The hardest piano music ever: Chopin edition

In today’s episode, we’re going to look at the hardest piano music in the world – starting with Chopin.

We’ve done several versions of the easiest music by various composers – we’ve looked at the easiest Chopin, Liszt and so on. Those videos are dedicated to finding the easiest, most playable pieces by various composers for when you’re wanting to get into them.

In this video series, I want to do the exact opposite. I want to search out the wildly difficult music in piano literature and share it with you.

These pieces represent the pinnacle of piano achievement. Most people who play will not hit this level – this is the level of mastery. But it’s good to have big goals and dreams, right?

The first stop on this journey is Chopin. There are seven Chopin pieces that are ranked the hardest difficulty (according to Henle), and those are the seven pieces we’ll be looking at today.

In the mix is one ballade, three etudes, two sonatas and a prelude.

Let’s get started!

Ballade no. 4 in F minor, op. 52

Chopin wrote four ballades for piano which are very well-known, and generally regarded as very difficult. There are endless recordings of them, and performances of them are quite common.

The fourth ballade in F minor features a lot of counterpoint (multiple melodies), which is partly what makes it so challenging. This counterpoint is especially evident at the coda (ending).

English pianist John Ogdon said this about the ballade,

“[it is] the most exalted, intense and sublimely powerful of all Chopin’s compositions… It is unbelievable that it lasts only twelve minutes, for it contains the experience of a lifetime.”

We’ll take a listen to a bit of the coda, since it’s probably the most challenging part of the piece. There is lots of momentum and energy in this part!

 

Credit: Frank Levy

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

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Chopin — Ballades
Composed by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). Edited by Willard A. Palmer. Masterworks; Piano Collection. Alfred Masterwork Edition. Form: Ballade. Masterwork; Romantic. Book. 64 pages. Published by Alfred Music (AP.669).

Etudes, op. 25, no. 6, “Thirds”

Chopin wrote three sets of etudes (or rather, two sets and a few extras). His opus 25 is the second set of etudes.

The subtitle for the sixth etude in this set is “Thirds” because, you guessed it, it’s an exercise in playing thirds on the piano. They are played incredibly fast, which is mainly why this is one of the hardest pieces for piano ever.

One thing that’s cool with Chopin’s etudes is that they’re not just meant to develop technique (though that’s certainly their primary purpose), but they’re also meant to be heard in concert performances. Before Chopin wrote these etudes in the mid 1800s, etudes were simply exercises meant for playing at home, not for playing in public.

These etudes are incredibly famous, like his ballades. Let’s take a quick listen to some of “Thirds”.

Credit: Edward Neeman

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

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Chopin — Etudes (Complete)
Composed by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). Edited by Willard A. Palmer. Masterworks; Piano Collection. Alfred Masterwork Edition. Form: Etude. Masterwork; Romantic. Book. 144 pages. Published by Alfred Music (AP.2500C).

Etudes, op. 25, no. 10, “Octave”

His tenth etude is nicknamed “Octave”, since that’s what the focus of study is for this piece (etude means “study”).

One thing that makes this study a challenge, like everything else on today’s list, is the speed in which it’s played. Another challenge is playing this piece legato (smoothly) as Chopin has indicated – anyone who has played octaves knows what a challenge it is to play them smoothly, let alone smooth and fast.

Let’s have a listen!

Credit: Edward Neeman

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Etudes, op. 25, no. 11, “Winter Wind”

Winter Wind, Chopin’s 11th etude in his op. 25 set, is one of his most well-known etudes. It starts with a slow lento introduction, and then immediately dives into really fast sixteenth notes in the right hand, with huge leaps in both hands and a left hand melody.

The “study” aspect of this etude is all about stamina (as well as clean and quick technique).

The right hand is full of scales and arpeggios played at lightning speed and without a break – hence its benefit for developing stamina. The left hand is where the main melody lives, and is full of huge, loud chords and leaps.

Even though the right hand is more of the accompaniment, there is still an implied melody buried in the fast notes – it can be heard every eighth beat. This is important because it helps to drive the rhythm of the piece.

An American music writer, James Huneker, wrote about this etude:

“Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should avoid it”.

Let’s have a listen!

Credit: Edward Neeman

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Piano Sonata no. 2, op. 35, “Funeral March”

Chopin wrote three piano sonatas, two of which are ranked as some of the hardest piano music ever (number 2 and 3).

This one is nicknamed “Funeral March” because of the third movement – there are four movements in this sonata, and a full performance takes about 25 minutes.

The Funeral March part of this sonata was played at Chopin’s burial in Paris, and is definitely worth a listen. However, we’re going to listen to the Presto, the fourth movement, because it’s so wild and fast. It’s relentless, and entirely without rests until the very end.

About the fourth movement, Anton Rubenstein commented that it sounds like “wind howling around the gravestones”.

 

Credit: Andreas Xenopoulos

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

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Sonatas, Op. 35 & 58
Chopin National Edition 10A, Vol. X. Composed by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). Edited by Jan Ekier. PWM. Classical. Softcover. 86 pages. Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne #9731050. Published by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne (HL.132326).

Piano Sonata no. 3, op. 58

Like the previous sonata, this one also has four movements. A full performance lasts somewhere between 25 to 30 minutes.

I’d like to share the second movement, the scherzo, with you today. It is incredibly short, about two minutes long, and full of fast and delicate runs in the right hand.

 

Credit: European Archive

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

Preludes, op. 28 no. 24 ‘The Storm’

Finally we have Chopin’s op. 28 set of preludes. We’ve covered this set in full on the channel before, so if you’d like to see a full analysis of all 24 preludes, definitely check those videos out.

The last prelude is by far the most challenging, and is nicknamed “The Storm”. The tempo marking is “Allegro appassionato”, which basically means “passionate and fast”.

This prelude features a five-note pattern in the left hand while the right hand plays all kinds of scales, arpeggios and rapid sequences. It’s incredibly tumultuous and caps off the set of preludes with a bang (almost literally, with those low notes at the very end).

 

Credit: Jeannette Fang

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0

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Chopin – Preludes
Composed by Frederic Chopin (1810-1849). Edited by Brian Ganz. Schirmer Performance Editions. Classical. Softcover Audio Online. 96 pages. Published by G. Schirmer (HL.296523).