The 5 Most Terrifying Violin Passages in Orchestral Music
Next month I am performing a terrific but horrifically difficult symphony, Shostakovitch’s 10th. This symphony has arguably the most terrifying four minutes in all of the standard repertoire. Often, these scary passages appear on audition lists, but sometimes they take you by surprise. You won’t know them until you come across them in your music. We all know about Don Juan or Brahms 4th or The Rite of Spring. Those works are pretty much impossible from start to finish. There are, however, many pieces that have one section or passage that strikes fear into the hearts of violinists. Below are five nasty sections of famous works make bows shake and hands sweat.
Shostakovitch 10th Symphony – 2nd Movement
We’re going to start with the reason I chose to write this post; the 2nd movement of the 10th. This is just plain nasty, and not only for violins. Shostakovitch has never been confused with warm and fuzzy, and this symphony is a perfect example. The first movement is 20 minutes of doom and gloom with incredible highs and barely audible lows. Then comes the 2nd movement. It is only 4 minutes long and reminds me of the beginning of a triathlon. Hundreds of racers in total chaos trying to swim fast. This music has the entire orchestra struggling to stay in tempo while playing really really fast notes. See below:
Beethoven – Leonore Overture #3 – “That” section
All violinists know “that” spot in the Leonore #3. After an already long and tough overture has almost finished, all hell breaks loose in the violins first, then the rest of the strings. I’ve performed this a couple of times, and all I can say is, just go for it. This is one of those spots that you just need to trust your fingers and play like no one’s listening. If you’ve practiced it, you’ll play it fine. If you try to fit all those notes into what the others are doing, you will fail. I’ve seen it happen. Not pretty. Skip to 13’15 to hear the horror.
Schumann 2nd Symphony – Scherzo
…Or The scherzo as it is referred to by most violinists. This one is on just about every audition list. It is fast. It is delicate. And, it is awkward as @#$!. When you hear this movement, you will understand how bat-poop crazy Herr Schumann really was (he died in an asylum while his wife was off playing with Brahms, or something). Practice this one my friends because you are going to play it, in an audition or otherwise. It is truly hair-raising no matter where you play it.
Rossini – William Tell Overture – “That” section
Here’s another piece that has a section for the violins that is truly terrifying. Again, it is known simply as “that” passage. Rossini’s music is fun and light, and generally uplifting. This section drains the fun right out of this famous piece. Not only are the notes really fast, it’s in a bad key – C# minor. There are some very awkward string crossings and finger extensions and, well, it’s just really difficult. This is arguably the most famous piece in all of classical music but definitely not a cakewalk. Skip to 9’41 to hear this awful section.
Bartok – Concerto for Orchestra – Movement 5
This one has the added fun of being mostly atonal, meaning the notes are there but they don’t make a lot of sense in the “normal” way. To make matters worse, this is the end of the piece. It’s a long and wonderful piece but very tough on the orchestra. All the parts are difficult, hence the name of of the piece. I played this for the first time at Tanglewood in 1986 and each stand of violins got to play the opening passages by themselves for all to hear. Talk about motivation to practice.
Terrifying Honorable Mentions
Obviously the works listed above are not the only terrifying pieces in the orchestral repertoire. Here are a few more for the truly hardened players to learn:
- Brahms Symphony 4 – 3rd Movement
- Tchaikovsky Symphony #5 – middle section of the waltz (movt. 3)
- Mozart Symphony #39 – Finale
- Beethoven Symphony 9 – 3rd Movement (yes, the slow movement – on lots of auditions!)
Thanks for reading, and let me know if I missed any!