In today’s episode of PianoTV, we’re going to look at some of the hardest piano music that exists – with the spotlight on Franz Liszt.
We’re looking at his solo piano music (no concertos here – though those are obviously very difficult). The majority of these pieces are from his Transcendental Etudes.
In this video we’ll talk about the eight pieces of his that are extremely difficult, and listen to a few musical examples.
Let’s get started!
Apres une Lecture du Dante – Fantasia quasi Sonata
Liszt has a set of thee suites called the “Years of Pilgrimage”. They’re some of my favorite Liszt compositions – each set is quite different from the other, with lots of colorfully-titled pieces.
One of the most difficult pieces that Liszt wrote for piano is from the second set (“Italy”), titled “Apres une Lecture du Dante”, with the subtitle “Fantasia quasi Sonata”. It’s more often simplified to the Dante Sonata.
Liszt’s second pilgrimage suite was composed between 1837 and 1849, of which the Dante Sonata is the final piece. It was inspired by Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, based on the ‘inferno’ part of the poem. It’s basically about descending into hell and then transforming. So it’s epic, and it’s 17 minutes long. It’s also a great piece to display Liszt’s forward-leaning artistic techniques.
This piece, as well as the others we’ll discuss, is rated a level 9 in Henle’s ranking system (the hardest difficulty for piano music). It’s a Licentiate performance level in the RCM, and FRSM level for ABRSM.
Let’s take a quick listen to a part of the beginning, after the chordal introduction.
Performer: Roberto Poli
Copyright: CC BY-SA 3.0
Piano Sonata in B minor, S. 178
Another sonata on the list! Liszt’s sonata in B minor was finished in 1853, dedicated to Robert Schumann – but Schumann’s pianist wife, Clara, hated it. She is quoted as saying, “It is only blind noise – not a single healthy thought, everything confused.”
She wasn’t the only one who disliked it, either – Brahms, among others, wasn’t a fan.
Wagner, who was also known to compose “blind noise”, liked it (which should surprise no one).
Since this sonata is beastly difficult, it wasn’t really popular until the 1900s, well after Liszt’s death. It’s 30 minutes long and has the same level of difficulty as the Dante Sonata – Henle 9, ABRSM FRSM, and RCM LRCM.
We’ll take a listen to a clip from the beginning, which should give you a sense of the high drama in this piece, as well as the difficulty.
Performer: Jean Dube
Copyright: CC BY-SA 3.0
Rigoletto: Concert Paraphrase
Liszt’s “Rigoletto: Concert Paraphrase” was composed in the mid 1850s, based on Verdi’s famous opera Rigoletto (Specifically act III, no. 18).
The story going on at this part of the opera was about betrayed love coming to light, which was poignant to Liszt at the time (he was having trouble legally marrying Princess von Sayn-Wittgenstein).
It’s not a sad-sounding piece, though – if you didn’t know the backstory, you’d be inclined to think Liszt wrote it about happy days.
This is a gorgeous piece that I find really shimmers. It has a clear and singing melody (which makes sense, given that it’s modeled after an opera work). A performance of it takes about 6 minutes, much more manageable than the sonatas.
Performer: Costantino Catena
Copyright: CC BY 3.0
Transcendental Etudes, S. 139
Liszt wrote many concert etudes, but no set is so beastly as his S. 139 Transcendental Etudes. They were published in 1852 (but were originally written in 1826), and dedicated to Carl Czerny, himself a master of etudes.
Each of the 12 etudes in this set has a colorful title and sound, making them less like etudes (studies), and more like little character pieces.
Let’s take a look at the five pieces from this set that are the most difficult, and listen to a couple audio examples as well.
The fourth etude is titled “Mazeppa”, inspired by a Victor Hugo poem of the same name. It’s about a guy named Mazeppa who is strapped to a horse, and then the horse is set loose. As you might imagine, Liszt’s musical portrayal of this is fast and wild.
Things that make this etude so very difficult are huge leaps across the piano, rapid-fire playing, fast thirds, and overall endurance to get it all done.
“Feux Follets” (Wills o’ the Wisp), the fifth in the set, has a light and fluffy feel – a feel that is extremely difficult to convey with all of the technical acrobatics required.
Not only is it fast – there are lots of rapid double-note sequences in the right hand – but the left hand is doing lots of leaping, and the notes themselves are unpredictable.
Number 8, “Wilde Jagd” (Wild Hunt), has the tempo marking “presto furioso” – or rather, “fast and furious”. In typical Lisztian fashion, there are huge 2- and 3-octave jumps, lots of octaves, and bravura for days.
Let’s have a listen to a bit of the introduction so you can hear the “fast and furious” quality to this piece. If you listen to the whole thing, you’ll notice the formidable intro opens up to a much more playful theme (it isn’t all wild intensity here).
Performer: Shuwen Zhang
Copyright: CC BY-NC 3.0
Liszt’s 10th etude is dubbed “Appassionata”, and is probably the most popular of the bunch. This etude is all about creating a passionate and dramatic melodic line, often with octaves.
One awkward thing about playing this piece is how the hands are often cramped and close together, and there is a lot of work happening in the left hand.
It’s written in sonata form, and a revised 1838 version of the coda resembles Beethoven’s Appassionata Sonata coda – hence the nickname.
Performer: Julián Pernett Castilla
Copyright: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
Last but not least is Liszt’s 12th etude in the set, “Chasse-neige”, aka “impetuous wind which raises whirls of snow”.
In addition to near-constant tremolos, you’ve got the standard Lisztian difficulties – huge leaps and fast chromatic scales. Perhaps most difficult is playing quietly when playing so quickly, to really create the “whirling snow” soundscape.
Italian musician and contemporary of Liszt, Ferruccio Busoni, said the étude was the “noblest example, perhaps, amongst all music of a poetising nature.” He described the work as “a sublime and steady fall of snow which gradually buries landscape and people”.