I am frequently asked, “What is the most difficult piano piece to play?” To me this honestly feels like a strange question. Each piece has its own difficulties. Even the simplest piece has challenges which need to be solved for a convincing rendition.
What is difficult?
There are various kinds of difficulties amongst pieces: lyrical, rhythmic, polyphonic, polyrhythmic and technical (Everything you are doing when you are performing is technically…well, technical).
However, when someone asks any musician this question about the most “difficult” piece, they will rarely think of keeping the audience hooked from the first note to the last without the listener losing interest. If this would be the case, the larger Schubert sonatas are very, very hard.
I would then think: No, this question is almost always referring to the virtuosic aspect of piano playing — As each musician has their own personal journey, and everyone’s hands develop differently, one technique which is easy for someone might be very hard for someone else.
If a pianist has a problem with repetitions, then Domenico Scarlattis Sonata K.141 or Maurice Ravels “Alborada del Gracioso” will pose a serious challenge. However, the same pianist might be exceptionally good at playing thirds making Fryderyk Chopin’s “etude Op.10 No.2″ or “etude Op.25 No.6” easy. Whereas, the same pieces may be borderline impossible for other pianists. There are also composers such as Leopold Godowsky and Max Reger who wrote music which often sounding simple enough, does not convey the towering difficulties which are imposed upon the player.
Do difficult pieces mean good music?
It is not especially difficult to write a hard piece. Anyone can write a piece which is impossible to perform, but is it a piece worth playing? With the most technically challenging pieces we should ask ourselves if this particular piece is worth studying, and if the musical rewards are worth it. This being said, there are some seriously challenging pieces out there by composers who, for centuries, have been cooking up pieces so physically challenging that they have been considered unplayable — until someone comes along to conquer it and raise the bar for everyone else.
For example, 1878 marked the year Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky completed his violin concerto in D major. This concerto was labeled unplayable by violinist Leopold Auer to whom the work was dedicated. Auer who was employed by the Czar as the court violinist was without any doubt one of the best violinists of his time. But, today the Tchaikovsky concerto is considered standard repertory.
Less is More
There are similar stories in all of classical music. Franz Liszt’s early attempts at composition are also very demanding. For instance, the original Paganini etudes were so hard that Liszt had to rewrite them to make them possible to perform. The famous “La Campanella” performed today is the third re-write — a much watered down version of the original which in its most recent iteration is merely challenging (and pleasant on the ear) as opposed to a nearly impossible (and frankly quite awful) original version.
Famous for being hard, or hard for being famous?
Other famously hard piano pieces would be Sergei Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto which is
“a savage, relentless exposure to everything the keyboard can throw at anyone who dares to take it on,”
as writer Alex Wade puts it.
There are harder piano concertos out there, but the “Rach 3” is famous for being difficult.
An other piece that gained fame solely on difficulty, is Leopold Godowsky’s “Passacaglia” — a piece abandoned by Vladimir Horowitz who claimed that one needs 6 hands to play it. Godowsky was also infamous for rewriting Fryderyk Chopins etudes for the left hand — for anyone wanting a serious challenge. Another composer that gained fame for writing hard piano pieces is Charles-Valentin Alkan who is notorious amongst pianists for his hair raising difficult piano etudes.
Even after learning a piece, some pieces will haunt you on stage with their intricate designs. Something that works perfectly at home, may surprisingly pose a problem on stage. British pianist Stephen Hough says he is often asked about the most difficult piece he has ever played, and he answers that Paul de Schlözer’s Étude in A-flat Op.1 No.2 is
“the most intricately tricky, frustratingly fiddly, accident-prone little beast”.
Other times, some pieces are very straightforward but there are just a few bars which make the piece almost unplayable. We will find bars like these in many of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. For instance, the third movement of his “Moonlight” sonata, which is a very straightforward movement with a couple of trills that are almost impossible to execute as written. While we are on the topic of Beethoven, his 29th piano sonata “Hammerklavier” Op.106 is among the absolute hardest pieces in all of piano literature — and he designed it to be hard.
Difficult by design
Many composers deliberately designed pieces to be hard. Robert Schumann took pride in having composing the most difficult piece of music when he finished his Toccata Op.7, but it was soon dethroned. Mily Balakirev’s piece “Islamey” was notorious for its demands. It caused Alexander Scriabin to damage his hand in a frantic practice. Then, in the early 20th century, Maurice Ravel decided he would write a piece harder than “Islamay” which produced the three-movement suite “Gaspard de la Nuit”.
This trend has continued with 20th century composers, such as Bela Bartok, György Ligeti, György Cziffra, and Conlon Nancarrow.
Speaking of Bartok, The New York Philharmonic famously cancelled the American premiere of his first piano concerto in Carnegie Hall because it was too difficult for the orchestra to have prepared on time.
My take on the topic
If someone still wants to ask me for what I consider to be the hardest pieces for piano, then “Opus clavicembalisticum” by Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji comes to mind. A performance lasts around 5 hours and in my personal opinion — it is just as hard to play as listen to.
(For those who dare to have a listen, HERE‘s the piece.)