Pianist Paul Wittgenstein lost his right arm during World War I, but that didn't stop him playing; in fact he went on to commission several new works for left hand only, including one from Ravel. Here are five essential works for left hand piano...
Undoubtedly the most famous left-hand only work of all, Ravel wrote his Concerto for Paul Wittgenstein in 1930. Full of jazzy rhythms and bluesy textures, it was arranged for two hands by pianist Alfred Cortot, much to Ravel‘s displeasure.
Wittgenstein premiered the piece with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra in 1932, and this is just one of several works for the Left Hand that the wealthy Austrian pianist commissioned from big name composers (the list includes Prokofiev, Korngold and Britten). Ravel studied Saint-Saëns’s Six Etudes closely before embarking on his own concerto.
Arguably the greatest movement ever written for the solo violin, the concluding Chaconne from Bach‘s Partita in D minor (c1720) inspired Brahms so much that, 150 years after its composition, he transcribed it as one of his Five Studies for left-hand piano.
Some say it was diligently arranged by Brahms for Clara Schumann, following an injury to her right hand. Letters appear to prove otherwise, however, with Schumann referring to the already existing arrangement as a ‘glorious refuge’ when she was unable to play in July 1877.
Another concerto written for Wittgenstein, though in this instance he never played it – and, in fact, the work’s premiere was given three years after Prokofiev’s death. Two short outer movements frame an expansive Andante and a spiky Moderato.
Bucking the earlier trend for showpieces, Scriabin‘s 1894 work is a more reflective, restrained affair. The pianist’s brilliance with the sustain pedal works wonders here – on hearing it alone, it is hard to believe that there is just the one hand in use.
Godowsky Studies on Chopin’s Etudes (Op. 10 No. 12)
Simply mind-blowing in its technical demands, Godowsky’s reworking of Chopin‘s 1831 Etude sees the pianist hairing up and down the keyboard amid a cascade of notes. Well worth comparing with the original work which, interestingly, is a semitone lower.
Another Wittgenstein commission, premiered by him with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1942. Britten is said to have given in to requests for alterations, though he later revised the work further so as to make the Wittgenstein version obselete. The work, however, is perhaps one of the greatest shows of virtuosity for piano left hand.
Composed in 1912, this set of Etudes was created especially for Saint-Saëns’s friend – and duetting partner – Caroline de Serres, who sustained a debilitating injury to her right hand. An overlooked example of Piano Left Hand repertoire, perhaps; it is said to require a huge amount of dexterity to perform.
Frank Bridge composed these works for Douglas Fox, an organist/pianist and fellow comrade during World War I. Fox was badly wounded in battle and lost his right arm, so Bridge set about creating these improvisations for his friend. Worried Fox wouldn’t like them, Bridge wrote to him ‘I fondly hope they will stand up on their own legs and smile at you.’