The Hardest Piano Music Ever: Rachmaninoff Edition

In today’s video, we’re going to explore the hardest piano music, Rachmaninoff edition. Rachmaninoff’s piano repertoire is overwhelmingly in the “difficult” category, and a good number of his pieces could be considered among the most difficult piano music ever.

What we’re going to do today is discuss his most difficult music and listen through a few musical examples. Let’s get started!

Etudes-tableaux, op. 39 no. 1, “Allegro agitato”

Two of Rachmaninoff’s etudes can qualify as the hardest piano music ever – well, probably more than two, but two stand out to me as being among the most challenging.

Rachmaninoff’s Etudes-Tableaux are in two sets, op. 33 and 39. His op. 39 is overall more challenging, and more in the vein of his contemporaries such as Scriabin and Prokofiev.

His op. 39 no. 1 etude, “Allegro agitato” in C minor, is difficult for a variety of reasons. First of all, it’s very fast (allegro) and the right hand never gets a break. The whole piece is relentless, with pretty much no breathers or breaks.

It’s said to be similar to Chopin’s (very short) 14th prelude in E flat minor – you can check out the videos on Chopin’s preludes if you want to see for yourself.

audio credits


Performer: Shuwen Zhang

copyright CC BY-NC 3.0

etudes-tableaux, op. 39 no. 6, “Allegro”

Another extremely challenging piece is op. 39 no. 6 in A minor, “Allegro”. Again it’s a very fast piece, and very aggressive. This piece is incredibly intense, with all kinds of twists and turns. Rachmaninoff dubbed it “Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf”. It’s got some really dramatic chromatic runs at the end, and the whole thing is almost overwhelming to listen to.

Etudes-tableaux, op. 39 no. 9 “Allegro moderato”

Rachmaninoff’s etudes are interesting in that they develop a particular technique, like all etudes, but they also paint a mental picture (tableaux). He described the beastly difficult op. 39 no. 9 etude as an “Oriental March”, as the image that came into his mind when he was writing it.

It opens with discordant chords full of drama, and melts into a steady march rhythm. To my ears, it’s like a march in hell, interspersed with brief moments of melodic beauty.

audio credits


Performer: Gleb Ivanov

Copyright: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Piano Sonata no. 2, op. 36

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Sonata no. 2 in B flat minor is considered one of his most intense piano compositions – and one of the most difficult piano pieces of all time. There’s actually two versions of it – the original from 1913, and the revised (and shorter) version from 1931. Rachmaninoff was never happy with the first version, finding it “superfluous”.

This sonata is in three movements, but the movements are bridged so that it sounds like one continuous movement with no break. It’s written in sonata form. We’ll take a listen to the very beginning of the first movement, which begins with really big and intense arpeggio patterns.

audio credits


Performer: Jeff Manookian

Copyright: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, op. 43

Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is basically a concerto – the spotlight is on piano, and there’s an orchestra that supports it. It’s written in theme & variations form. It has 24 variations in total, and a full performance takes about 25 minutes.

One of the biggest challenges of this piece for the pianist is coordinating it with the orchestra – lots of weird and tricky rhythms. It’s a very beautiful composition, but some of the variations are beastly (such as the 24th and final variation).

We’re going to listen to an excerpt of the 18th variation, which could be considered the end of the slow middle section of this work.

audio credits


Performer: Markus Staab

Copyright: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Piano Concerto no. 3, op. 30

All of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concertos could be considered for the “hardest piano pieces” distinction, but I think the third one takes the cake – it’s widely considered to be one of the most challenging concertos ever.

A piano concerto is basically a composition that spotlights the piano, with the orchestra revolving around it (like the Rhapsody we just listened to).

Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in D minor, op. 30, one of the most well-known concertos thanks to Horowitz, who played it and popularized it. A full performance is about 40 minutes long, and it’s in three movements.

We’re going to listen to the first part of the last movement, which is probably the most difficult movement – and I love its video game-esque character.

audio credits


Performer: Sinfonia of Leeds

Copyright: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0


I hope you enjoyed this look at some of Rachmaninoff’s most difficult piano music, which is among the most difficult piano music ever.

If you’re an advanced student and looking to get started with Rachmaninoff, check out his easiest pieces to get started.






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