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Music column

Schumann Forum 2010

Levels of Difficulty

by Wolf-Dieter Seiffert

15. July

How “difficult“ to play are Schumann’s piano pieces actually? Not only technically, but also from a musical aspect? I assume, dear piano players among my readers, that your answers to my question would for the most part be quite similar. Most of Schumann’s works are for very practiced pianists, only few pieces can be mastered by beginners, even with diligent practice. I wanted have a closer look and asked Rolf Koenen, who is a highly experienced pianist and professor of piano in Berlin, for guidance. The original idea of determining the level of difficulty for each of Schumann’s piano works and ordering them accordingly soon became a major undertaking; meanwhile Rolf Koenen is entrusted with the challenging task of classifying the complete G. Henle piano catalogue by level of difficulty from 1 (= very easy) to 9 (= very difficult). By the end of the Schumann and Chopin year 2010 Professor Koenen will have worked his way through many thousands of individual movements. Already today visitors to our homepage will find the result of his impressive work so far, the highlight of which is at this point the classification of the complete works of Schumann and Chopin.

How to find the classifications? Quite simply. On our homepage you go to “catalogue“, select a composer and/or a specific title (i.e. Schumann, Album für die Jugend), click on it. The sub-category “levels of difficulty” (also accessible via “contents”) leads you to a detailed overview of the contents of the respective volume with indications of the level of difficulty for each piece (in our example the individual pieces that together form “Album for the Young”) as determined by Rolf Koenen. An information button directs you to the scale where the categories 1–9 are described.

Prof. Rolf Koenen

Here you will also find a short explanation by Rolf Koenen, commenting on the way he intends the scale from 1-9 to be understood and what they mean. I met with Professor Koenen and interviewed him (in German) on his valuable, albeit extremely time-consuming, work. In the interview he explains which pieces he classified individually and which works he chose to regard as a unit and, therefore, to assign to one category of the scale in its entirety. We at Henle are extremely grateful to Rolf Koenen for his valuable work. And I am sure that many music teachers, whether engaged in private or institutional teaching, and also music enthusiasts, will accept and apply this classification of our piano repertoire and put it to good use. Please click on the link to listen to my conversation with Rolf Koenen:


But now, back to Robert Schumann’s piano works. How difficult are they? Can I, the amateur, find something satisfying and rewarding to play, or is everything “unplayable“ for me? Well, to answer this question I visited the online-catalogue on the Henle homepage and entered a combined search for Schumann under “composer” and piano for two hands under “instrument”. The search result is quite pleasing for the relatively gifted pianist. Granted, many pieces (among them the well-known cycles) range on the higher levels of the scale “very difficult” (= 7-9). On the other hand, there are some few “easy” pieces, not only from “Album for the Young” op. 68, but also other pieces. “Children’s Scenes” op. 15 (nos. 1 and 13), “Three Piano Sonatas for the Young” op. 118, no. 1 is “easy” (category 3), also “Wiegenliedchen” and the Larghetto from “Album Leaves” op. 124. However, that more or less completes the easy category. What is truly surprising (at least to me) is that there are many “medium difficult” pieces by Schumann (categories 4-6). The ambitious amateur will encounter several pieces that he can master, and not only that, there are pieces that allow you to reach that level of accomplishment where you play with true joy. Here is a list of those pieces:

  •  „Papillons“ op. 2
  •  „Intermezzi“ op. 4
  • some of the Fantasy Pieces op. 12
  • the larger part of “Children’s Scenes” op. 15
  • “Arabesque” op. 18 (that lovely piece!)
  • “Flower Piece” op. 19
  • the middle piece from “Three Romances” op. 28
  • much from “Album for the Young” op. 68
  • “Forest Scenes” op. 82
  • the by far larger part of “Coloured Leaves” op. 99
  • “Three Piano Sonatas for the Young” op. 118 nos. 2 and 3
  • most of “Album Leaves” op. 124
  • last, but not least “Seven Piano Pieces in Fughetta Form” op. 126

So, we see, even for the amateur Schumann does have some worthwhile and playable pieces to offer!

The following recording, though, is far more than “worthwhile“. It was only recently posted on YouTube and I was very happy to find it: András Schiff „Papillons“ op. 2 live in concert. The piece is presented in two takes: Op. 2, Part 1:
[Videos unfortunately no longer available]

Come back to the Schumann Forum 2010 in August. It will be the song month. You will encounter “Song Cycle” op. 39 “Mondnacht”, Edith Wiens, Christian Gerhaher and Gerold Huber. I look forward to your visit!


Schumann Forum at a glance