Top Five Unplayable Works (That Were Eventually Played)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Fast hands at the piano (Flickr/eyesore9)

There are difficult pieces and then there are those deemed impossible. For as long as composers have been creating these notoriously hard pieces, virtuosos have been around to answer the call, raising the bar for both what musicians can accomplish and composers can imagine. We’ve collected five pieces initially thought unplayable, but eventually were performed. Luckily, we listeners are the beneficiaries.

1. Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto

The sensational circumstances surrounding Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D Major are well known: the composer took solace in writing following his disastrous three-week long marriage and subsequent suicide attempt. When he showed the result to his friend Leopold Auer, who was the Czar’s Court Violinist, Auer declared the lightning quick passages in the first and third movements unplayable. It took three years before another Russian violinist, Adolf Brodsky, premiered the work. It’s now become a favorite for virtuosos from Jascha Heifetz to Joshua Bell.

2. Ligeti: Etudes

As a young pianist based in Paris, Pierre-Laurent Aimard had a reputation for being able to play any piece put in front of him. Gyorgi Ligeti took it as a challenge and he set about writing his études, some of the most difficult music ever composed for the piano. Aimard, who once said, “We are living in a world that is too easygoing," did eventually master the works. Jeremy Denk, who recorded some of the individual works in his most recent CD, told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, “[Ligeti’s] written music at the edge of the human possibility for performing it. That is, so fast and complex as to be almost impossible to keep track of."

3. Nancarrow: Player Piano

Human limitations didn’t stop 20th century maverick composer Conlon Nancarrow. He employed a player piano to realize his treacherous keyboard studies that no 10-fingered keyboardist would be able to master. The rhythmic complexities and their blazing fast speeds certainly dazzle.

4. Ravel: Gaspard de la Nuit

In the early 1900s, Maurice Ravel made it his mission to compose a work more difficult than the notoriously tricky Islamey by Russian composer Mily Balakirev. Using Aloysius Bertrand’s poetry collection Gaspard de la Nuit, Ravel created a three-part work of the same title, based on a trio of macabre passages. The work itself is a triathlon of sorts for a pianist: there are finger-breaking shimmering effects in the first movement, a dense texture of sound requiring three staves in the second, and immensely fast repeated notes in the third

5. Barber: Violin Concerto

In 1939, the well-heeled American soap baron Samuel Fels commissioned Samuel Barber to write a violin concerto for the millionaire’s adopted son, Ivo Briselli, who was a talented violinist. Upon completion, Briselli called the piece, particularly its quicksilver third movement, unplayable (though it’s uncertain whether this designation was due to difficulty or aesthetic judgment). In any event, Fels demanded his money back, but Barber was able to keep the $1,000 payment after a Curtis student proved the piece was in fact playable.


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Comments [22]

Enrique from Caribbean

A lot of commentators seem to have equated musical complexity/ advanced harmonic language with technical difficulty. The two may be related, but they are not the same. The Balakirev Islamey, Scarbo from Ravel's Gaspard de la Nuit, or any number of Alkan, Liszt or Godowsky studies/ transcriptions ( to name just a few of the more well-known works from the virtuoso piano concert repertoire) present many more hair-raising technical challenges to overcome in performance than so many of the contemporary works quoted. Extreme difficulty in the learning/ mastering of a new score is not the same as extreme difficulty in the actual physical performance of a work, whatever the harmonic language. Just my two cents worth. Of course someone like Nancarrow doesn't really count, since a lot of his music was not intended for human performance

Sep. 06 2016 10:49 AM
Floria from NYC

Yeah, difficult .... but beautiful? Worth listening to? Worth spending precious time trying to figure it out? Where is it going? Why? Do I care? I can weep at a simple Mozart line.....

May. 31 2016 01:00 PM
Paul from Phoenix

Re the Tchaikovsky, Auer is on record saying " It is incorrect to state that I had declared the concerto in its original form unplayable. What I did say was that some of the passages were not suited to the character of the instrument, and that, however perfectly rendered, they would not sound as well as the composer had imagined."

AFAIK there is no documentation of the "unplayable" business, as opposed to Auer saying straight out that he never so declared it.

Apr. 19 2016 05:12 AM
santy del castillo from El Paso TX.

The first Hindemith viola sonata is insane for even the greatest players in the world.

