What happens when a composer creates a piece that is simply too challenging for the performers it is designed for?
Not all masterpieces ease their way effortlessly into the concert hall, welcomed by performers and audiences alike on their way to everlasting fame and glory.
For some, the journey towards popularity – or even acceptance – is a tortuous one. Take, for instance, classical music’s notoriously ‘impossible’ works. These are the pieces that, beyond the capabilities of even the best singers, players and conductors, came close to never making it onto the stage at all – finger twisters that had pianists waking up in a cold sweat, operas that stretched the vocal cords beyond limits, mammoth orchestral scores that drove conductors towards the drinks cabinet.
Here we take a look at ten such examples. Some were turned down flat by performers terrified at the thought of what they were being expected to put themselves through. Others only revealed their horrors at rehearsal stage. All bar one, however, overcame such inauspicious beginnings to enjoy the high regard we accord them today…
Wagner Tristan und Isolde
When we think of Richard Wagner at his most over-ambitious, it’s usually his Ring cycle that springs to mind. But the opera that really proved his undoing was Tristan und Isolde. Completing the score in 1859, Wagner initially hoped that his ground-breaking stagework would enjoy its premiere at the Vienna Court Opera a couple of years later. But then the rehearsals began.
Tasked with playing the part of Tristan, tenor Alois Ander found himself struggling both to remember the monumental part and also to scale its vocal heights. After the little matter of 77 rehearsals, with Ander declaring the part ‘unsingable’, the production was abandoned.
Wagner’s tale of drug-fuelled love looked set to go forever untold until, in 1865, the redoubtable pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow took matters into his own hands. Magnanimously overlooking that the composer was having an affair with his wife, von Bülow got Tristan up and running in Munich, with the tenor Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld in that unsingable role.
Schubert Symphony No. 9
What exactly befell the intended premiere of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony remains a mystery, but it seems likely that, like Tristan, it foundered at the rehearsal stage. What we do know from contemporary sources is that in 1826 the composer received a large sum of money from the Philharmonic Society of Vienna thanking him for dedicating the work to them.
We also know that the Society was arranging to have copies of the score made in preparation for a performance… at which point the records go blank. No premiere took place either then or for several years to come. When Mendelssohn eventually conducted the first performance in Leipzig in 1839, Schubert had been dead for over a decade.
Had the ‘Great C Major’ Symphony proved too great for its intended performers? Apparently so, according to Schubert’s patron and friend Leopold von Sonnleithner, who later suggested that Schubert’s meticulously prepared work was ‘provisionally put on one side, because of its length and difficulty’.
Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1
When, on Christmas Eve 1874, Tchaikovsky sat down to play his Piano Concerto to its dedicatee Nikolai Rubinstein, he must have imagined – or, at least, hoped – that the virtuoso would be delighted. Not a bit of it. We’ll leave the description of the awkward scene to the composer himself.
‘Not one word was said – absolute silence…’ recalled Tchaikovsky in a letter three years later. ‘I got up from the piano. “Well?” I said. Then a torrent burst from Rubinstein… My concerto was worthless and unplayable… bad, trivial, vulgar. Only one or two pages had any value.’
Once the steam had finished pouring from his ears, the Russian pianist said he would agree to play the work… but only if Tchaikovsky tailored it to his needs. No way, replied the composer, storming off and subsequently rededicating the work to Hans von Bülow – yes, him again – who reckoned it all looked perfectly manageable. As, after a while, did Rubinstein. But all a little too late.
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto
If ever a composer was entitled to ask ‘Why me?’, it was Tchaikovsky. Less than four years after having his Piano Concerto snubbed by its dedicatee, the same fate befell his Violin Concerto. Even more galling on this occasion was that the composer had consulted the young violinist Josef Kotek on its technical feasibility before presenting it to its intended performer Leopold Auer.
‘Unviolinistic,’ was the verdict of Auer who, like Rubinstein before him, said he would perform it only if he was allowed to make it more playable. Similar scenario, same end result: rather than wait for Auer to apply the red pen, the impatient Tchaikovsky simply rededicated the work, this time to Adolph Brodsky.
