Skip to content

The Hardest Piano Music Ever: Beethoven Edition

Hi friends! We’re back with another edition of “The Hardest Piano Music Ever”, which spotlights fiendishly difficult piano music. This is as complicated as it gets, the pinnacle of achievement. 99.99% of all piano players will not play this music.

Some might try, but most will fail.

And on that depressing note, let’s have a listen to Beethoven’s most difficult pieces. Not even just compared to other pieces he wrote, but to ALL PIANO MUSIC EVER.

Just as a quick note: I didn’t come up with this list entirely on my own steam. I’m basing it on Henle’s leveling system, which has a scale from 1-9. 9 is the most difficult piano music in the world, and there aren’t too many compositions at this level.

Diabelli Variations C major op. 120

Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations was the last major composition he wrote in his life, completed in 1823 (he died in 1827). The composer Diabelli wanted a bunch of musicians to each write a variation on his theme (including Schubert and Liszt), but Beethoven, probably unsurprisingly, decided to just write 33 variations on his own.

Legendary pianist Hans von Bulow said the Diabelli Variations were a “microcosm of Beethoven’s genius, indeed even an image of the whole world of music in summary”. This set of variations is right up there in importance (and difficulty!) with Bach’s Goldberg Variations.

Another famous pianist, Alfred Brendel, claims that these variations are “the greatest of all piano works”.

Let’s have a listen to the sixth variation, for no particular reason other than the fact that it’s virtuosic and I like it. It’s full of trills and fast arpeggios.

Neal O’Doan

Copyright: CC 3.0


look inside
Variations for Piano, Volume II
Piano Solo. Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Edited by Joseph Schmidt-Gorg. Sheet Music. Paperbound. Henle Music Folios. Urtext edition-paper bound. Classical Period. Collection (softcover). With introductory text and performance notes. 144 pages. G. Henle #HN144. Published by G. Henle (HL.51480144).

Piano Sonata no. 21 C major op. 53 (Waldstein)

The remainder of this video will be about Beethoven’s piano sonatas, five of which are incredibly difficult. We’ll go in order, starting with his 21st sonata, known as the “Waldstein” sonata.

Waldstein is incredibly bold, written in 1804 during Beethoven’s “middle” period. This composition kicked off Beethoven’s obsession with writing epic, bold and heroic music (the Eroica symphony came from this period of time).

A cursory glance through the music shows how insane it is – but let’s have a brief listen to the opening bit of it. As always, definitely check out the full version!

(Clip in video: Paul Pitman

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Piano Sonata no. 23 f minor op. 57 (Appassionata)

Next to the Waldstein sonata, Moonlight sonata is definitely one of Beethoven’s most famous piano sonatas. But Moonlight isn’t as beastly difficult as some of these. The third of his most well-known sonatas, and one that is extremely difficult, is Appassionata.

The first movement is full of drama and bombast, the second movement is introspective (as is typical of 2nd movements), and the 3rd movement is wild and, well, passionate.

Beethoven himself loved this sonata, which he described as a ”brilliantly executed display of emotion and music”. So humble!

We’re going to have a listen to the very beginning – there’s so much to share with huge piano pieces like this, but I like starting from the beginning because it’s usually the opening bars which we recognize about a piece the easiest.

(Video clip credit: Paul Pitman

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Piano Sonata no. 28 A major op. 101

The final 3 sonatas we’ll be talking about are from Beethoven’s “late” period of music. This was when he was starting to go deaf in earnest, and no longer performed publicly. That didn’t stop him from bold and adventurous composition experiments, though!

Written in 1816, his 28th piano sonata features unusual harmonies, and, like many of his later sonatas, are more personal and intimate. By this point he had mastered all of the conventions of the Classical era and sought to break convention in his final years, paving the way for Romantic composers.

As with the others, let’s have a quick listen to the beginning.

(Video clip credit: Paul Pitman

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Piano Sonata no. 29 B flat major op. 106 (Hammerklavier)

Beethoven himself described his 29th sonata “a hard nut to crack”. Completed in 1818, Hammerklavier is so huge and difficult that it’s almost unplayable. It’ll give a challenge to even the best concert pianists. This is considered the most important works of Beethoven’s late period, and is probably as difficult as the Diabelli Variations.

Here you’ll see humorous writing and a return to Baroque styles, like use of the fugue, within Classical forms.

(video clip credit: European Archive

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0)

Piano Sonata no. 32 c minor op. 111

Finally we’ll wrap this discussion up by looking at his 32nd piano sonata in C minor, the very last one he wrote in 1822.

Unusually, it was written in just two movements (most sonatas are 3 or 4). It has fugal elements like his other late works. Chopin loved this sonata and was heavily influenced by it.

You really must listen to this one beyond the majestic opening – there’s so much more to it than what’s shared here.

(Video clip credit: Paul Pitman

Copyright: Public Domain Mark 1.0)


look inside
Piano Sonatas – Book I
Klaviersonaten. Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Edited by Bertha Antonia Wallner. Sheet Music. Paperbound. Urtext Editions. ABRSM syllabus Grade: 6.8. Classical Period. Collection (softcover). With standard notation, fingerings, introductory text and thematic index (does not include words to the songs). 286 pages. G. Henle #HN32. Published by G. Henle (HL.51480032).

look inside
Piano Sonatas – Book II
Klaviersonaten. Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Edited by Bertha Antonia Wallner. Sheet Music. Paperbound. Urtext Editions. Pages: 330. Classical Period. Collection (softcover). With standard notation, fingerings and thematic index (does not include words to the songs). 330 pages. G. Henle #HN34. Published by G. Henle (HL.51480034).

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this look at Beethoven’s most difficult compositions. There’s only a handful of piano composers who have wrote immensely difficult pieces, and Beethoven, of course, is one. But do check out others I’ve featured on this channel as well such as Rachmaninoff and Liszt.

Enjoy,

Allysia

Scroll To Top