By John Aschenbrenner

There are two composers from the common practice period whose solo piano music will exhaust a pianist faster than any other.

Chopin is merciless in his physical demands on the performer. One “impossible” passage follows another, each one harder for the fact that one is exhausted from the last.

I mean physical exhaustion, like your wrists are shaking from too many octaves, or the tendons on the top of your arms start to ache from such contorted hand positions. Chopin puts difficult passages, as one would expect, in the right hand, and his right hand parts are wonders in themselves: cogent, contrapuntally perfect and ever lyric and natural.

But the Chopin left hand, like the male ballet dancer, must do stoic work at the same time, and Chopin never made his left hand part a mere accompaniment.

Chopin is unique in that his demands are made of both hands in fairly equal measure. He had no fear of awkward positions and expected that pianists would find solutions to his daunting problems.

Beethoven made similar demands, if somewhat less lyrically than Chopin. If you ever doubted what a great pianist Beethoven was before he went deaf, look at some of the right hand parts in the Sonatas.

His right hand figuration is not really pianistic in the way Chopin’s is. Difficult as they are, Chopin’s figures (arpeggios) always fit some physical logic in the hand. Beethoven never does. He never follows what is physically gracious, opting rather for the music itself to be perfect, and the pianist is then left to struggle with what are often almost insurmountable physical and technical problems.

A perfect example is the finale to the famed Moonlight Sonata, a tangled frenzy in the almost impossible key of C Sharp Minor.

Yet within that mass of physical problems lies music of such perfection that the musician is inspired to find ways to master the knotty Beethovenian language.

Chopin would not like to be mentioned in the same breath as Beethoven, for he found Beethoven’s music awkward and ugly.

John Aschenbrenner is an Emmy Award Winning Composer and a leading children’s music educator, book publisher, and the author of numerous fun piano method books in the series PIANO BY NUMBER for kids. You can see the PIANO BY NUMBER series at and