As I admired the somersaulting Olympic magicians a few weeks ago, the way the commentators described the relative ease or difficulty of a particular gymnastics routine got me thinking about how listeners can assess musical challenges. The gymnasts’ moves of course all looked outrageously hard to us less-flexible mortals, but the announcers pointed out that some are considered relatively simple.
For those familiar with a piece of music there is certainly a sports-like sense of anticipation during a performance: in this passage the pianist will undertake a few fiendish moves – let’s see if she lands on her feet! (or hands, in this case) Perfect ten! And sometimes critics can sound like sports commentators when describing how a musician nailed the octaves or a singer effortlessly navigated the coloratura treadmill. But musicians, of course, have no commentators alerting listeners to the relative difficulty of a piece. Some works or movements sound hard and are indeed tricky to play, like the Scherzo of Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet. Then there are sections that sound difficult, like the run-filled outer movements of Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio,” but are actually reasonably straightforward to play. The music ‘fits’ the hand comfortably and doesn’t require any acrobatic contortions.
On the other hand, some music can sound simple but is actually extremely tough to play well. Many passages in Beethoven’s “Archduke” trio don’t sound particularly challenging, but require awkward contortions from the pianist. The “Archduke” is one of the most profound, majestic trios in the repertory. Maybe Beethoven wanted the pianist to struggle a little more while playing it?
Then there are pieces that are difficult, but not scary to perform. There are plenty of notes in Brahms, but it’s far more nerve-wracking to perform music by Mozart or Bach: there are fewer notes but they’re much more exposed. Like undertaking a delicate maneuver on the balance beam, it’s much more obvious if you fall off. Brahms’s dense thickets of sound are perhaps more like a floor routine: no-one except the judges will notice if you omit a somersault or two.