Scriabin Symphony No. 1
When most ‘impossible’ works are rejected, it’s by individual performers. Scriabin, in contrast, suffered the ignominy of having his First Symphony given the thumbs down by committee. After submitting the work for publication, the Russian was informed bluntly by a panel of his peers – including Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov – that ‘the vocal part in the sixth movement of your symphony is unperformable, and in such a form this movement of the symphony cannot be published’.
And so it was that the work’s premiere, in November 1900, was an incomplete one, sans impossible finale. Scriabin went on to prove his critics wrong with a successful performance of the complete Symphony the following March.
Bruckner Symphony No. 8
‘Hallelujah! Finally Number 8 is finished…’ wrote a gleeful Bruckner to conductor Hermann Levi in September 1887, a full three years after he’d drafted the work’s outline. Alas, on reading through the score, realisation dawned on Levi that Number 8 was, in fact, some way from being finished – the fruits of Bruckner’s labour looked unconductable. After several sleepless nights, he eventually plucked up courage to tell him: ‘I find it impossible to perform the Eighth in its current form.
As much as the themes are magnificent and direct, their working out seems to me dubious; indeed, I consider the orchestration quite impossible… The performance of the Eighth in a subscription concert would be a risk which, in your interest, I must not take…’ Bruckner was understandably dismayed, but took Levi’s advice on board. Further years of graft followed and, in December 1892, he was again able to shout a hearty ‘Hallelujah’ as the Eighth was at last heard in all its re-jigged glory.
Walton Viola Concerto
One might naughtily suggest that writing a virtuoso work for viola is simply asking for trouble… And so it proved with William Walton, who in 1929 sent the score of his new Concerto to leading violist Lionel Tertis, only to have it rapidly returned with a clear note of ‘thanks, but no thanks’. A devastated Walton considered transposing the work for the violin, but instead handed the premiere over to composer and violist Paul Hindemith.
Tertis’s recollections of his rejection of a work he would later come to regard as a masterpiece are charmingly self-effacing: ‘With shame and contrition I admit that when the composer offered me the first performance I declined it. I was unwell at the time; but what is also true is that I had not learnt to appreciate Walton’s style. The innovations in his musical language, which now seem so logical and so truly in the mainstream of music, then struck me as far-fetched.
Copland Short Symphony
When one of the world’s greatest maestros baulks at conducting your new Symphony, you probably put it down to bad luck; when two of them do, you must really start to wonder. In 1933, Leopold Stokowski proudly announced that he would be conducting the first performance of Copland’s ‘Short’ Symphony as, soon after, did Serge Koussevitsky.
Short it may have been but, on seeing the fiendishly complex score, both conductors backtracked furiously. It eventually fell to Carlos Chávez to conduct the premiere in 1934, in a Mexico Symphony Orchestra performance that one reliable source described as ‘shaky’.
Barber Violin Concerto
There’s no pleasing some. Before leaving the US for his summer holiday in Europe in 1939, Samuel Barber secured a commission from a Philadelphian businessman to write a concerto for the brilliant young violinist Iso Briselli. When Barber showed the young prodigy the first two movements, he was rebuked for having made it ‘too easy’ – evidently not a suitable showpiece for Briselli’s prowess. Undeterred, Barber wrote a finale whose rhythmic drive and melodic angularity were in contrast to the lyricism of the rest.
This, in turn, was deemed too difficult. The businessman demanded his money back, although Barber had already spent most of it. In desperation Barber turned to the violin virtuoso Oscar Shumsky, who declared it ‘playable’. In the end, only half the fee was returned and the Concerto was premiered by Albert Spalding with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy.
Henselt Piano Concerto
Despite their heinous challenges, the above works have all gone on to become regulars in the concert hall. So, to round things off, here’s one that hasn’t. Plying his trade in mid-19th-century Germany, Adolf von Henselt modelled his piano compositions around his own extraordinarily elastic fingers and he had no trouble playing them to impressed audiences across Europe.
Pianists with more conventional hands, however, struggled. Or, to quote the great Anton Rubinstein after several days of battling with Henselt’s Douze études de salon and F Minor Concerto: ‘It was a waste of time, for they were based on an abnormal formation of the hand. In this respect, Henselt, like Paganini, was a freak.’
Rubinstein simply gave up, as have most pianists since. One notable exception is the Canadian Marc-André Hamelin, who recorded the Concerto for Hyperion in 1993. But he, like von Bülow all those years before him, clearly doesn’t know the meaning of the word ‘impossible’.