Editor’s note: The original version of this post was missing several concertos, each of which was pointed out by my faithful readers. I have now added the most requested, including one that was frequently touted as “the hardest ever”! Just know that I read all of your comments, so I hope that this expanded version of the list will delight violinists the world over.
Imagine yourself on stage in front of an orchestra. The hall is dark, but the spotlights make your eyes water. You’re inches away from getting smacked by the conductor’s left hand. Now the opening tutti is drawing to a close, and it’s your time to shine. How do you feel?
That depends on the concerto, doesn’t it?
Some let you dig in right away and work your nerves out. Others make you stand and sweat. A few give you some margin for error in the opening, while others show you no mercy!
During a practice break back in school at Curtis, I was musing on this with my friend Pavel Ilyashov. We ran through all the major violin concerto openings, figuring out where they would rank on the scale from “cruise control” to “Mayday!” I think we burned through the rest of that afternoon, in fact. But it was worth it.
Keep in mind that these rankings are based on the orchestral versions with their full tuttis. In other words, starting Paganini 1 fresh from your dressing room is a different animal from starting it after a 4-minute orchestral freeze-out.
I’ve assigned each concerto a degree of difficulty for the opening. A 1.0 would be the equivalent of walking out and playing Twinkle Twinkle after a cozy 2-bar introduction. A 10.0? Just wait and see what Heifetz himself put at the top of the scale!
Degree of difficulty: 1.1
Quick summary: You slur the four open strings without the orchestra, from lowest to highest, then you slur them back the other way.
Commentary: OK, just kidding around a bit. The Berg is a wonderful, cosmic piece of great difficulty. And I’ve heard (from those who have had the pleasure of performing it with orchestra) that those open strings are no joke, considering how much musical weight they have to carry. But come on! If you can tune your strings, you can play the opening of Berg. One point one.
Bruch No. 1
Degree of difficulty: 3.0
Quick summary: After a ten-second atmospheric curtain-raiser from the orchestra, you start on an open G string and slowly work your way to a nice, ringing D up on the E string.
Commentary: It doesn’t get much cushier than this. Sometimes, as we’ll see, a short opening tutti like this can be problematic. But not in this case, because there’s no tempo you have to match; you’re on your own time, finding your sound, changing bows when you please. There’s a reason everyone uses the Bruch opening to try out violins. It’s because you can walk into a violin shop with icy cold hands and make any fiddle sound like a winner! Plus, vibrating on the open G just makes you look cool.
Degree of difficulty: 5.0
Quick summary: You get three beats of a tutti and you come in on 4. It’s a lush melody on the G and D strings with plenty of opportunities for schmaltzy shifts.
Commentary: The Glazunov concerto is a really difficult piece, let’s agree. But the opening is pure chocolate. I won’t call it easy, but it’s only a 5.0 because it sits right in the middle of the comfort zone. If your violin is healthy, and you can get to third position with an occasional whiff of fifth, you’re going to sound great in the opening of Glazunov.
The Glazunov opening is tougher than Bruch because you’re “on the clock” as far as keeping time with the orchestra. But the short introduction means you don’t get a chance to get nervous either. You can save that for the panic-inducing sixteenth note passage later in the movement!
Mozart No. 3 in G
Degree of difficulty: 5.5
Quick summary: A standard (which is to say two-minute-long) Mozart tutti, ending with a two-bar “And now, all the way from Lexington, Kentucky, Mr. Nathaaaaaaan Cole!” tag. Your first note is a three-note chord, then the phrase winds its way down and back up, question-and-answer, in the sunny key of G Major.
Commentary: Yes, Mozart 3 is one of the first “grown-up” pieces you learn, and it’s frequently scoffed at, but it’s still a Mozart concerto. There are no automatic Mozart phrases. And it’s surprisingly easy to sound bad on that first chord.
Questions abound: up or down bow, from the string or not, long or short? And how about vibrato, expert? This is clearly the easiest of the three major Mozart openings, but it still ranks this high because you have to make it live and breathe. Square Mozart is the worst.
Degree of difficulty: 5.7
Quick summary: A ghostly few bars of hushed eighth-notes, then you’re off on a typical Sibelius melody: fire without warmth (I think you’re required to use those words when discussing Sibelius), unequal phrase lengths, and no clear destination.
