THE ORIGIN STORY
“La Campanella” didn’t begin as a piano composition by Liszt, though. The piece was actually the final movement of the Violin Concerto No. 2 in B Minor, Op. 7, by Italian composer and violinist Niccolò Paganini.
Known for its bell-like effects, the piece was based on an Italian folk song by the same name. Paganini’s composition was intricate and technically demanding for soloists, but what makes it difficult is how it gets its famous bell-like sound.
Completed in 1826, Paganini premiered his entire concerto in Milan and performed as a soloist himself. The piece was a crowd pleaser from the very beginning. Featuring lightning fast finger work and a quickly bouncing bow, Paganini would often perform it as a stand-alone piece to mesmerize audiences.
Niccolò Paganini’s composition and artistry drew lavish praise from his peers including giants of the world of classical music like Robert Schumann and Frédéric Chopin. But it was Hungarian composer Franz Liszt who took the piece and upped the ante.
A piano virtuoso and composer, Liszt first heard Paganini play in 1834 and was impressed. So impressed was he with “La Campanella” in particular that he set out to adapt it for a solo piano performance. The result was one of the most technically demanding piano etudes to be composed.
THE LITTLE BELLS
Why is the piece so difficult to play? Well, for starters, it demands some pretty difficult jumps with your right and left hand alike. Played at a swift allegretto tempo, you’ll find right hand jumps between intervals that are larger than one octave, sometimes needing you to stretch two whole octaves within the time of a sixteenth note.
While these quick jumps are what gives the piece its characteristic bell-like sound, they aren’t the kind of notes you can cover mistakes with. Instead, the piece demands dexterity and accuracy from all fingers – no weak fingers allowed here, please.
The uncomfortably speedy tempo allows little time for the pianist to move to the next keys, which can lead to tension in the hand before the piece is even over. Meanwhile, the left hand is assigned even larger jumps with the right as well as some complicated trills and rapid chord runs. In all, it requires nothing less than technical perfection to execute flawlessly.
MASTERING THE ETUDE
If you’ve decided to challenge yourself and tackle “La Campanella,” one of the best things to remember going into the experience is that this is going to take time. You might be able to hit the notes, sure, but playing it with accuracy and appropriate musicality is a different story entirely.
Some tips in conquering this challenge include:
Practice slowly and be careful not to strain your hands. Your hand should move with the note eventually when you’ve built to that speed.
While you practice the piece slow, get used to throwing your hand whenever you need to hit that high D sharp. Try using a metronome to gradually increase your speed.
Try to accomplish bigger jumps as you practice. Instead of jumping one octave, practice jumping two. This will eventually make the one octave jumps seem easier.
Memorize the parts you find most challenging so you can watch your hands instead of the music. This will help you improve your accuracy to hit the right notes.
Move your entire body and arm in order to help your hand movements. Keep your right arm rounded and supple to make moving your hand easier.
Also, take advantage of the fact that you’re learning this piece in the digital age. YouTube has scores of videos to demonstrate hand movement, arm shape, and everything else you may need to master “La Campanella.” We especially recommend this video as a tutorial to get you through the tricky parts.
With practice, patience and more practice, mastering one of the most difficult piano pieces to play will be one more thing you can check off of your bucket list.