Teaching Observations: Favourite Fellowship Piano Diploma Repertoire

Today’s article is the final post in my diploma mini-series. I’ve previously explored repertoire options for both the Associate Diploma and Licentiate Diploma exams, and you can read my articles about here and here. The final exam in the diploma trilogy is the Fellowship diploma; the ABRSM’s fellowship exam is the FRSM and Trinity College London’s, the FTCL. Unlike the previously discussed diploma exams, this exam requires up to 50 minutes of playing time, which is quite a substantial recital programme.   

What differentiates the FRSM and FTCL from their previous diploma ‘colleagues’, is that they usually demand the inclusion of larger, longer works, and it may be this factor that limits its popularity.

Whilst I have taught the Associate and Licentiate diplomas on many occasions, I have only entered a small handful of students for the Fellowship exam. Larger pieces play an important role in a student’s development and they must form part of a well-rounded piano education; this is especially important for the serious student. But there’s no doubt that smaller pieces are less taxing in terms of their structure. They are quicker to learn, and can be used more readily in competition and concert programmes, and, for younger students, this is a beneficial and appealing factor.

The ABRSM’s exam demands a 50-minute programme give or take 10%. It stipulates a 4500-word written submission which seeks to evaluate the selected repertoire, and there is a 20-minute viva voce (or Q&A Session focusing on aspects of the repertoire), and a 10-minute Quick Study test (similar to a sight-reading test). Candidates are allowed to select ‘own choice’ works which must be of a similar standard to those on the list, but they must not last longer than two-thirds of the whole programme. 

Trinity College London’s FTCL requires playing time of around 45 minutes, give or take 10%, but these timings do not account for breaks between the pieces (whereas FRSM’s time limit does). Trinity stipulates detailed written programme notes at this level as well, but this is the only criterion other than the recital.

Candidates are not required to play from memory for either the FRSM or FTCL. There are prerequisites for both exams, as one might expect at this level, but these include university and music college degrees in place of the LRSM or LTCL. It’s worth checking this carefully before starting your preparations.  

For me, the marked difference between these two exams lies primarily in the repertoire choice; Trinity College London offers a far larger selection of pieces and candidates can also present a concerto, accompanied by second piano, if they so choose. The ABRSM’s list focuses on substantial works for solo piano, and, in most cases, they are traditionally those which one might expect students to prepare for a conservatoire final recital. 

Which diploma is ‘better’? This is a question that I’m often asked! Neither. They are just different. I prefer Trinity’s diverse repertoire selections and so do most students, but the ABRSM is in the process of creating their new diploma exam syllabus, which may contain an expanded FRSM repertoire list. It’s worth remembering that these lists are only important if you stick to them – as mentioned, there is always the option to go ‘off piste’ in both syllabi. 

During my articles focusing on diplomas, I have been listing works that may work well for those with smaller hands, as this is often an issue for my students because the majority of them are young. But I have also included works that might be regarded as more ‘approachable’ technically. At this level, it’s a challenge to find this type of suitability, however, the programme suggestions below include a few options. 

The two programmes presented here have been/and are currently being prepared by my students; as a reminder, these exam recital programmes are just suggestions.  

FRSM Programme 

Chaconne in D minor by J S Bach (1685 – 1750)/ Ferruccio Busoni (1866 – 1924)

I think this piece works well as an ‘opener’ or indeed as a ‘closer’ at the end of a recital, and it appears on both the FRSM and FTCL list. Many dislike Busoni’s Bach arrangements and transcriptions, but there’s no doubt that this one is extremely rewarding to play and is a favourite amongst students. My student has just started to work on this programme and took time to select all three nominated works carefully, however, he was driven by his desire to include this piece. Technically it’s tricky and fairly widespread in terms of hand stretch:

Another excellent Baroque selection that is a better option for the smaller hand, is Partita No. 6 in E minor BWV 830 by J S Bach, although the piece does last well over 30 minutes with repeats, so many may not want to implement such a large Baroque work in their programme:

