwin Roxburgh – Moonscape (DipABRSM)

Peter Sculthorpe – Night Pieces (DipABRSM)

Michael Finnissy – Yvaropera 5 (LRSM)

Peter Rancine Fricker – Studies nos.2 and 4 from ‘12 Studies’, Op.38 (LRSM)

Oliver Knussen – Sonya’s Lullaby, Op.16 (LRSM)

Roger Redgate – trace (LRSM)

James MacMillan – Sonata (FRSM)

Brian Chapple – Bagatelles diverse nos. 6 and 7 (ATCL)
Douglas Lilburn – From the Port Hills (no. 4 from Five Bagatelles) (ATCL)
Karl Jenkins – Boogie Woogie Llanoogie (ATCL)
Frederic Rzewski – Dreadful Memories (from Squares & North American Ballad) (ATCL)
Julian Anderson – Piano Etudes (LTCL)
Petr Eben – Sonata (LTCL)
Iain Hamilton –  September and October or November and December (from Months & Metamorphoses) (LTCL)
Fazil Say – Paganini Jazz [without final ‘extra’ variations] (LTCL)
Einojuhani Rautavaara – Passionale (LTCL)
Clement Slavicky – Variations on a Silent Chord (LTCL)
Robert Stevenson- Peter Grimes Fantasy (LTCL)
Carl Vine – Bagatelles (LTCL)
Toru Takemitsu – Rain-Tree Sketches no. 1 and/or no. 2 (LTCL)
John Corigliano – Etude Fantasy (FTCL)
Francois Morel – Étude de Sonorité no. 2 (from Deux Études de Sonorité) (FTCL)
Kazimierz Serocki – Nos. 5, 6 and 7 from Suite of Preludes (FTCL)

John Adams – China Gates (ALCM)
Miriam Hyde – Water Nymph (ALCM)
Pierre Sancan – Mouvment (ALCM)
Milton Babbitt – Three Compositions for Piano (LLCM)
Henryk Gorecki – Sonata No. 1 (LLCM)
Nikolai Kapustin – Concert Etudes (FLCM)


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. John says:

    Plus Cecilia McDowall for ATCL

    1. Yes that’s true John – there are so many excellent choices I didn’t know where to stop!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.