5 Notoriously Difficult Solo Violin Pieces

March 22, 2014, 8:00 AM · WARNING: This list is not for the faint-hearted.

Why he's crying, we may never know. But it is possible that he's trying to learn one of the pieces listed below.
We may never truly know the reason behind his tears, but it is most possible that he's trying to learn one of the pieces listed below. Image credit: Kpopstarz.com

It is also not for beginners looking for repertoire recommendations. Here we run down some of the pieces that have made some of history’s best violinists break into a cold sweat (if not tears) at some point. Brace yourselves, it’s going to be one hell of a ride:

1. JS Bach’s Chaconne from Partita in d minor BWV1004

First, there’s Bach, then there’s everyone else. Not only did the great German composer churn out some of the most beautiful music known to mankind, he has also written some of the most fiendish pieces for solo violin. While all of his sonatas and partitas are known for their difficulty, the concluding Chaconne from the Partita no. 2 in d minor takes the cake. It’s longer than all the four movements that precedes it combined, and covers virtually every technical aspect of Baroque violin playing. Now if that doesn’t daunt you, maybe its extreme musical and intellectual demands will. Whoever said violin virtuosity started with Paganini?

2. Locatelli's Caprice in D major Op. 3 No. 23 'Il labirinto armonico'

Originally written as the cadenza to Locatelli’s 12th violin concerto, this caprice is a full three minutes of pure, uninterrupted violinist hell. Some claim that this is even trickier than some of Paganini’s knottiest stuff, thus preceding that brand of flashy super virtuoso tradition by over 50 years. Chappell White deemed the cappriccio “the most difficult display passages of all Baroque literature.” Probably as a tease to those zany enough to tackle this monstrosity, Locatelli wrote an inscription beneath the piece which reads: “Harmonic Labyrinth: Easy to enter, difficult to escape!” Well you don’t say!

3. Paganini’s Caprice No. 4 in c minor

Nicolo Paganini is a hallmark of modern violin playing. His reputation as a virtuoso was so great (devilishly so, if I may add. An urban legend claims that he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his violin playing chops) that I figured there is no way we could leave him out of this list. His 24 caprices as a set is probably unsurpassed in sheer virtuosity. The 24th caprice in a minor is the most famous from the set, but in terms of demands the 4th caprice in c minor is reportedly more physically taxing by far. At about 6 minutes of performance time it is no doubt the longest, and with its flurry of cascading runs - in thirds, sixths, tenths, and octaves - it is a violinistic tour de force that you shouldn’t mess around with... unless you’re totally crazy or frighteningly good. Either way it’s not at all that hard to mess up this one.

4. Ernst’s Variations on “The Last Rose of Summer”

The transcendental difficulty of Ernst’s violin works belies his relative anonymity. It was once said that those who can play Paganini, believing that they already have enough to show off, can’t be bothered to learn Ernst, just because, well, he’s miles ahead in the difficulty department. A case in point: Variation on “The Last Rose of Summer”. This set of variations is considered to be one of the most difficult solo pieces for violin owing to its almost impossible, superhuman demands, including fingered harmonics and left-hand pizzicato on top of tricky arpeggios. I swear, at times I hear two violins playing. No wonder only a small handful of violinists would dare touch this piece.

5. Sivan’s transcription of the Liszt b minor sonata for solo violin

Liszt’s b minor sonata commands a big deal of respect in the piano world. Its horrifying pianistic difficulties make it one of the - if not THE - most difficult piece in the standard repertoire. So what happens if you transcribe a most onerous piano work for the violin? All hell breaks loose. This 2007 transcription only got premiered in 2011, go figure! Giora Schmidt, the violinist who premiered the work, calls it a “Goliath written for ten fingers” - an understatement considering the work’s length (35 minutes, non-stop), and nonpareil demands.

So there you have it: my list of the violin pieces I will never ever play in my lifetime (though ‘notoriously difficult violin pieces’ works, too). I understand if you’re a bit breathless by now. With all the pyrotechnics and hand-breaking (probably quite literally) finger work seen above, it's totally forgivable to suspend your breathing  for a few seconds... or a few minutes, whichever works.

This entry was first published at my blog section on Old Violin House. Are your bets not on this list? Give me a piece of your mind. Comments are most welcome!


March 22, 2014 at 09:42 PM · Ysaye's Sonata no. 3, Ballade is also quite a horrifyingly difficult piece, especially the coda. The coda is just a devilish jumble of sixths, chords, and open strings that makes it almost impossible to play correctly...

March 22, 2014 at 10:16 PM · This is incredibly difficult:

March 22, 2014 at 10:46 PM · Sauret's cadenza for Paganini's first concerto.

Bartok's solo violin sonata.

Wieniawsky's L'escole moderne.

Hristostov, 24 Bulgarian caprices for solo violin.

Paganini's "Barucabá" var.on "God Save the King"

March 23, 2014 at 01:42 AM · I think Giora Schmidt might object to being called Gloria. :-)

March 23, 2014 at 03:20 AM · No Der Erlkönig...? Though to be fair, The Last Rose of Summer Var. are there, so Ernst is represented.

Re: Giora typo written "Gloria"--Beat me to it, Dean!



March 23, 2014 at 08:09 AM · [Re: Giora typo]

Oops! Haha, fixed! Please don't tell on me. :)

March 24, 2014 at 08:51 PM · Surprised Ysaye 6 didn't get a mention. Also, the Bach C+ Fugue is much harder than the Chaconne in my opinion.

March 24, 2014 at 09:10 PM · I'll second you on the C major Fugue -- the sheer length! Longest fugue Bach ever wrote, for any instrument, if I'm not mistaken.

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