The piano is one of the most iconic musical instruments in the world. According to The Met, it was invented at the turn of the 18th century by Italian craftsman Bartolomeo Cristofori, who worked at the court of Grand Prince Ferdinando de Medici in Florence.
Cristofori’s creation has been tweaked and modified through the centuries (the modern upright piano was developed by Englishman John Hawkins later that century, per Pianist Magazine), of course, and some of history’s most accomplished musicians have put it through its paces in almost every conceivable way. From Beethoven to the incomparable Elton John, talented pianists have thrilled and awed listeners throughout the ages.
There’s one particular piano piece, however, that would stymie some of the greatest performers. This is the story of “Vexations,” an enigmatic 19th-century piece that could well be the longest ever.
According to The New Yorker, “Vexations” was written by French composer Erik Satie in 1893. It has been deemed to be unplayable, simply by virtue of its length. It appears unspectacular at first glance, with a simple half-page of sheet music, but Satie added an impractical, ridiculous little caveat: the motif is to be played 840 times over. “It would be advisable to prepare oneself beforehand,” he also helpfully noted.
There seems to be something sinister about the piece. Players and listeners alike are said to “forget” the short and simple tune, however many times they heard or played it.
“Vexations” is certainly vexing
As Euphonic Space notes, Satie was renowned for the simple, repetitive minimalism of his work, and “Vexations” is a perfect example of this. He didn’t publish or really publicize the piece, and it was first known to have been published by American composer John Cage in 1949.
Cage was never one to shy from a challenge, and in September 1963, he set out to perform it in Manhattan’s Pocket Theatre. Not alone, however: he wisely assembled a squadron of eleven pianists he dubbed The Pocket Theatre Piano Relay Team. The New Yorker goes on to note that the musicians (John Cale of the upcoming Velvet Underground among them) played for twenty-minute shifts, and it took almost 19 hours to play the entire thing as directed by Satie.
Since this success, the challenge of “Vexations” has been taken up by brave pianists around the world. The first person recorded to have completed it for an audience by themselves was Richard Toop, in England, who took a full day to finish the piece four years after Cage’s performance. Over to you, Elton John.
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