Aug. 29 2015 12:41 PM
Keane from Troy, NY

How can you possibly leave out Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum? Talk about something that seems unplayable, six hour-long work for solo piano with some of the scariest polyrhythms and counterpoint sometimes spread out over 5 staves! Sorabji himself "banned" people from even attempting to perform his work for decades, but the work has been performed now numerous times and recorded 3 times by 2 different pianists (John Ogdon and Geoffrey Douglas Madge). No list like this is valid without some mention of Sorabji!!

Jun. 10 2015 11:43 AM
Danae Kara from Athens, GREECE

Nikos Skalkottas' third piano concerto is known for its diffficulty and length, performed in the late 60's by three pianists,one for each movement, and eventually performed and recorded by me in 2003.

Feb. 21 2015 04:29 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

The first rehearsals of TRISTAN with LUDWIG SCHNORR VON CAROLSFELD, the Tristan, and MALVINA SCHNORR VON CAROLSFELD, the Isolde, were a disaster, the orchestra complaining that the scoring was too difficult and would never be played as written. Future rehearsals and performances proved them wrong. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor with many years of experience singing the heavier roles in the German, Italian, French and Russian operas. My next concert in New York is on March 21st, 2015 at 6 PM at the New Life Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania on 33rd Street and 7th Avenue .It will be the 4th Reprise of my 4 three hour long main hall Carnegie Hall solo concerts in which I sang nearly 100 selections. The concert will be in 8 languages: German, Italian, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Spanish, Latin and English. The composers represented will be Wagner, Verdi, Beethoven, Handel, Grieg, Sibelius, Jacopo Peri, Cilea, Halevy, Gastaldon and Alvarez. The entire 12 hours of selections sung at Carnegie Hall will be presented in a series of 12 single hour concerts on tour along with The 300 Greatest Love Songs of Broadway Musicals, the Movies and the Grammys, also sung in concerts and on DVD. My singing may be downloaded, free, at Recorded Selections at my websites, and I am also an opera composer [ "Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"]and director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ where there is training for actors for all the roles of the Shakespeare's plays and for big-voiced singers for all the Wagner roles and voice production training for speech and singing. My singing teachers, besides my Juilliard and Manhattan School of Music training, were the legendary MET OPERA Wagnerians Friedrich Schorr, Alexander Kipnis, Margarete Matzenauer and Karin Branzell. Their input is clearly apparent in my singing. As is my textual treatment of each role and each song influenced by my acting teachers Lee Strasberg, Philip Burtonand sandy Meissner. Tribute where tribute is due.

Feb. 20 2015 12:29 PM
vinceg from Philadelphia

I remember reading somewhere that the person who the Barber concerto was written for asked to see the first 2 movements and expressed disappointment that they were not virtuosic enough, prompting Barber to make the third movement especially difficult. Maybe the person who responded to the other comment on the Barber has something to say on this point as well? It is good to have one's history straight.

Feb. 19 2015 07:38 PM
Sol from Philadelphia, PA

Wasn't Beethoven's Grosse Fuge virtually unplayed for a century or so (at least in its original string-quartet version)? More recently we have Babbitt's Transfigured Notes and Morton Feldman's 2nd String Quartet.

Feb. 18 2015 03:38 PM
Edward Alley from Now Sarasota, FL

I'll always remember the look on the faces of the violinists of the NYPhilharmonic when Dorothy DeLay brought a 9 year old Midori to audition during a break in a NYP rehearsal. She literally sailed through the Bartok Violin Concerto, reminding several us of the old comment "Doesn't it seem awfully warm in here?"...and the answer, "Only to other violinists!!" She has fulfilled her promise, for sure.

Didn't Joachim also tell Brahms that his Violin Concerto was also unplayable???

And finally, as I often tell my friends, "When you get old enough EVERYTHING reminds you of a story!!!"

Regards to all1

Feb. 18 2015 12:48 PM

Interesting -- the music displayed at the beginning of the article, Chopin's Revolutionary Etude, is not one of those mentioned. I wouldn't call it unplayable, though. One year my dorm room was on the first floor and directly over a practice room used by piano majors. Every Saturday morning for weeks, maybe months, I was awakened by someone working on this piece.

