What are Franz Liszt's most difficult pieces

The hardest piano pieces of all time: 5 pieces that even professionals fear

Piano theory, July 13th, 2020

Sooner or later every piano teacher or pianist is confronted with the question of “the hardest piano piece” of all time. Even if the technical difficulties of a piece say nothing about the musical quality of a composition and of course every pianist has different anatomical requirements as well as individual strengths and weaknesses, the question is entirely legitimate.

The question is particularly exciting when you bear in mind that even experienced amateur pianists, after years of teaching, are often fooled by virtuoso performances. As a result, pieces that, with a little diligence and training, can also be mastered by talented laypeople, are quickly labeled as “impossible to play”.

Others, on the other hand, appear quite inconspicuous in the concert hall, although they demand a lot from the pianist technically and musically. The following five pieces are so difficult to pianistically that at times they were considered unplayable and still demand skills from pianists today that cannot be achieved through practice alone.

The most difficult piano sonata: Beethoven’s No. 29 in B flat major op. 106

Beethoven's famous “Hammerklavier Sonata” is hidden behind the initially insignificant sounding name “Piano Sonata No. 29 in B flat major op. 106”. The sonata is one of Beethoven's late works and pushes not only the interpreter but also the 18th century piano to the limits of what is possible. For a long time this monumental work was considered unplayable.

Probably the most technically difficult piano piece to date was actually performed publicly only decades after Beethoven's death by the famous piano virtuoso Franz Liszt. Beethoven set new standards not only in piano music. The composer from Bonn was often far ahead of his time and paid little attention to the technical standards of the instruments of the time. In this context, his exclamation also became famous when he heard about the criticism of the violinist Schuppanzigh.

Beethoven is said to have responded to his complaint about the difficulty of one of his pieces with the sentence “What do I care about his miserable fiddle”.

The unplayable fantasy: Balakirev - Islamej

More than 40 years after Beethoven's death, another piece of music went down in the history of piano music due to its immense degree of difficulty. The oriental fantasy Islamej by the Russian composer Mili Alexejewitsch Balakirew was published in Moscow in 1870.

In the almost eight-minute piece, everything is required of the interpreter that a world-class virtuoso can or must master. Thirds, octaves, jumps and runs have to be mastered at high speed with the highest precision. Hans von Bülow, one of the great pianists of the 19th century, described Balakirev's composition as the technically most difficult piano piece of all.

The meaning of Ravel's “Gaspard de la nuit”

Inspired by the prose ballads of the writer Aloysius Bertrand, Maurice Ravel published what is probably his most important piano work in 1908. “Gaspard de la nuit” is considered the pinnacle of piano literature and sets new standards in many ways. Ravel himself had set himself the goal of writing a work for pianos that would exceed the requirements of Balakirev's Islamej.

The result is a new peak in virtuosity. The special thing about “Gaspard de la nuit” is that it is not only a technically extremely difficult piece, but also challenges the pianist enormously in terms of sound design. The already difficult passages are often played very quietly and with minimal gradations in volume in order to achieve very specific accents and effects.

Stravinsky's ballet for piano - Petrushka

Petrushka is a ballet by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky, which was premiered in the orchestral version in 1911. Ten years later, Stravinsky wrote a three-movement piano sonata based on this score for his pianist friend Arthur Rubinstein. The implementation for the piano turned out to be so demanding and virtuoso that to this day only a few pianists dare to perform the work. Petrushka is undoubtedly one of the milestones in piano literature.

The Most Difficult Piano Etudes: Ligeti's Piano Works

Between 1985 and 2001 Ligeti wrote a total of 18 etudes in 3 volumes. In addition to immense technical challenges, the pianist in Ligeti's Etudes is confronted with extremely complex rhythmic constructions. With a kind of polyrhythm, Ligeti creates the sensation that different tempos are moving parallel to one another in one and the same piece.

Which of the 18 etudes is the most difficult is debatable. The etudes “The Devil's Ladder” and “Columna Infinita” are definitely worth mentioning. In the case of the latter, even the composer suggests that it is best to have the piece performed by a programmable piano, and only says in the postscript that a performance by a pianist is also conceivable with appropriate preparation. It goes without saying that there are hardly any recordings of these pieces and that Ligeti's works are seldom found in the program even with world-class concert pianists.

“Lighter” than expected: Fantasy Impromptu and La Campanella

When it comes to encores in the concert hall, pianists like to choose pieces that are particularly effective with the audience (because they are “virtuoso”). What many in the audience do not know is that some of these pieces are nowhere near as difficult as they sound and, in contrast to the works mentioned above, tend to be greatly overestimated in terms of difficulty. One example of this is Chopin's Fantasy Impromptu. Of course, this is not an easy piano piece, but it is so well set pianistically that it can be mastered without a concert exam.

The Hungarian virtuoso Franz Liszt is famous for his impressive compositions. Some of his works are on the same level as the “unplayable” pieces mentioned above. But the impression is not infrequently deceptive. For many of Liszt's works, it primarily takes a sporty spirit. With the naturally necessary “basic talent” and a few years of experience, pieces such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies or Liszt's arrangement of “La Campanella” (originally by Niccoló Paganini for violin) can also be “trained” well for laypeople with a lot of work.