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The Hardest Piano Music Ever: J.S. Bach Edition

In today’s episode of PianoTV we’ll explore more of the hardest piano music ever, this time with J.S. Bach.

We’ve looked at the hardest music of Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninoff on this channel as well.

One difference between Bach and the Romantic composers just mentioned is that they have more individual pieces that are extremely difficult. But Bach wrote entire works that are extremely difficult.

You’ll eventually get through a 20-minute Liszt piece, but Bach’s 2-hour Art of Fugue is in a whole other ballpark.

Let’s have a look at his hardest collections, and listen through some examples.

J.S. Bach’s Hardest Collections

There are two works of Bach’s that are among the most difficult piano pieces ever. Those works are:

  • The Goldberg Variations

  • The Art of Fugue

Since we’ve talked about the Goldberg Variations on this channel in-depth before, we’ll just look at the piece as a quick review.

We’ll spend more time talking about The Art of Fugue, which is a fascinating collection representing the culmination of Bach’s fugue writing skills.

The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080

Bach died before finishing the Art of Fugue, so it represents a lifetime’s work in fugue and polyphonic writing. Different editors have composed different endings, so the work is playable as a whole.

He started composing this in the early 1740s (he died in 1750). The Art of Fugue consists of 14 fugues and 4 canons in D minor – canons being a more specific type of fugue, which we’ve discussed before on this channel.

What instrument did Bach write The Art of Fugue for?

What’s interesting about this is that Bach wrote the Art of Fugue in score form (each voice on its own individual line, like SATB writing) – so we’re not sure what instrument he intended it to be played on.

However, the reason we think it was probably written for harpsichord or piano is that it’s playable on these instruments – they fit the hands. If it was scored for other instruments, it might be significantly more awkward to play on the piano.

Some people argue that the Art of Fugue, since each voice was written on its own line, was meant more as an intellectual exercise – something to study. However, it was common at the time to write in open-score, especially with more complex works (which this certainly is).

Another argument against the Art of Fugue being meant for keyboard is the fact that certain passages are basically unplayable (such as from Contrapunctus XII and XIII), even if the collection as a whole is playable on the keyboard. Besides, Bach’s famous keyboard work The Well-Tempered Clavier has a few “unplayable” sections as well.

Songwriting in the Art of Fugue

The entirety of the Art of Fugue (all two hours of it!) is based around this simple subject:

“The governing idea of the work”, said Bach specialist Christoph Wolff, “was an exploration in depth of the contrapuntal possibilities inherent in a single musical subject.”

Most of the fugues are in four-part form, meaning there are four voices occurring simultaneously – the soprano, alto, tenor and bass notes – all played by two hands on the piano.

It’s truly remarkable how many permutations on this simple tune that Bach was able to create. Not only is the melody played in its regular incarnation, but it’s also inverted, augmented, diminished and played along with secondary and tertiary subjects in increasing complexity.

Scholars speculate that the final (unfinished) fugue (Contrapunctus XIV) was meant to be a quadruple fugue (four subjects happening simultaneously – a counterpoint behemoth). That would make sense seeing as the fugue gets more and more dense the deeper you get into it, so it would’ve served as a great climax to the work.

Bach’s obituary even mentioned “a draft for a fugue that was to contain four themes in four voices”, lending support to this idea.

Listening to the Art of Fugue

Let’s take a listen to the beginning of this giant, exceedingly difficult work. This is one worth listening to in full and digging into the sheet music.

If I were to name a “most difficult work for the piano ever”, this would be a strong contender for the crown.

Recording credits (featured in the PTV video)

Bach’s The Art of Fugue, part 1, #1-12

Performer: Mehmet Okonsar

Accessed at: Wikipedia.org

Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988

Bach’s most important composition for keyboard, and possibly the most important keyboard composition of the 18th century, are The Goldberg Variations.

It consists of an Aria and 30 variations on that Aria. So, like the Art of Fugue, it’s huge – generally a full performance runs over an hour long. It was published in 1741, toward the end of Bach’s life.

They’re named the “Goldberg” variations after the keyboard performer who was likely the original performer of the variations, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg.

Songwriting in the Goldberg Variations

The title page of the publication reads:

“Keyboard exercise, consisting of an ARIA with diverse variations for harpsichord with two manuals. Composed for connoisseurs, for the refreshment of their spirits, by Johann Sebastian Bach [titles, titles, titles].”

The consistent theme linking all the variations together isn’t the melody of the Aria (which would’ve been common), but instead the bassline, which looks like this:

Almost all of the variations are in the key of G major, though several are in G minor. There are canons, Baroque dances, a fughetta, arias and more in this giant work.

To conclude the performance, Bach wrote that after you finish the 30th variation, you go back to the beginning and play the Aria before finishing.

Listening to the Goldberg Variations

Let’s take a listen to the Aria, which is written in Sarabande-style. We’ve discussed the Baroque dance suite on this channel before, but Sarabandes are French in origin, slow and highly ornamented. It’s beautiful, but please check out our entire video on the Goldberg Variations and listen to it in full, as it’s an incredibly diverse collection.

Recording credits (featured on PTV video)

The Goldberg Variations: Aria

Accessed at Wikipedia.org

Performer: Kimiko Ishizaka

Copyright: Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

Conclusion

And that concludes our discussion on the hardest works by J.S. Bach for the piano. Not only is this Bach’s most difficult music, but it’s among the most difficult music ever for piano.

This is a fun series – I love digging into pieces that are so far out of my playing ballpark. It’s amazing to hear the possibilities of the piano, and to dream of being able to play them one day.

Catch you next time!

-Allysia

 

 

 

 

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