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.