How to program a recital

What comes to mind when you see the word “recital”? Flashbacks to the days of parents or teachers constantly reminding you to practice for that big end-of-year performance? Perhaps panicking inside your practice room, anxiously attacking a pesky section of Paganini’s 24th caprice or a nerve-wrecking Rachmaninoff piano etude? You’re definitely not alone. Recitals are stepping stones for aspiring musicians to showcase their individuality and to make a statement that they’re on a journey towards the harsh realities of being a professional musician.

What exactly are recitals though, and how would they differ in program from a concerto, symphonic or chamber performance?

A recital is essentially a concert given by a soloist, or generally a duo where one of the two players is a pianist. It comprises a well-tailored music program, featuring works either spanning the Baroque era to modern pieces, focused on works from a particular period, or one which highlights the virtuosity of the performer. Sometimes, a recital program can even extend to a small group of performers! The possibilities are limitless. In fact, the musician is free to make their own choices in deciding on what to present at their recital, so long as it makes musical sense.

Traditionally, the performer plays both halves of a program, separated by a brief intermission for the performer to take a breather. In the late 19th and early 20th century, it was extremely common for a soloist to hold a recital featuring works usually only performed with a full sized orchestra, such as a violin concerto. Since recitals were usually comprised of a few musicians only, full-sized orchestras would not be possible. The task of playing an orchestral reduction would then be placed upon the piano accompanist. Venues selected for recitals would, in general, also be smaller and more intimate in setting as to when a full-sized orchestra is called for. A classic example of a recital as such is one given by the great violinist Jascha Heifetz on March 15, 1927 in Singapore at the Victoria Theatre (now known as the Victoria Concert Hall), accompanied by pianist Isidore Achron. This was his one and only Singapore concert.

Jascha Heifetz (1901-1987).

This was the program constructed by Heifetz… a thoroughly well-rounded one showing off his skills as an unparalleled lyricist on the violin as well as a technical fiend:

  • Vitali: Chaconne (arr. Charlier)
  • Mendelssohn Violin Concerto


  • Bach: Air on G string
  • Schubert: Rondo (arr. Friedberg)
  • Debussy: Girl with the flaxen hair (arr. Hartmann)
  • Ries: Perpetual Motion
  • Paganini Caprice No. 24 (arr. Auer)

The Vitali Chaconne is a great opener to a recital because it warms up both the crowd and player. Lasting for about 10 minutes, this serves as a springboard for the performer to get into the groove of the works performed, and to prepare him for the next work - a violin concerto. A definite highlight of the program would be Mendelssohn’s celebrated Violin Concerto. The great Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim very aptly described the significance this work has held throughout history: “The Germans have four violin concertos. The greatest, most uncompromising is Beethoven’s. The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness. The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch. But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.”

After the intermission, the second half of the program consisted of short pieces ranging from 3 to 15 minutes of music, the longest being Schubert’s Rondo, and totalling about 30 minutes of playing. These short pieces are great for capturing the attention of audiences as they range from the most lyrical of music from Bach, Debussy and Schubert, to ones which require a display of fiery virtuosity by the violinist with Ries and Paganini. Without a doubt, the hall would've been one which was incredibly uncomfortable and humid due to the tropical climate of Singapore. We could expect a very sweaty Heifetz and some unpleasant passing remarks from the audiences about the weather. But all would be subdued when Heifetz pulled his bow across the string.

The audiences would have sat in the recital hall for about 90 minutes including the intermission. Although no reviews of the concert survive, we can be certain that Heifetz received nothing but rave reviews from the recital. The young Heifetz took the world by storm as there was never someone quite like him before or after. These days, violin concertos are not often programmed into recitals because of their length, as well as the lack of orchestral texture which often translates to a less-than-inspired performance. The piece also wouldn't have sounded as conceived in the mind of the composer. Pianists would have the very challenging job of attempting to bring out every single instrument from the orchestral reduction, originally meant for full size orchestra - another reason why these aren't programmed often nowadays.

Let’s now take a look at another contemporary of Heifetz, the celebrated Nathan Milstein, who performed well into his early 80s before a wrist injury ended his violin playing career for good. This is another well devised repertoire for a public performance at the Salzburg Festival on August 26, 1954. Milstein was accompanied at the piano by Eugenio Bagnoli.

  • Händel Violin Sonata No. 4
  • Bach Partita No. 2
  • Beethoven Violin Sonata No. 5 “Spring”


  • Bloch: Improvisation
  • Milstein: Paganiniana
  • Stravinsky: Chanson Russe
  • Suk: Burlesque

Did you notice something interesting in Milstein’s choice of music to perform? He included his own composition “Paganiniana” (a compilation of a select few Paganini caprices achieved through masterful writing), a thoroughly challenging piece of music to perform. This was basically Milstein’s way of saying that he could not only play pieces which were technically demanding, but could also churn out brilliantly written pieces which pushed even the most seasoned of violinists to their limit. Audiences would've been thrilled as they were treated to a range of repertoire spanning the different eras of music from baroque to classical and contemporary. And yes, Stravinsky would be counted as contemporary back then because he was very much alive - in fact, for another 17 years before passing away in 1971!

Besides duo recitals, there also exists joint recitals such as studio recitals that teachers put together. These studio recitals serve as a way for students to have a good understanding of where they stand amongst their peers and motivates them to practice more diligently in order to keep up to the standards set by their peers. Studio recitals would consist of students of a particular teacher serving as the audience member, while each student takes turn to go on stage to play for the class.

Heifetz’s studio recitals/masterclasses. Each lesson with Heifetz was a studio recital in essence, with all his students as the audience.

It can be extremely tough because the ones judging you are friends whom you hang out with on a daily basis and they might have to make a comment about your playing which you may or may not be a huge fan of. Nonetheless, constructive criticism for these studio recitals will benefit everyone: the performer knows what to work on and the listener knows what to avoid so the same mistake won’t be repeated.

Formulating a recital program can be tricky because what one chooses to put on the program tells others a lot about the performer. If you wanted to show your prowess as a technical player, you would fit your program with pieces by Paganini, Ernst, Wieniawski, Sarasate, or Liszt and Rachmaninoff for example. Maybe you wanted to embrace your historically informed performance (HIP) side, which is why a full baroque program is also acceptable but this doesn’t put you in there bracket of being an all-rounded player. Choosing only contemporary pieces may suggest that you might not have the strongest grasp on performing the repertoire of the classics as Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms. Be that as it may, if one chose a full program of the great classical and romantic composers, it may come off as boring since that has been done many times over the past decades.

All in all, there are no hard and fast rules as to what kind of program a recital should consist of. It should however comprise of a repertoire very much balanced in era and style, and consist of pieces by composers whom you have an affinity with and can showcase you to the best of your abilities. Ask yourself these when choosing programs. Would you be willing to sit through a 90 minute recital of either a solo or duo performance that you’ve put together, or what kind of musician will the selected pieces of music portray you as? Start by deriving inspiration for program creation by revisiting those done by musicians of the past, or study those chosen by musicians of today. A program that will suit you for your recital will soon be in sight.

Lionel Tan (@lionel) is an avid violin nerd, world war II history buff, and loves to pet dogs.