Commentary: Like Glazunov, Sibelius would rank higher if this were an overall difficulty scale. But we’re talking openings only, so we’ll shelve the fingered octave nightmare page for now and give Sibelius a 5.7. I am, however, taking into account the fact that the down-bow-staccato thirds in the last movement should be weighing on your mind from the opening.
It’s tough to keep the pulse even in the opening of Sibelius. The notes aren’t the most difficult, but everyone is surprised the first time they play Sibelius with accompaniment. Everyone thinks they practiced rhythmically, but the eighth notes don’t lie. And they don’t adjust for whatever right-hand issues you may be facing either.
Then there’s the left hand: again, not a lot of gymnastics to start, but it can be hard to nail the right combination of intensity and temperature in the vibrato. Remember, you need to pace the buildup all the way through the first cadenza.
Prokofiev No. 2
Degree of difficulty: 5.8
Quick summary: One of two entries on our list with no opening tutti whatsoever! You play an unaccompanied eight-bar quasi-romantic theme that starts on an open G and ranges up to the middle register.
Commentary: For an opening that lacks speed, range, double stops, or even strict rhythm, 5.8 would seem to be a high score. But no other concerto on this list makes you walk out in front of the orchestra, take a bow, then control the moment all the way to the very first sound the audience hears. At least it’s not a whisper-quiet beginning: that would be bow-shake central. Nonetheless, if one of the criteria for this list is “how badly I’ve heard good players sound”, then Prokofiev 2 has to rank above the mid-point of the scale. It’s easier to find your footing with some cushioning underneath you, and here you have none.
Degree of difficulty: 6.0
Quick summary: First there’s a full-scale tutti that builds to a climax before falling away into fragments. You put them back together in a miniature cadenza that takes you to the noble first-movement theme.
Commentary: If Mozart 3 is the first “grown-up” concerto you learn, Tchaikovsky is likely (in the words of my teacher Dan Mason) “your first R-rated concerto”!
Take the opening tutti: it’s both long and dramatic. If you allow yourself to go along with the orchestral roller coaster, you may find your heart rate unacceptably high by the time it’s your turn! But let your mind wander instead, and you’ll snap back to reality as the orchestra winds down and the stage lights heat up.
As for the solo opening itself, I’m taking points off because Tchaikovsky (along with Bruch) is one of the two big violin-tryout concerto openings. In other words, you don’t have to be totally warmed-up to play it. But to really make it sing? You should warm up. You’ll need your left hand nice and loose anyway, in two minutes’ time.
Plenty of questions here as well: do you vibrate the very first note? How fast are those shifts, really? How’s your fourth-finger vibrato? And just how do you transition to the theme? Finally, there are the ghosts of all those Russian greats floating around the hall. They knew what they were doing in the Tchaikovsky opening; do you?
Lalo Symphonie Espagnole
Degree of difficulty: 6.5
Quick summary: A rousing faux-Spanish four-bar curtain raiser…actually, make that a matador’s muleta doused in French perfume. Then two bars of an unaccompanied violin arpeggio, ending on an E two octaves above the open string. The rest of the opening is nice and meaty.
Commentary: Every twelve-year-old has the same look on his face the first time his teacher puts this piece on the stand: What am I supposed to do with that? Well, you start with a fingering. Lalo fingerings look like this: 1 2 3 4, or 1 1 2 3, or 1 4 1 3 (I learned the first one, but now use the second). Then you spend a month torturing everyone within earshot. I blame the Lalo opening for teaching children everywhere some of the worst practice habits known to man. It’s tailor-made for eroding confidence, day by day. Never mind that I missed it the last thirty times…this time it’s mine! No, next time! Wait, next time is the performance?
I admit that I’m skewing the Lalo ranking higher based on the fact that you learn it with these terrible habits that then have to be undone. Think of this opening as a miniature Paganini 1: the stakes are high and everyone’s waiting to see if you beef it on the high E, but at least you’re 3 minutes warmer than you would be for the Paganini.
And if all else fails, you may be one of the lucky ones whose A-string behind the bridge is tuned to that high E. Use it!
Degree of difficulty: 6.8
Quick summary: No opening tutti here, but the orchestra enters with you. You play a chord (an understatement: see commentary) then three pizzicati.