Feb. 18 2015 12:17 PM

Though L. Auer deemed Tchaikovsky's violin concerto unplayable, he taught it to his students including Heifetz, Milstein, Seidl, etc. Rather than deeming Schoenberg's concerto unplayable, Heifetz probably didn't like its twelve-tone construction and just didn't want to bother. Today, Hilary Hahn, among others, tosses it off. Yuja Wang made a big splash with Prokofiev's 2nd concerto, as well as many short transcriptions of "unplayable" pieces.

Feb. 18 2015 11:48 AM
Nick E. from New York

David Holzman performing Wolpe's Passacaglia.

He literally bleeds all over the keyboard.

Feb. 18 2015 10:43 AM
susanna from New York

The name of the violinist for whom Barber composed his only violin concerto was Iso,NOT Ivo. He was NOT adopted by Samuel Fels, but instead was his ward. He NEVER claimed any of the 3 movement to be "unplayable". Barber was permitted to keep the first installment,$500,of the total fee of $1,000. The balance was neither offered nor requested. Please visit and then consider a revision of your online notes. Your public deserves an accurate history.

Jan. 28 2015 04:58 PM

I thought Bazzini piece was pretty difficult to play. It has extremely fast parts with double stop on top of left hand pizz. Oh, and for piano, the flight of bumblebee Cziffra version probably belongs up there. I think Yuja Wang is about the only one who can play this one precisely.

May. 22 2014 01:15 PM
Lee Lieberman from Fort Lee, NJ

What? ,no mention of Alkan. The usual reason given for not playing his Opus 39 Etudes in the concert hall or on the radio is that it is too hard. It's just rally challenging music to listen to--as well as being very original and yet somehow reminds you of a much later composer! On the radio we don't see the tremendous physical effort and endurance involved.

Jul. 25 2012 02:15 AM
Dan Leeman from Ottawa ON

It is neat that Les in Miami mentioned Busoni's piano concerto with the
mens' chorus in the 4th movement. This piece was played by the New Jersey
Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall ( I believe) last May with Canadian
pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin who makes a habit of playing the "big stuff"
as well as all the standard piano music.

Jul. 24 2012 10:54 AM
Mat Dirjish from New York, NY

Aside from an attempt to raise the bar of virtuosity for a select few musicians, is there a point to writing something that's impossible to play, or as close to impossible as humanly possible? Back in an era when computers and digital reproduction where just a fantasy in some scientists' minds, the point may have been to challenge the "arrogant virtuosi" of the day. In 2012, anything is truly possible and reproducible via the digital tools at our command. This illicits the question, is something incredibly complex and fast or impossibly slow and articulate always worth hearing?

Jul. 23 2012 11:34 AM

Schoenberg Violin Concerto Op.36:
Arnold Schoenberg dedicated his Violin Concerto to Anton Webern. His original intent had been to have his brother-in-law, Rudolph Kolisch, play the premier performance. Subsequently, Schoenberg changed his mind and sent the score to Jascha Heifetz. After reviewing the score, Heifetz returned it to Schoenberg, declaring that it was unplayable. Schoenberg's comment on this rejection was: "I am very glad that I have brought one more unplayable piece into the repertoire. I want this concerto to be difficult and the little finger to be longer. I can wait."

Jul. 22 2012 02:01 PM
Christopher Brooks from Lancaster PA

John Cage's Freeman Etudes are pretty much unplayble by anyone but Irvine Arditti. Here he is on YouTube:

Not sure why anyone would want to play them; they are ugly and lacking in affect, though Arditti does a mind-boggling job of it.

Jul. 22 2012 01:41 PM
Jeffrey Biegel from New York

Amazing how many pieces deemed unplayable are now part of the repertoire. Add Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto, which only became played more often in the last 15 years. At Juilliard in 1983, only 6 of us entered the concerto competition for this, compared to 25 players for the Mozart competition. Now, many play it. Signs of the times! For me, there are several solo piano pieces which are virtually impossible, including Paul de Schloezer's hardly known "Etude de Concert in E-flat Major, Opus 1, no. 1", which Josef Lhevinne only played. I will record it this week for Steinway & Sons. Hope to get through it, as I believe it would be a wonderful double-note work for other pianists to tackle.

Jul. 22 2012 12:15 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

I think Busoni's Piano Concerto is among the most difficult to perform for both soloist and orchestra; and the long wait until the male chorus joins is a hurdle of a different sort. Whether the Busoni or Beethoven's "Hammerklavier" Sonata is the more difficult I leave to the opinion of professional pianists and other experts.

Jul. 22 2012 09:05 AM

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