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Left-Handed Piano Music

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When pianist Paul Wittgenstein sustained a crippling injury to his right arm whilst serving in the Austrian Army during the First World War, his initial reaction must have been despair and absolute devastation. Wittgenstein’s career, which had only just begun before the war with a highly successful concert in 1913, was cut short.

Added to this, Wittgenstein’s three elder brothers had all committed suicide and Wittgenstein, having been captured by the Russian Army, was now a Prisoner of War (POW).

However, Wittgenstein’s desire to forge a career as a pianist was overwhelming. Whilst serving as a POW, Wittgenstein sketched a piano onto an unwanted crate using charcoal and spent hours every day “playing” this piano with his remaining hand.

His return to Austria in 1915 unleashed Wittgenstein onto the musical scene, quickly making a significant impact. The Viennese critic Julius Korngold (father of the renowned composer Erich Korngold who would later compose his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for Wittgenstein in 1923) praised Wittgenstein’s playing; “The sounds produced by his left hand do not betray the artist's melancholy at no longer possessing a right hand - rather they express his triumph at being able to bear his loss so well."

 

 

Wittgenstein’s career was highly successful and the resulting works written for him now form a central pillar in left-handed piano repertoire. Richard Strauss composed his Parergon zur Symphonia domestica for Wittgenstein in 1924, a work which acts as a sequel to Strauss’s earlier tone poem Symphonia domestica (1902-03) through the sharing of melodic material. In addition, Strauss wrote his Panathenäenzug, symphonic studies for left-handed piano and orchestra. Benjamin Britten wrote his Diversions for Wittgenstein too, a series of ten variations upon a theme.  

Of course, the most well-known left-handed composition is Maurice Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand. Ravel wrote the concerto for Wittgenstein in the early 1930’s but soon the two musicians began to disagree over the direction of the work.  Wittgenstein commented on the long solo cadenza, saying, “if I wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto!”. Ravel did not revise the work and the long cadenza remains.

Wittgenstein’s argumentative attitude created friction with other composers too. Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.4, written for Wittgenstein in 1931, was returned by the pianist with the statement “thank you very much, but I don’t understand a single note of it and shall not play it”. Consequently the concerto was shelved and not premiered until 1956.

Whilst Wittgenstein is not the only pianist to master the art of left-handed piano playing, his legacy is profound. Put simply, without Wittgenstein, left-handed piano repertoire would be significantly diminished. Nicholas McCarthy, the first left-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College Music, stated plainly, “I wouldn’t have a career without him.” 

By Alec Coles-Aldridge. Alec is a student at the Royal College of Music studying for a Bachelor of Music Degree.

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