Commentary: Leave it to Stravinsky to devise not just an iconic opening, but an iconic opening note! It’s a triple-stop, and the only good news is that the bottom note is an open D. The top two notes? They form an octave plus a fourth. You get all the fun of a minor tenth (hello, Wienawski No. 1!) plus an extra whole step of reach and a perfect interval that needs to ring.
An opening like this is hard to rank because it’s pass/fail. Either you can make a good sound playing an eleventh or you can’t. It isn’t an impossible reach (as long as you’re properly reaching back from 4 and not up from 1!) but when you add vibrato into the mix, it does tend to separate the women from the girls. Wieniawski No. 1 expands on this concept!
Note on the following video: If you’re going to use the music as a soloist, this the way to do it. Patricia Kopatchinskaja doesn’t apologize. Her walk onto stage says, “See this music? You’re about to get it full blast. It’s opening up accordion-style as I walk. At one point I will need four pages straight across. Watch your head, concertmaster.”
Mozart No. 5 in A
Degree of difficulty: 7.0
Quick summary: Another standard Mozart opening tutti, then silence: you enter alone for two Adagio notes, after which the orchestra joins you with a running 32nd-note accompaniment. After the Adagio, there’s an acrobatic Allegro that starts high and fast, goes higher (but hopefully not faster), then plunges down to the meaty low register.
Commentary: I’m fudging a little here, because I just can’t separate the Adagio solo entrance of Mozart 5 from the Allegro entrance. Both are difficult musically, but the Allegro really is one of the nastiest things to play cleanly and with class. The shifts are awkward (unless you just reach like Perlman) and the vibrato has to contribute to the character without getting in the way of the gymnastics. Nicely done, Wolfgang. Could you really play this piece?
I would call the Allegro an 8.0 and the Adagio a 6.0. So let’s take the average. As for the true opening, the Adagio, connecting those first three notes after a sudden silence is the ultimate “exposed bow-change” test. But it wouldn’t do simply to maintain one sound. The phrase needs to grow, in both the left and right hands! Plus, you have the same difficulty as in the Sibelius opening: constant small note values in the orchestra that expose any rhythmic funny business. So you have to plan your bow usage to the millimeter. Hopefully you’ve worked on the one-minute bow.
Mozart No. 4 in D
Degree of difficulty: 7.1
Quick summary: Like the other Mozarts here, a good long tutti with a two-bar tag. Then you have a swaggering series of phrases high up on the E-string. Pro: you’re in D Major. Con: there are a lot of notes and they have to be in tune.
Commentary: My wife Akiko and I go back and forth about which of the two “big” Mozart openings is tougher. Since it’s my scale, I’m sticking with No. 4 by a tenth of a point. It’s partly because I play No. 4 in auditions and she plays No. 5, and it’s human nature to think that the difficulties you face are more terrible than someone else’s. I would still rather play this opening than the Allegro from No. 5 any day.
This is actually the highest starting note of any major concerto, and simply finding it can prove to be difficult. I’ve seen people pluck it 10 or 20 times before they start, hoping that their finger hasn’t moved since the last time they plucked! From there, you’ve got to keep it together for a D-Major triad, while finding a nice cocky off-the-string stroke. Everything leads to a fantastic scale up to a high A. If you haven’t been in the habit of scale practice, it’s best not to think about that during the long opening tutti!
Degree of difficulty: 7.3
Quick summary: A four-bar tutti promises high drama. You enter with a four-note chord that’s actually the start of an expressive motif in thirds. An asymmetrical phrase leads to an up-and-down series of arpeggios that ends with a high E.
Commentary: Dvořák’s music is so much fun to listen to, and eventually it’s equally fun to play. But there’s an in-between time where it’s the most awkward and unsatisfying music in the world! You’ll hear people say about Beethoven or Schubert, “Well, it doesn’t lie well because they weren’t violinists.” What was Dvořák’s excuse? He was supposedly a violist…oh wait, maybe that says it all.
In any case, if Paganini was thinking about how to make his concerti as impressive as possible, Dvořák seemed to want to take simple material and make it difficult to execute. The concerto opening is a perfect example: thirds that must be vibrated, open strings to bedevil intonation, and lots of work in no-man’s land: the A and D strings. My teacher Ida Kavafian used to refer to E and G as the “money strings”. The A and D are definitely “skid row”. Dvořák wants you to move there for his concerto.
