The question of “What piano songs are the most difficult to play?” has inspired friendly arguments among music lovers, likely for as long as piano songs have been composed. The issue of what, exactly, makes a piece of music “difficult” to play is difficult to define. For example, a song which is ten hours in length is going to be “difficult” regardless of the complexity of the song itself. Then there is the question of entertainment value. If a song is not pleasant to hear, then pianists will have little interest in playing it simply to take on the challenge. Therefore, the only true way to determine which piano songs are the most difficult is simply to ask pianists themselves to name the songs which presented the biggest challenges. And while many pianists vary in their opinions on the subject, a number of songs came up repeatedly, evidencing their perceived role as “nearly impossible to play.” Here are three of those songs, chosen for their variety, depth of sound, and–of course–difficulty.
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, or “A Little Night Music” or “A Little Serenade,” is one of Mozart’s most frequently played pieces. Mozart was the world’s first child star, having composed his first piano sonata when he was only twelve years old. The fact that this musical prodigy went on to compose some of the most complicated, yet most adored, music that the world has ever known is not particularly surprising. This composition was finished on August 10, 1787, but was not published until around 1827, long after his death. It is unknown why this piece was composed, although it is surmised that this music was written as a commission, as were many of Mozart’s compositions at the time.
Cyprien Katsaris, a world-famous French-Cypriot pianist and composer, named the fourth movement of a transcription of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik among the most difficult pieces of music that he has ever played. Given Katsaris’ skill and incredible technique, as well as his accomplished career, the fact that he found even part of this piece to be difficult qualifies it as a “nearly impossible to play” piano song for this list.
Sergei Rachmaninoff (also spelled Rachmaninov) was a Russian composer and pianist who arguably became the greatest pianist of the early 20th century. He was the first living piano composer to make recordings of all his piano concertos, all of which featured himself as soloist. His work was highly touted by Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninoff made his first tour of the United States in 1909 to much critical acclaim. He later condemned the Russian regime and was forced to leave his home country with little more than his sheet music.
Piano Concerto Number 3 was composed in 1909, and is known as one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in all of classical music. The concerto was first performed in New York City on November 28, 1909 by Rachmaninoff himself. Rachmaninoff called Concerto Number 3 his favorite, saying that it was much more “comfortable to play” than his second concerto. Fellow musicians, however, found the concerto extremely challenging to play. Famous pianist Gary Graffman said that he wished that he had learned this concerto while he was a student, when he was “still too young to know fear.”
Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major, Op. 106, also known as the Große Sonate für das Hammerklavier, or more simply as the Hammerklavier, is known as one of the greatest piano sonatas of all time. The piece is often considered to be Beethoven’s most technically challenging piano composition and one of the most demanding solo works in all of classical music. The sonata was composed in 1817-1818 and was dedicated to Beethoven’s patron, the Archduke Rudolph. The Hammerklavier set a precedent with a standard performance length of 45-50 minutes (previous concerto movements were typically 15-20 minutes).
The work was admired but received as nearly unplayable by many pianists. It requires not only incredible dexterity but also a stunning level of stamina to complete the piece. Even classical pianist Emanuel Ax stated that he believes himself too old to now learn the sonata. It requires a level of skill many pianists simply do not possess, and the time investment required both to learn and to play the piece make it a challenge many musicians simply choose not to face.
These three pieces are among many seen the world over as being nearly “impossible” to play. However, if you ask any pianist, he will tell you that the most difficult piece of music is always the one you are about to learn. Luckily for the music lovers of the world, none of the above pieces are actually “impossible” to play, and the best musicians are those who continue to challenge themselves. The three pieces above are a great way to accomplish just that.
Is there a piece that you’ve successfully challenged yourself to play? Do you have any tips (like overcoming “the wall,” or maximizing practice time) that have helped you master a particularly challenging piece? Please share your expertise in the comments section below.