This Note Visualizer Helps You See Why These 10 Piano Pieces are So Hard to Play
YouTube piano maestro Rousseau plays 10 extremely difficult piano pieces, augmenting a note visualizer so you can appreciate just how complex the compositions are.
In an addendum to his video, Rousseau made a ‘more realistic top 10 most difficult piano pieces’ with a little blurb on each:
10) Balakirev – Islamey
This piece often gets thrown around as being ‘the most difficult piano piece’. Though insanely virtuosic and really beautiful melodically, this romantic work is far from the most difficult piano piece ever composed.
9) Beethoven – Hammerklavier (Piano Sonata No. 29)
As the name suggests, this mammoth of a Sonata (which is almost 1 hour long) contains Beethoven’s typical intensity, but also his beautiful melodic writing that makes it a challenge both physically and musically. The Fugue in particular is nigh on impossible to perform at the tempo Beethoven wrote, and is rarely attempted at full tempo even by pianists today. Legend says Beethoven claimed no one would be able to play it in 100 years, though not even 20 years after completion, a certain young Franz Liszt performed the work in what would be one of his greatest concerts.
8) Ravel – Gaspard de la nuit
Arguably Ravel’s greatest piano work – this set of three works based on poems by Bertrand is a musical wonder. The contrasting imagery Ravel captures in the three works is absolutely magical. The first piece, Ondine, tells the dream-like story of a nymph singing to lure an outsider into her underwater kingdom. The second, Le Gibet, a story about a corpse hanging in a desert with bells ringing from a nearby city, creating an eerie atmosphere. The third and final, Scarbo, a nightmarish goblin/devil who haunts the poet in his sleep – this work is also often flaunted as the most difficult piano work, but it definitely takes the cake in Impressionism.
7) Godowsky – Passacaglia in B Minor
It’s no surprise Godowsky’s name begins with ‘God’, famed for his Chopin Etude studies, this piece is easily one of the best examples of variation theme. This work not only contains a virtuosic passacaglia (bassline repeats throughout) of gargantuan proportions, but then takes the theme and crafts an incredible fugue around it. Like many pieces so far, playing this work not only requires a massive feat of physical endurance, but extreme musicality and control.
6) Liszt – Gallop in A Minor
What would a Top 10 piano list be without Liszt? Not much needs to be said here other than this fun Gallop is next to impossible to perform at tempo. C major/A minor are usually the first keys a pianist learns when starting out on piano, though they often don’t know that these are the hardest keys to master, and virtuosic playing on black keys is significantly easier. You also know a piece is extremely difficult when most recordings of it are MIDI reproductions – Mereaux, a contemporary of Liszt, also wrote a devilish short work in A minor, his Etude, Op. 63 No. 45 and MIDI is the form you will find it in most often.
5) Alkan – Concerto for Solo Piano
Alkan – Liszt’s greatest rival in Paris. A good friend of both him and Chopin, the path of history has made him the lesser known virtuoso pianist of that time period, though he was equally respected during his time. An extremely rare form of concerto (which are usually for a solo instrument with an orchestral accompaniment – this work is almost stretching the definition of the style to its limits), this monumental work is one of Alkan’s greatest, and one of the most difficult solo piano works of the romantic repertoire.
4) Ligeti – Piano Concerto
One of the names most associated with “Piano Concerto” is Rachmaninoff, with his 2nd and 3rd piano concertos being some of the staples of the form, but in terms of pure difficulty, avant garde composer Ligeti may take the cake. Due to being extremely complex musically, containing two time signatures at once (4/4 & 12/8) along with changing tempo and extreme syncopation, it is arguably the most difficult piano concerto written to date.
3) Xenakis – Mists
Up until this point, time signatures have been an important part in the piano works listed. Not here. Xenakis was not only a musician, but an architect and used mathematical models extensively in his music. In this piece, there is no time signature, but all of the musical content has been excruciatingly mathematically calculated. Actually playing this piece faithfully to the score is likely not physically possible for a human to achieve.
2) Messiaen – Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus
Now we get into the big leagues. Messiaen’s Vingt Regards, a set of 20 pieces that in full is 2 hours long. Not only a pianist, but an organist too, religion was a big theme for Messiaen – this work is described as a meditation on the infancy of Jesus. With harmonic similarities to French Impressionism, infused with with the musical complexity and exploration of the early 20th century, this is one of Messiaen’s greatest works, and certainly one of the most difficult.
1) Sorabji – Symphonic Variations for Piano
This piece is 9 hours long. 9. Hours. Long. Sorabji is known for his ridiculously difficult and ridiculously long works, and this one is at the top of his list. This piece is so difficult, a full recording does not even exist, and in terms of pure difficulty – it is pretty safe to say that this is the most difficult piano work ever written.