Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Piano Repertoire for the Left-Hand Alone

Few pianists play or even know about repertoire for the left-hand alone. Certainly, many have practiced the myriad exercises, not unlike those found in the Hanon “Virtuoso Pianist,” that are designed to improve the strength and dexterity of the left-hand. But such exercises, played for hours on end, are dull and soulless. With a little creativity and ingenuity, could a composition with this arbitrary restriction be interesting, captivating, even beautiful?

In the early 20th century, several composers discovered that the answer is unequivocally “yes.” Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian concert pianist who became an American citizen, lost his right arm in the First World War. Rather than prematurely terminate his career, Wittgenstein commissioned works specifically for the left-hand from a number of famous composers in his day. Richard Strauss and Sergei Prokofiev responded, writing Panathenäenzug: Sinfonische Etüden in Form einer Passacaglia for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 74 and the Piano Concerto No. 4 for the left hand, Op. 53, respectively. Paul Hindemith composed his Klaviermusik mit Orchester, Op. 29 for Wittgenstein. Most famous is the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D by Maurice Ravel,  a sublime and technically challenging piece regularly performed today.

Other composers unaffiliated with Wittgenstein wrote for the left-hand alone as well. The Polish American pianist Leopold Godowsky is infamous for his extraordinarily difficult compositions, most notably his 53 Studies on Chopin’s Etudes. Here, Godowsky masterfully reengineers Chopin’s etudes, placing right-hand melodies in the left-hand part, combining etudes so that the pianist plays them simultaneously, generally taxing the skills of the player to the maximum. Included are twenty-two arrangements for the left-hand alone. This blogger’s favorite is Godowsky’s take on Op. 10, No. 12, the “Revolutionary Etude,” which still manages to sound as if it were played with two hands!

Though peculiar and perhaps niche, compositions for the left-hand alone are an important contribution to piano repertoire. They necessitate interesting and innovative techniques to make execution possible, and they force composers to work out new ways to make the music worthwhile both to the performer and the audience. Consider checking out some music for the left-hand today!

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