Once you get this music in your blood, however, it’s impossible to get it out. With just the right touch (and ample technique), the Dvořák concerto comes to life and reveals itself to be a masterpiece. It’s just a pity that so many violinists can’t make it past the opening!
Bartók No. 2
Degree of difficulty: 7.5
Quick summary: Only a six-bar tutti, but genius. You feel as though you’ve just sat down at a campfire to tell a long-forgotten tale to a band of followers. Only this tale is all on the G string, and you haven’t changed yours in a few months.
Commentary: This opening could go either way: really easy or really hard, depending on the interpretation. And by “interpretation” I mean “whether or not you’re playing it on the G string”. Most people do, so that’s why it’s ranked this high. But a few (Leonidas Kavakos, I’m looking at you!) play it in first position as if to say, “I’m so great that you know I could do this on the G string.” And he is. But that’s beside the point. It’s also beside the point that Bartók didn’t mark the opening to be played on the G string. It’s just the way things are done. Mendelssohn didn’t mark two up-bows to start his concerto, but we do it anyway, don’t we?
Let’s assume, for the purpose of this list, that you’re playing this opening while climbing the G because you like the throaty sound you get. You have to combine shifts, reaches, vibrato, and bow changes in such a way that the line doesn’t break. Do that, and the audience will nod their heads saying, “Even Kavakos doesn’t play it on the G!”
Fail and they’ll mutter, “G string… does he think he’s better than Kavakos?”
Wieniawski No. 1 in f-sharp minor
Degree of difficulty: 8.0
Quick summary: First, there’s a tutti befitting a full symphony. When it’s your time to shine, you get to start with some tenths. Then triple-stops. Octaves. Arpeggios. All in a day’s work, as long as you’re in tip-top shape.
Commentary: When I posted this article originally, the comments poured in: Where is Wieniawski 1? The hardest opening ever? So, relax: here it is, nestled comfortably below the top tier of concerto openings.
How can this be? Doesn’t the summary say it all? Not quite: that’s why there’s commentary.
I imagine that Henryk looked at this opening after he played the premiere (and downed a few vodkas) and said to himself, “I’m a really great violinist and this piece kicks serious butt. But nobody else is going to play it because they can’t get it off the ground!” And for more than 150 years, he’s been right on the nose. So he wrote another concerto and gave the soloist a chance to do some juicy playing before jumping into the tough stuff.
That said, violin pedagogy has changed since 1853. Tenths are not the end of the world. Make no mistake: this piece is still really, really difficult. We’re up to the 8 range, so you’d expect nothing less. And opening with tenths makes this concerto, like the Stravinsky, a non-starter for certain categories of violinist. Like playing Paganini No. 1 (or walking across a bed of hot coals), you’re not stepping out unless you’re certain you can handle the heat.
So to get more specific as to why this tops out at 8.0: the first note of Stravinsky is harder to find, and you have to hold it longer. Assuming you can find the first note of Wieniawski No. 1, it’s no great leap to play the rest of the passage. The other double-stops and arpeggios place this opening rightly on its own in the 8 range. But there’s no one thing that everyone is waiting to see if you nail (like Paganini No. 1 or even Lalo). You’re not competing with every other violinist in history (like most concerti). You’re trying something really difficult, and win or lose, someone’s going to buy you a shot of vodka at the end.
Degree of difficulty: 9.0
Quick summary: A tutti that seems to last forever. An opening arpeggio in octaves. Then an entire page of sixteenth notes, some slurred, some separate, but all designed to make you look like a fool. Somehow this D Major doesn’t seem like the same key as the D Major of Mozart No. 4.
Commentary: There’s a big jump up in degree of difficulty for this last tier of concerti. It’s fun to imagine what outfit springs most easily to mind for each concerto opening. Glazunov might be a beautifully tailored three-piece suit. Bruch would be your favorite broken-in denim jeans. Beethoven is definitely swimwear. You feel like you should be wearing armor, but all you’ve got is your Speedo.
I’ve heard this only a few times at orchestra auditions, and that was without the endless tutti during which the soloist gets to test his or her anti-perspirant. Every time but one was a giant egg-laying directly on stage. The other time was, in the words of our committee chair, “simply stunning”. But that candidate must have used every ounce of their life force on the Beethoven, since the rest of their audition had us wondering if someone from HR had run onto stage, grabbed the Beethoven-stunner’s violin, and attempted to sight-read Don Juan.
