Whether you are a student of the piano or not, you probably understand that some pieces are harder to play than others. Playing Chopsticks is clearly not the same challenge as playing a piece by Mozart.
However, are there certain piano pieces that cause even professional musicians to quake with fear? There are, and here are 10 of the most challenging.
1. Stravinsky – Trois mouvements de Petrouchka
Petrouchka, or Petrushka in English, was an orchestral work and ballet conceived by Russian composer Igor Stravinsky in 1911. It told the tale of the loves and entanglements of three puppets, and it was instantly popular. In fact, the ballet still is performed today.
When writing about the composition of the music, Stravinsky recalled that he had “a distinct picture of a puppet … exasperating the patience of the orchestra with diabolical cascades of arpeggios.”
That seems to be what the composer had in mind while working on these three movements. Requiring remarkably fast glissandi, lightning-fast jumps over two octaves and speedy tremolos, this is not a piece for a novice pianist. Even experienced musicians have been known to tremble at the thought of playing these.
2. Ravel – Gaspard de la Nuit
Maurice Ravel was a French composer and pianist who was born in 1875 and died in 1937. Although he was regarded as the finest French composer of his time, his work was slow and painstaking with the result that he composed far fewer pieces than his contemporaries.
Gaspard de la nuit, a suite of works that was based on poems by Aloysius Bertrand, was composed in 1908. The Scarbo movement is infamously difficult to play. In fact, experts say that Ravel’s intention was to write a piece that was even more complex than Islamey by Balakirev.
Pianists say that this piece is especially difficult thanks to:
-double-note scales in major seconds
-repeated notes using both hands
-disjunctive hand movements
Musicians also remark upon the extremely detailed instructions that Ravel included in the sheet music. Getting this piece “right” is a challenge.
3. Liszt- La Campanella
When this work by Liszt appeared, musicians called it unplayable. Virtuoso musicians through the decades have proved this wrong, but there are few players who can truly be said to perform this piece.
Hungarian composer Franz Liszt lived from 1811 to 1886. Many experts believed that he was not only the greatest pianist of the Romantic era but also one of the most accomplished artists on this instrument of all time.
Liszt was a prolific composer, and many of his pieces are considered quite challenging. However, La Campanella is regarded as his most complex and difficult piece.
La Campanella, which is Italian for “little bell,” is the third of Liszt’s Grandes etudes de Paganini. The piece was finished in 1851 and requires an astonishingly brisk allegretto tempo. The right hand must repeatedly jump more than one octave in a remarkably short time because no rests are provided. Consequently, the pianist must remain relaxed and agile. Trills with the fourth and fifth fingers of the left hand also conspire to make this a diabolically difficult piece.
4. Prokofiev – Piano Concerto No. 2
Russian composer and pianist Sergei Prokofiev was the creator of numerous masterpieces, among them Peter and the Wolf and the Romeo and Juliet ballet. However, perhaps his most difficult piece composed for the piano was his Piano Concerto No. 2.
Some listeners considered the work jarring and too modernistic at its 1913 debut. Unfortunately, the orchestrations for the original work were destroyed during the Russian Revolution, forcing Prokofiev to rewrite the work in 1923.
Today, this piece is considered one of the composer’s most dramatic. A first movement cadenza is only the first challenge with its third staff and rapid jumps with both hands. Not only does this piece last for five minutes, it is followed by other exceptionally challenging movements.
5. Beethoven – Hammerklavier
German composer Ludwig van Beethoven lived from 1770 to 1827. During his lifetime, he composed many famous pieces that are still recognized today like Fur Elise, the Fifth Symphony and the Eroica Symphony.
Officially known as the Sonata No. 29 in B-flat Major, the Hammerklavier was composed in 1818. However, it did not make its public debut until Franz Liszt performed it in 1836. Why did it take so long? Because it was so difficult to play that only a prodigy like Liszt could manage it.
In fact, the Hammerklavier often is still regarded as unplayable. One of the things that makes it so difficult is its length. It requires between 45 minutes and one hour to complete. Requiring stamina and dexterity to perform, the piece is just as difficult to learn, which means that many pianists do not include it in their repertoire.
6. Chopin – Fantaisie – Impromptu, Op. 66
Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin lived from 1810-1849. During his lifetime, he is known to have written more than 200 pieces, most of which were for solo piano. Some of his most famous pieces include the Etude in E Major, Waltz No. 10 in B Minor and the Larghetto from Piano Concerto No. 2.
While much of Chopin’s work is considered challenging, the Fantaisie – Impromptu is among the most difficult thanks to the left hand playing in triple time while the right hand plays in duple time. With many tempo changes and being written in cut time, it’s no secret why the Fantaisie remains such an obstacle.
7. Ligeti – Etudes for Piano
Gyorgy Ligeti was a far more modern composer than many included on this list. Born in Hungary in 1923, Ligeti passed away in 2006. Hungary’s communist government put too many restrictions on the music that Ligeti wrote, causing him to defect to Austria where he could let his imagination take flight.
Consequently, Ligeti was able to compose pieces like his Etudes for Piano. This music was considered avant-garde and consists of some 18 pieces for solo piano. They were composed from 1985-2001 and feature many outstanding features such as:
-Chords reminiscent of composer Satie
-Unexpected time signatures
Including Etude No. 14, or the Devil’s Staircase, these pieces rarely are performed because they are so demanding.
8. Scriabin – Sonata No. 5
Here is another composer who loved to experiment with polyrhythms, much to the chagrin of pianists everywhere. Alexander Scriabin was a Russian composer whose lifetime stretched from 1871 to 1915. Initially, Scriabin was heavily influenced by the work of Chopin, as is evidenced in his early work.
Later, Scriabin became more fascinated by atonal sounds and polyrhythms. This fascination led him to compose the diabolical Sonata No. 5. Likely the composer’s most famous work, this sonata doesn’t really have a tonal center and with intense chordal passages and a host of technical difficulties, playing this piece is not for the faint of heart.
9. Alkan – Le Preux
This beautiful, evocative and challenging piece was written by Charles-Valentin Alkan. During his 1813 to 1888 lifetime, he wrote dozens of pieces for the piano, most of which were considered highly challenging.
Le Preux, which translates to “The Brave,” carries with it images of a knight errant galloping on horseback. Unfortunately, little is known about the piece and its inspiration. What is known is that this piece is hard to play because of its extremely difficult jumps and an intended tempo that is impossible to match.
10. Rachmaninoff – Piano Concerto No. 3
Sergei Rachmaninoff was a Russian composer living between 1873 and 1943. A virtuoso pianist, it should come as no surprise that he composed some diabolical music for the instrument.
One of the most famous, and nearly impossible to play, the Piano Concerto No. 3 has an enormous dynamic range and requires the pianist to make huge hand jumps. Technical, expressive and demanding, Rachmaninoff is known to have said that this piece was actually “comfortable to play” when compared with other pieces of his work. Fellow musicians are likely to disagree.
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