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The Marathons of Classical Music

Front view of marathon runners from the waist down, running on gray asphalt
Miguel A. Amutio
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This upcoming Monday, October 11, the Boston Marathon returns after a two-and-a-half year hiatus, and we’re celebrating all weekend with Mini Music Marathons on CRB! Here’s how it works: we play your favorite pieces back-to-back, and we all get to chill out instead of running the full 26.2.

But while we’re playing mini marathons on the radio, here on the web, we’re taking a different route. A longer route. In other words, we’re taking a look (and, if you’re brave enough, a listen) at classical pieces that are most like a marathon to play.

These five pieces take guts, stamina, and training -- and most importantly, they’re really, really long.

Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto

Most music written for soloists tends to be on the shorter side. Playing any instrument, uninterrupted, for a long period of time, is both physically and mentally demanding, and composers know this.

Most of them, anyway. Busoni’s Piano Concerto is a monster of a piece, clocking in at around 70 minutes for its five gargantuan movements. Okay, but does the soloist get to take a lot of breaks while the orchestra is playing? Of course not. While many concertos prioritize one voice or the other -- virtuosic passages for the soloist or gorgeous symphonic melodies for the orchestra -- Busoni’s does both and neither. Its huge orchestration and complicated solo part, and the addition of a men’s chorus in the last movement, mean that everybody works hard, and nobody is the obvious star of the show.

This piece isn’t performed often, but when it is, it’s a remarkable feat. In 2017, pianist Kirill Gerstein played it with Sakari Oramo and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which later inspired him to record it as well. In the program notes for that concert, Hugh MacDonald wrote,

“Performances of the concerto have always been rare, since its demands on the fingers, hands, and arms are superhuman. Busoni once called it his ‘skyscraper’ concerto. He only ever played it a handful of times; in fact he preferred to conduct it and leave the solo part to others.”

If Busoni himself avoided playing his own piano concerto, that makes Gerstein (and any pianist who attempts it!) all the more impressive.

Ronald Stevensons’s Passacaglia on DSCH

One ultra-long piece for solo piano, Stevenson’s Passacaglia on DSCH, was at least partially inspired by Busoni. A solid 80 minutes of uninterrupted music, the Passacaglia revolves around the letters DSCH, in honor of Dimitri Shostakovich (D. Sch., to reflect the German spelling "Schostakowitsch"), and cycles through themes inspired by historical events, countries and regions, and various dances.

In 1964, Stevenson made the first recording of his Passacaglia. It was long enough that it took two LPs to do it, and only 100 copies were made. In this clip, pianist Marc-André Hamelin introduces the piece, and Stevenson plays a few passages:

Alexander Scriabin’s Mysterium

Scriabin’s “Mysterium” is not just a piece of music. Or, at least, it wasn’t intended to be. Rather, Scriabin believed it would usher in the end of the world.

Although the piece, for musicians, singers, dancers, and a technologically astounding light show, was still unfinished when Scriabin died, he left behind more than 70 pages of notes, including chord progressions and lines of text. Composer Alexander Nemtin spent 28 years painstakingly compiling, transcribing, and arranging these notes into the form they are in now, a piece called “Preparation for the Final Mystery.” Its three parts, “Universe,” “Mankind,” and “Transfiguration,” take nearly 3 hours to perform -- and while, yes, that is a very long piece of music, it is still significantly shorter than Scriabin intended it to be.

The “Mysterium” Scriabin imagined would take place over seven days, in the foothills of the Himalayas in India. Here’s his description:

"There will not be a single spectator. All will be participants. The work requires special people, special artists and a completely new culture. The cast of performers includes an orchestra, a large mixed choir, an instrument with visual effects, dancers, a procession, incense, and rhythmic textural articulation. The cathedral in which it will take place will not be of one single type of stone but will continually change with the atmosphere and motion of the Mysterium. This will be done with the aid of mists and lights, which will modify the architectural contours."

While Scriabin did not exactly create a “completely new culture,” nor did he usher in a new race of “nobler beings” to replace all of humanity, the music we do have from “Mysterium” is still wildly interesting.

Havergal Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony

In matters of scale, Brian’s “Gothic” Symphony is among the longest and the largest ever composed -- just ask Guinness World Records. A staggering hour and 45 minutes in length, it calls for a fittingly gigantic orchestra, including many out-of-fashion and archaic instruments, five different choirs, and four offstage “Brass Orchestras” (seriously, read the list of instruments required to perform this. It’s impressive).

So why is this piece so huge? Well, as its name suggests, it represents Brian’s vision of the Gothic era, from around 1150 to 1550. It’s an expansive symphony that recalls humanity’s expansive capacity for artistic and intellectual development during that time period, but what really interested Brian was the creation and construction of the great European cathedrals. The finale is the longest and most complex of the “Gothic” Symphony’s six movements, and it is thought to represent the architecture of a Gothic cathedral through sound.

Because of its size, the “Gothic” Symphony is rarely performed -- which is no small wonder when you look at the sheer number of musicians required. How can that many musicians fit onstage together? And for that matter, where do you put the four separate offstage brass orchestras? Still, a few orchestras have attempted the impossible, and we’re all the better for it. Here’s a recording:

Erik Satie’s Vexations

Exhausted yet? You’re about to be. Erik Satie’s “Vexations” consists of just four lines of music -- which Satie notes are to be played very slowly, without stopping, 840 times in a row.

840!

“Vexations” was never published or, for that matter, performed during Satie’s lifetime, so it’s impossible to know whether he was serious or just pulling an elaborate practical joke. Nevertheless, some brave pianists have indeed performed it, with performance times spanning from 15 hours to 35. Some performances feature a “piano relay,” with a roster of pianists who “pass the baton” to one another over the course of the piece. But some, like Igor Levit’s “Vexations” live stream that took place in May 2020, feature just one musician, playing the same four lines, for hours and hours on end.

In an interview for The New York Times after his live stream, Levit said, “I got so tired that literally my fingers stopped moving. Maybe a chord came a second late, but nobody died because of it. I’m OK with that; it’s part of the performance.” But despite his exhaustion, he said he never once thought of stopping:

“In the middle, I looked at where I was and thought: There are still 590 to go, what the heck? It took me about half an hour to get through that, but it was really the only moment where I thought, not that I wasn’t going to make it, but that I was annoyed.”

Had he decided to quit, however, he would not have been alone. Pianist Peter Evans left a 1970 performance early, after repetition 595. According to The New Yorker, Evans “claimed he was being overtaken by evil thoughts and noticed strange creatures emerging from the sheet music.”

“People who play it do so at their own peril,” Evans said.

You can still watch Levit’s performance -- at least, nearly 12 hours of it -- online. I personally don’t suggest staying for more than a few minutes. But perhaps, if you’re brave enough, tenacious enough, or just want to test your endurance, you can give it a try.