Repertoire for the Left Hand - A Challenge for Composer and Performer
Some may regard Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand as an intriguing outlier in the piano repertoire. It is however just one of over 600 works written for the left hand. Maxime Zechinni has created an anthology of such works, many of which have lain dormant until now. Let’s take a look.
Every self-respecting pianist has taken on Maurice Ravel’s work at some point in his or her career, according to Maxime Zecchini who is a great admirer of the French composer. Zecchini argues that Ravel is “one of the most important composers for the piano” and that his work is without fault, “perfectly written for the pianist, with a deep richness. Ravel uses the entire keyboard and creates wonderful colour”. It was through his exploration of Ravel’s work that Maxime Zecchini discovered the Concerto for the Left Hand.
It was commissioned in 1929, by pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right hand during the First World War. Zecchini says that he “was as seduced by the display of technique in the piece as by the context of the commission. Ravel drove an ambulance during the war and fully experienced the atrocities of the conflict. This concerto is, in a way, a pacifist manifesto, completely removed from the sunny atmosphere of his Concerto in G-major”.
A New Repertoire
Ravel is not however the only composer to have written for Paul Wittgenstein. In order to continue his career as a concert pianist with a varied repertoire, Wittgenstein was forced to significantly invest. Paul Wittgenstein commissioned many pieces including 17 concertos for the left hand, in addition to the work by Ravel. However, he never ended up playing Ravel’s piece due to an argument between the pair. Some of the most significant of the commissioned works are Parergon zur sinfonia domestica and Panathenäenzug by Richard Strauss, a Concerto by Korngold, Diversions by Britten, the Klaviermusik Concerto op. 29 by Hindemith and Prokofiev’s Fourth Concerto for Piano.
Though not all of the pieces are explicitly dedicated to Hindemith, his contribution to the development of a distinctive new repertoire is clear. The left hand was now able to command recitals and chamber concerts, and take centre stage in original works and transcriptions. It became a tool to impress the audience and to test a performer’s technique.
Other pianists who had also been injured in the war also took up this new repertoire. Czech player Otakar Hollman had pieces composed for him by Janáček, Martinu and Schulhoff. Frank Bridge similarly dedicated 3 improvisations for the Left-Hand to British pianist Douglas Fox. While German pianist Siegfried Rapp was the inspiration for Prokofiev’s Fourth Concerto, which had previously been rejected by Wittgenstein. Others also benefited from the advent of these works such as people whose playing had been affected by Dystonia, including Michel Béroff, Garu Graffmann and Leon Fleischer.
“As I followed the trail, I found myself confronted by almost 600 works spanning three centuries of musical history.” Maxime Zecchini
...Or A Virtuosic Revisiting?
Is it really a new repertoire? Not really! Looking through the archives, Maxime Zecchini found a forgotten range of works, for soloists, concert performances and chamber recitals. Zechinni is however the first to have put together an anthology entirely dedicated to repertoire for the left hand.
“Pianists and composers had two main motivations to create repertoire for the left hand – injuries from the war and the desire to push the boundaries of both the instrument and the performer” Maxime Zecchini explains. During the 19th century, a golden age for virtuosos and a period of rapid development of pianistic technique, composers - often pianists themselves – challenged themselves to compose for the left hand. This was either as a tool for teaching (as with Saint-Saën’s Six Études op. 135) or in order to dazzle audiences. Transcriptions of operas and original works like the Fantasy for Left hand in Robert the Devil of Meyerbeer op. 106 by Adolfo Fumagalli, which was dedicated to Liszt, or Géza Zichy’s transcription of Schubert’s Erlkönig arranged for left hand for a pupil of Liszt who lost his left hand during a hunting party, and the Johannes Brahms’ transcription of Bach's Partita for violin BWV 1004.
Maxime Zecchini explains that the primary challenge for the composer is to make the left hand sing as two, or even as an orchestra. If you close your eyes, you should feel that the pianist is playing with two hands. Pianists use a number of techniques to achieve this. It requires stamina and precision, because all mistakes are laid bare. The pedal is also given a new place, it is subtly employed to create harmonies to accompany the unfolding of melodies, add volume and alter the sound balance. Pianists also often need to place the stool off-centre, this may seem largely superficial, but it can avoid tension that could ruin a performance.
Though works for the left hand make up only a small part of the piano repertoire there are some real masterpieces, including the Prelude and Nocturne opus 9 by Alexandre Scriabin, which is regularly performed in concert.
The Art of Transcription
Left hand repertoire is a vehicle to demonstrate the talent of virtuoso pianists and follows in the tradition of nineteenth-century salons. Some incredible work has been created for the left hand including Leopold Godowski’s incredible transcriptions of all of Chopin’s études. Transcription continues to be popular among composers and pianists nowadays. Maxime Zecchini has created a version of Ravel's Concerto for the left hand alone. "Transcription,” he explains, “is an experiment ground for the pianist. Listening to the Argentinian pianist Raoul Sosa perform a transcription of Ravel's Waltz, which exists in a version for two pianos and for solo piano, or to a transcription of the Allegretto from Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, you realise how far transcription can take".