Sonata in E major Op. 109 by L V Beethoven (1770 – 1827)

This beautiful piece may be considered as a technically ‘easier’ option than other Late-Beethoven sonatas, but I beg to differ; the trills in the last movement alone require considerable control and firm fingerwork. Sonata Op. 109 is a demanding work musically, and, in my opinion, one of Beethoven’s most soul-searching compositions. To play it with any understanding, you will need to read around the subject widely and, ideally, have played a selection of Beethoven’s earlier sonatas, to place it in the context of his entire output:

Other classical/early Romantic genre options may include Sonata in E flat (Les Adieux) Op. 81a by L V Beethoven, which is shorter than other Beethoven sonatas but it has stringent technical and musical demands:

Why not explore the Sonata No. 1 in C major Op. 24 by Carl Maria von Weber (1786 – 1826). This underplayed piece is elegant and, whilst it runs all over the place as might be expected from this composer, it may prove a good option for some:

Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828) is arguably the most demanding composer to play musically and from this point of view, most of my young students don’t play this repertoire. However, Sonata in A Major D 959 by Franz Schubert provides the chance to explore this composer’s intrinsically melodic style. It’s a fairly lengthy piece but this may appeal:

Sonata 1926 by Béla Bartók (1881 – 1945)

Whilst shorter than other works on these syllabi, this is an exacting option and, concerning hand-stretch, goes way beyond what many will be comfortable with. Bartóks music is not to everyone’s taste, but my student has played a selection of repertoire by this composer already and now has a hand sufficiently able to cope with it (he’s been waiting to play it for three years!): 

You might like to consider fellow Hungarian Composer Zoltán Kodály’s (1882 – 1967) Dances of Marosszék for Piano (1927). Similar to Bartók, both composers revelled in their folk music discoveries, working closely together, they formed a folk music partnership, collecting and cataloging the genre, and these influences can be heard everywhere in their music. This piece is dramatic, largely tonal, and perhaps more approachable than Bartók’s music:

Other choices might include the Sonata by Leonard Bernstein (1918 – 1990), which whilst an earlier piece from the composer’s output, is dramatic and effective, peppered, as it is, with offbeat rhythms and the slower sections in the second movement offer the chance to display musicianship:

Suite No. 1, A Prole Do Bebê W053 is a delightful set of eight short pieces by Hector Villa-Lobos (1887 – 1959). They aren’t a ‘popular’ choice, but if you prefer presenting short pieces, you’ll be sure to enjoy this option with its distinctly Brazilian flavour and interesting piano effects:

Sonata Appassionata Op.6 by Vítězslava Kaprálová (1915 – 1940) is worth exploring; it’s dramatic and tender (slow movement) and is one of the very few works by a female composer on the Fellowship list; shouldn’t we have a far better representation? Let’s hope the ABRSM are considering this element whilst developing their new diploma syllabus. (You can find out much more about Vítězslava Kaprálová in my series, Women Composers – A Graded Anthology.) You can listen to this piece here:

The Celestial Railroad (1924) by Charles Ives (1874 – 1954). A tricky option, it’s not for the faint-hearted, but I do love this choice. For me, it captures the celestial connotations whilst still displaying Ives’ often brittle style – but it’s not recommended for the smaller hand!

Some of these selections come from the Trinity College London list, but they could probably be presented for the FRSM exam, too. 

FTCL Programme 

The second programme was prepared by a student a couple of years ago. After playing a fair smattering of Baroque and Classical styles for the LTCL, she decided to focus on Romantic and Twentieth-century music. Interestingly, there is no suggestion of a ‘balanced’ programme for this exam, so it could be possible to play one composer, if you so wish (although I would never recommend it). 

Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor Op. 35 by Frédéric Chopin (1810 – 1849)

A monumental piece that is certainly worth the work. It might not suit the smaller hand (the first and second movements of this four-movement piece tend to be demanding in this respect), however, this student did not have a large hand at all but somehow, after we worked on this aspect, she managed to play the piece reasonably well:

A bright, energetic lesser-known inclusion might be Sonata in B flat Op. 106 by Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847), which displays all of Mendelssohn’s usual compositional hallmarks. It requires precise articulation to cope with the numerous rapid passages, but it fits the hand nicely, doesn’t stray too much beyond the octave reach (although there are plenty of fast chordal passages), and is fun to play. You may fall in love with slow movement particularly, and the last movement requires a wonderful lightness typical of Mendelssohn’s style. This could be the ideal choice for those who want to explore less familiar repertoire, which is always a good idea in an exam:

Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky (1839 – 1881). A brave choice and a long work, it consists of a collection of short pieces and, whilst it’s a mammoth task to play, the learning process will be enjoyable and it is possible to split the pieces in concerts, meaning it could be used elsewhere (an important factor for some students). It’s inclusion would leave little time for much else in your programme, but as it’s such standard repertoire, with so many different moods and stylistic changes, this may not be an issue:

Funérailles S 173 from Harmonies poétiques et religieuses by Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)

A popular choice. If your octaves are super powerful at speed, you will enjoy this rather sentimental programmatic number, which was intended as an elegy written in October 1849 in response to the Hungarian Revolution of 1848:

Take a look at the evocative Macbeth and the Witches J B 1:75 by Bedřich Smetana (1844 – 1884). Full of drama and energy, for the pianist who wants a less-played Romantic work, this could be the perfect choice. Its demands, although considerable, don’t stray much beyond the octave. Pianistic effects are similar to those employed by Liszt – tremolos, arpeggios, and whole tone scales provide a glittering backdrop for this programmatic piece:

Other options could include the beautiful Thème et Variations Op. 73 by Gabriel Faure (1845 – 1924). Although Faure’s music represents the ‘French’ style, it is quite different from the later ‘Impressionist’ composers such as Ravel and Debussy; his music became gradually more harmonically and melodically complex, as illustrated here in this late work. The composer’s longest, and often thought to be his greatest, piano work, consists of a haunting theme which is followed by a set of variations. Whilst difficult to play, the piece displays Faure’s classical restraint:

Feux d’artifice, No. 12 from Preludes Book 2 by Claude Debussy (1862 – 1918) 

An effective piece that demands extreme levels of tonal control. Those who adore the French style will be drawn to Debussy’s preludes. Fireworks is ideal for those who aren’t keen on including more dissonant Twentieth-century styles: 

For a more contemporary French style, take a look at Trois Préludes pour piano by Henri Dutilleux (1916 – 2013). Harmonically complex, they offer a distinctly French style and require the pianist to draw on a wide range of tonal colours:

Carmen Fantasy by Georges Bizet (1838 – 1875) Arr. Vladimir Horowitz (1903 – 1989)

This work, whose themes have been taken from the ever-popular opera Carmen, was arranged/written for the piano by Vladimir Horowitz, who often performed it at his recitals. A virtuoso option, this will probably be a taxing venture for the smaller handed player:

If virtuoso enders are your ‘bag’, take a listen to the following which all afford exciting conclusions to a recital programme.

In Dahomey ‘Cakewalk Smasher’ by Percy Grainger (1882 – 1961) 

Italian Polka by Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873 – 1943) Arr. Gryaznov (1982 – )

Two Etudes from 15 Études de virtuosité, op. 72 by Moritz Moszkowski (1854 – 1925)

Prelude No. 8 from 8 Preludes by Frank Martin (1890 – 1974)

I hope these suggestions are of interest and that they might inspire you to take the plunge. If you don’t feel ready, or perhaps you feel that you never want to take such an exam, you may enjoy listening to the wide variety of virtuoso piano music on offer at this level.

Find out more about diploma exams here and here.


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.

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