If you’ve ever played, or tried to play, the piano, you know that it requires the use of both sides of the brain. For many of us, that in itself is a challenge. But, if you have managed to progress to a highly advanced level of performance, you may encounter even more challenging difficulties than just using both sides of the brain.
For example, how about using, and synchronizing, both hands and both feet? Add a little voice to the mix and you are using more than just both sides of the brain.
Or how about using cross-rhythms, counting a different rhythm in the right hand than what you’re counting for the left hand? Impossible? Difficult at least.
Now add a few massive stretches in both hands, cascading passages of very fast notes all over the keyboard and you are starting to face the ultimate challenge of a pianist. And, you begin to wonder, is this the most difficult piano piece in the history of music?
Is it a work by Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) or by Frédéric François Chopin (1810-1849)?
Perhaps by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Franz Liszt (1811-1886), or by Alexander Nikoloayevich Scriabin (1872—1915)? Maybe even by Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)?
Or is it something more contemporary, something jazzy like George Gershwin’s (1898-1937) Rhapsody in Blue (1924)?
Rachmaninoff, Liszt and the Massive Hands
Beethoven, although very much a part of the Classical era in many ways, balked at the constrictions patrons imposed, and attempted to support his work without their backing. He was not so successful, but the composers who followed, in the era that we now call the Romantic era, performed as much as they composed.
These performers/composers, including Chopin and Liszt, were the rock stars of their era and they, particularly the composers for the piano, were virtuosos, or athletes of great dexterity.
Liszt, in particular, was quite the showman on stage. Fortunately, he possessed very large hands with fingers that could play massive chords (a chord being a group of two or more notes played entirely by one hand), often chords of four or five notes (hence using all of the fingers of one hand) that stretched more than ten piano keys apart (the average pianist can reach an octave, eight notes apart).
Some of the most amazing piano works from this time period are Liszt’s nineteen Hungarian Rhapsodies, a collection of gypsy-style pieces that reflect his distinct national pride (Liszt was Hungarian). Gypsy music is typically folksy band music, melodies and rhythms to accompany the frenetic gypsy dances. In Liszt’s Rhapsodies, he strives to imitate the sounds of a gypsy band.
For instance, one of the most common gypsy percussion instruments is the cimbalom, a box with strings which the player will hit with small hammer. It’s a very percussive sound and Liszt recreated this sound with hammer-like chords in his harmonies, the bass section (lower range) of the piano.
Gypsy music can also be very improvisational (like jazz music, made up musical ideas as the performer plays the piece). In his Rhapsodies, Liszt creates lengthy show-off cadenzas throughout the music, difficult passages with long flowing scales and chord progressions played very fast.
Another innovative idea which Liszt included was an almost three-hand illusion. This is clearly evident in his Hungarian Rhapsody No. 9 (also known as the Pesther Carneval 1847), where the piano music, which is typically played with two hands, gives the illusion and the sounds which makes the audience believe that the pianist is actually playing with three hands.
These virtuoso composers wrote music to inspire and to show off their great skills. It’s no wonder that so many of their compositions are difficult, to say the least, for the average pianist to play.
Chopin and Beethoven and the Extent of Passion on the Piano
Chopin and Beethoven in particular used the piano to create an emotional expression that could sometimes rouse great emotion. Many of their works resounded in layer upon layer of complicated fast scale passages or even slow melody lines that drew the sound out for greater lengths of time. The power of emotion is often difficult to duplicate and a performer can only do his/her best to implicate the composer’s original intention.
This emotional touch/sound is very difficult for many performers. But, as in the case of both Chopin and Beethoven, their use of fast passages in one hand against large chords that jump from one part of the keyboard to another, add another level of difficulty to the piece.
Take, for instance, one of Chopin’s Nocturnes, perhaps his very catchy Nocturne in F minor (op. 55, no. 1).
In this piece, the right hand melody, rather simply at first glance, is contrasted to a left hand harmony that jumps from a bass (pronounced: base) note in the lower ranges to a chord several octaves higher only to return to the lower ranges yet again. Then comes the fast, ornamental notes to decorate the right hand melody.
Scriabin and His Technical Challenges
Scriabin, like so many other composers, strove for technical precision at the piano, resulting in his creation of technical challenges. His early works were primarily orchestral compositions, but, by 1911, Scriabin primarily composed for the piano.
According to Classical Net’s article, “Alexander Scriabin,” his Sixth Sonata, op. 62 (1911) was so technically difficult that even the composer himself refused to play it in public. According to Classical Net, Scriabin claimed this work to be dark and mysterious, impure, dangerous. With small hands, Scriabin found this work (and others that he composed after it) technically impossible for him to play.
Schoenberg’s Sounds and Patterns That Clash
To the trained classical pianist, the sounds of the twentieth-century often jar the senses and create a challenge to the performer.
Schoenberg actually created his own pattern for composing music which we call Serialism or the Twelve-tone method. Having accepted the necessity of moving beyond the existing tonal system, Joseph Machlis writes in The Enjoyment of Music, Schoenberg sought a unifying principle that would take the place of the system of tonality.
He found this in a strict technique that he had worked out by the early 1920s. He named it ‘the method of composing with twelve tones’ – that is, with twelve equal tones, no one of which is more important than any other.
Sounds complicated? Well, perhaps not if you are mathematically inclined. In traditional classical music, there is a dominant key, the scale around which the piece gravitates (hence titles like: Nocturne in C minor). Schoenberg dispelled this theory of the importance of key and replaced it with an equal importance of all of the twelve tones in classical music pitch. There was no drive or pull to return to one note, one pitch, as everything was equal.
The result was music that clashed with the perceptive classically trained ears of not only the audience, but also the performer. If the performer can’t sense the logically progression of a piece of music, it increases the difficulty of performing it. Schoenberg’s piano works are exceedingly difficult pieces to learn and to play.
Jazzy Blues and the Popular Show-off Piano
The twentieth-century witnessed the increasing popularity of popular music styles such as jazz music. With the increased popularity of folksy music in dance halls and other public venues, the friction between the so-called serious music of the Classical era and the more popular musical forms like jazz intensified. For the ‘pure’ music lovers, only the classics could be taken seriously.
Gershwin took up this challenge, determined to make jazz music just as ‘serious’ as Classical music. His well-received jazz piano concerto, Rhapsody in Blue (1924), took the Classical orchestra into the depths of blues melodies and jazz rhythms with the piano in the spotlight as the solo instrument. It was a Classical format, a Classical/Romantic title for his composition, and a Classical audience. It was also a very technically demanding piece for the pianist.
Defining Difficult Piano Music
There is no definitive answer to the question of what makes a difficult piano piece. It really depends on the performer, the size of their hands, their level of competence, and their connection to the composition itself. There are a lot of very difficult piano pieces in a professional virtuoso’s musical library. Each composition presents its own unique challenge. But when the musician plays these pieces well, they are definitely show pieces that really wow the audience.