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FEATURE | Seven Of The Most Difficult Pieces Of Music Ever

By Anya Wassenberg on November 17, 2020

Even Russian piano virtuoso and legend Anton Rubinstein gave up on one of the uber-challenging pieces on our list.

Abstract violin Image by Gerd Altmann (Pixabay)
Image by Gerd Altmann (Pixabay)

Classical music is a demanding vocation. Even amateur students put in hours and hours of practice in order to be able to play the genre’s most beautiful — and often demanding — works.

For the beginning student, perhaps the most difficult part of learning is to acknowledge the inherent challenge of an art form where the technical stakes keep getting higher and higher. No matter what hurdle you have crossed, there is another waiting, and beyond that, another still.

At the very end of the spectrum are those pieces that are universally acknowledged as the most challenging in the entire classical repertoire. Sometimes, that opinion changes over time, as musicians get used to new ways of playing. In other cases, difficult is as difficult was.

Alexander Scriabin — Mysterium

This piece might be more accurately filed under “Impossible”. Imagine an orchestral piece where the performance lasts an entire week, and leaves the world irrevocably changed.

Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned a piece from Scriabin for the sum of 5,000 rubles, a price Scriabin couldn’t refuse. It wasn’t such a good bargain for Koussevitzky, however. Unfinished at his death in 1915, Scriabin began the grandiose Mysterium project in 1903. As he envisaged the performance, it would include the dimensions of smell and touch, along with music and dance.

It is to be noted that, around the same time, Scriabin also wrote entries such as “I am God” in a secret journal, and he was a big fan of mysticism. As he saw it, after the week-long performance of Mysterium at the foothills of the Himalaya Mountains in India, the world itself would dissolve in pure bliss.

At his death in 1915, Scriabin left 72 pages of sketches for a preliminary work which would precede the world-ending piece. This material was compiled and augmented by Alexander Nemtin, another Russian composer, and has been performed as Mysterium Prefatory Action.

Giovanni Bottesini — Concerto for Double Bass No 2 in B Minor

Giovanni Bottesini (1821-1889) was a composer and conductor, and a double bass virtuoso. He was already a multi-instrumentalist at 14, when his father went to find a place for him at the Milan Conservatory. There were only two positions left: bassoon and double bass.

With only weeks to spare, Bottesini learned enough performed a successful audition on the double bass, and graduated four years later with a prize for his playing as a soloist. With his prize winnings, he bought himself a good instrument, and embarked on a career where he billed himself as “the Paganini of the Double Bass”.

He later enjoyed a very successful career as a conductor throughout Europe after the mid-1880s, and often, while conducting opera, he was known to bring his double bass on stage to entertain the audience through the intermissions.

Because of the tuning conventions of the day, his Concerto No. 2 is sometimes called the A minor rather than the B minor.

Luciano Berio — Sequenzas

Contemporary Italian composer Luciano Berio began writing his Sequenzas for solo instruments and a cappella voice in 1958 with Sequenza I for Severino Gazzelloni’s flute, and completed the series in 2002 with number XIV for cello.

Berio’s intention was to explore the potential of each instrument, and as such, each requires a superb command of technique. Number XII, for bassoon, for example, requires circular breathing to produce an uninterrupted stream of sound that some musicians can sustain for up to 18 minutes at a stretch.

Number III was composed in 1965 for his ex-wife, mezzo-soprano Cathy Berberian. Interestingly, the piece, with its combination of spoken-sounding sections and more traditional song, makes some listeners uncomfortable.

Conlon Nancarrow — Studies for Player Piano

What happens when the music you want to compose is so difficult it physically cannot be played by a human? American-born Mexican composer Conlon Nancarrow solved that problem by writing his music for a player piano.

His Studies for Player Piano is a series of 49 études that is generally considered (although not absolutely ascertained as being) written between 1948 and 1992 for a reproducing player piano, the likes of which had its heyday in the early 20th century. Stravinsky, Hindemith and others wrote for the player piano for a short period when it was introduced, however, Nancarrow is the only one to have stuck with it. He made the decision to work with the player piano in the late 1930s, after years of frustrating experiences trying to get his work performed by human musicians.

In particular, Nancarrow’s work used a system of setting several rhythmic lines of varying tempos against each other — similar in its logic to the way chords are built on thirds. It’s one of the features that makes Nancarrow’s work virtually impossible for human beings to perform.

Anton Bruckner — Symphony No. 8

Poor Anton Bruckner. A long three years after he began the outline, he wrote a jubilant note to his friend Hermann Levi. It was September 1887. On reading Bruckner’s note, which went ‘Hallelujah! Finally Number 8 is finished…’ it presented the noted Jewish German conductor with a dilemma. How could he tell his friend the orchestration was impossible to conduct, and essentially unperformable?

‘I find it impossible to perform the Eighth in its current form. As much as the themes are magnificent and direct, their working out seems to me dubious; indeed, I consider the orchestration quite impossible… The performance of the Eighth in a subscription concert would be a risk which, in your interest, I must not take…’ he wrote.

Bruckner went back to the drawing board, and produced another version by 1890, which finally premiered in late 1892 in Vienna under conductor Hans Richter. Eduard Hanslick, a leading critic of Bruckner’s day, gave his 8th symphony the thumb’s down. “Interminable, disorganised, and violent, Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony stretches out into a hideous length … It is not impossible the future belongs to this nightmarish style, a future we therefore do not envy.”

Since his time, the musical idioms he pioneered are, of course, much better understood. It’s a case where the perception of difficulty has changed over the ensuing decades.

Adolf von Henselt — Piano Concerto Op. 16

Many works are considered overly difficult – even unplayable – on their release, only to find a place in the usual orchestral repertoire once musicians and audiences got used to a new paradigm. That’s not the case with the Piano Concerto in F minor, Opus 16 by Adolf von Henselt.

Henselt was himself a virtuoso pianist as well as a composer, and Liszt himself was said to have admired his hands and his divine legato. His fingers had an unusual elasticity that allowed him to achieve a technique most players cannot hope for no matter how much they practise.

So challenging is Henselt’s only piano concerto that only three recordings of it exist, including one by Canadian virtuoso Marc-André Hamelin with the Scottish BBC Orchestra. The other two feature Raymond Lewenthal and Michael Ponti. As quoted in Harold C. Schoberg’s book Great Pianists, Anton Rubinstein himself struggled with the concerto and other Henselt pieces for days, and declared, “It was a waste of time, for they were based on an abnormal formation of the hand. In this respect, Henselt, like Paganini, was a freak.”

Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst — Variations on “The Last Rose of Summer”

Moravian Jewish violinist and composer H.W. Ernst was a superstar performer of his day, and counted Berlioz and Mendelssohn as his friends. He was considered a rival of Paganini’s, and at the time, public opinion was divided as to who was the better of the two. Today however, his name is largely forgotten.

Ernst revolutionized polyphonic composition for the violin. The last of his Polyphonic Studies, called “Die letzte Rose” consisted of variations on the Irish folk tune of the same name. It’s the most popular of Ernst’s compositions, and it reflects his own virtuosic playing style.

The piece requires fingered harmonics, and playing pizzicato with the left hand, along with difficult arpeggios. Relatively few violinists in the entire world have attempted the piece.

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Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
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Follow me

Anya Wassenberg

Anya Wassenberg is a Senior Writer and Digital Content Editor at Ludwig Van. She is an experienced freelance writer, blogger and writing instructor with OntarioLearn.
Follow me
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