A Smoother Pebble


Hardest. Ever.

I've played piano since I was five years old. I used to be very keen and until I was fifteen fantasised about becoming a concert pianist. Condi Rice did too, until she realised she was heading for a lifetime of "listening to 13 year olds murder Beethoven". If you read this site, you can see that my mind is stuffed with useless facts, so maybe I could have made it as a musicologist (blehhh).

As it is, I just play for pleasure and don't feel guilty when I slack off. It's a perpetual delight to start noodling at the keys and forget the outside world. I've got a special affection for the music of the 19th-century virtuoso-composers; not just Liszt, but neglected ones like Alkan, Thalberg, Moszkowski, Arensky and Henselt.

The hours and hours I spent praticing as a kid gave me a reasonable technique, and I can usually handle anything a composer throws at me. I don't mean that I can play a passage instantly, but that I can learn to play it. Slowly and with mistakes at first, but gradually conquering the challenges. Anyone who's played a musical instrument will know what I mean. But this week I came across the hardest piece that I've ever seen. It's not hard because of tempo, arpeggios, octaves, leaps, or any of that stuff. It's an Etude by Saint-Saens 'pour l'independance des doigts'. And it is pure evil. Usually learning a very difficult piece is like running a marathon. Due to boredom or fatigue you mightn't make it to the end, but you know that every step you take gets you closer to the goal. This Etude is like trying to climb a glass mountain. Here's the first bar:


The entire piece follows the formula of the first bar. So what's the difficulty? Well, it's the notes marked in red. You're supposed to accent them so that the listener hears them as the melody. If you play piano, try it. You see now? If you don't play, it's difficult to explain. I've heard Piers Lane play this piece but I didn't realise at the time how difficult it was, as it sounds like a piece for seven year olds. I've been planning to get a lesson of Lane when he comes to Australia later this year, so I can ask him for tips then.

P.S. Yes, I know that this is a fluffy post. I'm trying to write something about Hayek and Mexico, but it just isn't coming together. After staring disconsolately for hours at the same few paragraphs, I worked at the Saint-Saens but got nowhere, so I wrote this. You can find the Etude (Op. 52 no. 2) here.

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