Maurice Ravel's Concerto for the left hand

Pop quiz, music edition. Your subject: Maurice Ravel's concerto for left hand. What is this particular piece? In what context was it created? Follow our guide!

Maurice Ravel's Concerto for left hand is a strange confrontation between soloist and orchestra. Imagine the entire piano technique relying on one single hand, faced with 63 orchestral musicians.... Nonetheless, this work has a very special history and carries an equally unique message.

Elements of analysis

The work in context

Maurice Ravel’s eponymous Concerto is certainly one of the most famous works in the pianistic repertoire for left hand, but far from the only example. From the 19th century onwards, this type of composition was developed alongside organology and piano technique. Yet, Ravel’s Concerto is born in a completely different context: after the Great War of 1914, pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who commissioned the work, is severely wounded and his right arm has to be amputated. Wanting to maintain his career as a musician, he encouraged the creation of a repertoire exclusively for the left hand. From a family of wealthy industrials, Paul Wittgenstein provided considerable funds to fulfill this project. He commissioned contemporary composers to create a whole new repertoire that would allow him to return to the stage. Among these composers featured Franz Schmidt, Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, Benjamin Britten and Serge Prokofiev, who all created pieces for him.

The soloist concerto: a new form

The word concerto is originally Italian and refers to an instrumental piece based on a dialogue between one or several soloists instruments and an orchestra (tutti). It appears during the Baroque period under two main forms. On the one hand, the concerto grosso baroque, where a group of instruments (concertino) plays in dialogue with an ensemble (ripieno), and on the other hand the concerto for one or several soloist(s) and orchestra. In the classical era, the concept of a soloist musician appears and concerto is gradually shaped into what will be its most prevalent form until the 20th century. It consists of an orchestral part supporting one or several soloists. In Mozart's time, the solo concerto model will predominate in this form : a vivid movement (in sonata form), a slow movement (in the form of themes and variations or Lied) and vivid movement (in the form of rondo).

At the end of the first movement, the soloist's virtuosity is enhanced thanks to the cadenza long improvised solo. Before Beethoven, cadenzas are rarely scripted, the composer favoring the performer's fantasy by keeping it unwritten. Beethoven was the first to write and publish his own cadenzas, which became a constituent element of the concerto. The great era of concert music declines at the end of 19th century, and the concerto then moves away from its original constraints: there are almost as many reinterpretations as there are different aesthetics approaches in the  20th century musical creation.

In his Concerto for left hand, Maurice Ravel decided to structure the classical soloist concerto’s three movements as a juxtaposition of lengthy uninterrupted parts, much like a fantasia. This concerto consists only in one single movement, but where three large parts stand out by their tempo and characterisation.

A little anecdote…

The two concertos Ravel composed for piano may have been created at the same time, but they are polar opposites in many ways. While the Concerto in G is an ode to light, with one of Ravel’s most sensitive work played out in the second movement, the Concerto for the left hand appears as a much darker, meditative and melancholic composition. This piece premiered in Vienna on 5 January 1932, following Paul Wittgenstein’s commission. But before interpreting it, Wittgenstein made some important changes. According to Ravel's correspondance at the time, Wittgenstein was not happy with the result at all. The original version could not be performed until 1937, when pianist Jacques Février played it, conducted by Charles Münch. The composer authored a four-handed arrangement, published in Paris in 1937.

Jacques Février et Maurice Ravel, 1937, BNF
Jacques Février et Maurice Ravel, 1937, BNF

Structure of the work

The structure of this work is quite unusual. The concerto is composed as a single movement, but with three distinct sections where the mood and tempo highlight the contours of a first moderated-tempo part, followed by a livelier second part and a rather dynamic finale. The composer explains this structure:

’In a work of this kind, the aim is to give the impression of part written for both hands, rather than a light layer of sound. So my style is deliberately imposing, resembling that of the traditional concerto. This style inhabits most of the first part and what follows is an improvisation, leading to a jazz-inspired episode. It’s only after that one realizes that the jazz-inspired episode is in reality built on the first part’s themes’’(translated from French citation in Guide de la musique symphonique, as part of collection les Indispensables de la musique, published by Fayard).

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