In any case, the opening octaves speak for themselves, as do the endless scales that follow. There’s no room for anything less than your best-quality sound. All you can give thanks for is that you don’t have to deal with the difficulties of these next few pieces!
Degree of difficulty: 9.5
Quick summary: Practically a full-fledged symphony movement to begin, building to what may be the most dramatic solo instrumental entrance in all of music. Then, you don’t stop playing for three full minutes. You cover the entire fingerboard, as well as the complete range of emotions.
Commentary: Brahms ranks extremely high on the overall difficulty scale and the opening difficulty scale. The first time I played the Brahms orchestral accompaniment for a big-time soloist, she played the first measure, gave a squawk, then started again, screamed, started again, and kept stamping her foot trying to get it right. Andre Previn, who was conducting us, simply kept shaking his fists so that we’d keep up the tremolo. I did mention this was a rehearsal, right?
I can understand that soloist’s frustration. From the moment your bow touches the string, you contend with musical challenges on a grand scale as well as technical ones: octaves, thirds, broken arpeggios, and spiccato all leading to a meltingly tender main theme. Even if you chose just one musical goal, you’d be hard pressed to achieve it. Instead you have a laundry list: keep one basic pulse through the eighths, triplets, sixteenths, quintuplets and sextuplets; keep decent sound quality throughout; keep your dignity!
Unlike Beethoven, Brahms invites you to come out wearing full-plate armor. Unfortunately, you have to dodge lightning bolts.
Paganini No. 1
Degree of difficulty: 9.9
Quick summary: A tutti so long that it’s often played with cuts draws to a close, with an almost comically formulaic “Ta-da!” Then you face a truly terrifying shift, up a tenth. After an arpeggio up, then down, plus a few chords thrown in, you do it again one step higher.
Commentary: You would think that if you’re choosing to walk out and play Paganini, you wouldn’t be bothered by a couple of shifts and arpeggios. But you’ve seen Olympic figure skating, right? The hardest trick is always right in the beginning of the routine. If a skater misses that trick, they’ve got to soldier on for the rest of the routine, pretending that they’ve forgotten about the smoking crater they’ve just left in the ice. That’s Paganini No. 1, except your routine lasts another forty minutes instead of three.
There are ways to work on big shifts like that. Hey, I’ve got one for you right here! But it’s just cruel to put it right at the beginning after you’ve stood there for nearly four solid minutes. And if we’re adding points to pieces like Glazunov and Sibelius because of the “mental factor”, i.e. knowing what’s coming later, then come on… your cadenza for the Paganini is probably going to contain more fireworks than the main body of any of those pieces.
Paganini was a showman! We may not know much else about him with any certainty, but we do know that much. And for the opening of his first concerto, he wanted to leave no doubt in his audience’s ear and eye that he could do the unthinkable.
Degree of difficulty: 10.0
Quick summary: The classic short tutti/running accompaniment dilemma that we saw in Glazunov, Sibelius and Mozart No. 5. A soaring theme that gives way to scales and arpeggios, as in Beethoven. And an end-of-page fusillade of octave arpeggios, both solid and broken.
Commentary: You’re surprised to see this up here, aren’t you? After all, Mendelssohn is the first non-Mozart concerto that most people learn. I was 11 when I learned it. Even allowing for everything in the quick summary, how could Mendelssohn have the toughest opening?
Simple: Heifetz said that the first page of Mendelssohn was the hardest thing in the entire violin repertoire to play in tune. And if you’ve ever tried to match all the Es on the first page, all the Gs, and all the Bs, you’ll be inclined to agree with him.
So was Heifetz right or wrong about the Mendelssohn opening? It doesn’t matter, because he said it. No shift, no octave, no scale is more terrifying than the knowledge that Heifetz found something difficult.
Of course, Heifetz began ruining the Mendelssohn concerto for everyone as a pre-teen. At the age of 12, he performed the piece at a party attended by several famous European violinists. In fact, Fritz Kreisler himself accompanied little Jascha. At the end of the performance, Kreisler turned to the room and said, “We may as well break our fiddles across our knees.”