Single-handed pianism

Single-handed pianism
by Nigel Scaife

For the past few months the world-famous pianist Lang Lang has been out of action as he damaged his hand through what he described as ‘a stupid practice of Ravel’s left-hand Concerto’. He was up against pressure to decide whether or not to accept a number of performances of the piece and pushed himself too hard in trying to master the challenging music quickly. It must have been awful to have such a RSI-type injury and to be forced to severely limit time spent at the keyboard. But not wanting to miss his opportunity to open the new season at New York’s Carnegie Hall last week he came up with an innovative solution: to ask his 14-year old protégé Maxim Lando to literally lend a hand in a five-handed, two-piano version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. At the second piano was the jazz legend Chick Corea. What a great example of necessity being the mother of invention!

Had Lang Lang injured his right hand rather than his left he would probably have spent time over the last few months exploring the wonderful repertoire for left-hand only piano works, which is far richer and more extensive than that written for the right-hand. I wonder if during the last few months he ever thought about commissioning some new right-hand only pieces? He’d certainly be the person to successfully champion such new music!

So why is it that there is so much more music for the left-hand than there is for the right? It is partly because as pianists we tend to spend so much time practicing the right-hand melodic material that left-hand only practice can be neglected. The stimulus of writing a left-hand only piece for technical development is something that many pianist-composers from Czerny to Saint-Saëns have explored in etudes to improve left-hand facility. Injury certain has had its part to play. Scriabin wrote his beautiful Prelude and Nocturne Op.9 after injuring his right hand learning some of Lizst’s technically challenging music. When Clara Schumann injured her right hand she was lucky enough to have Brahms come to the rescue with his amazing arrangement of Bach’s D minor Chaconne, originally written for solo violin and now often heard in Busoni’s arrangement.

There’s also the motivation of showmanship. The thrill of playing fast and furiously as a virtuoso with just one hand has certainly been an inspiration for composers such as Godowsky. But perhaps the fundamental reason is that the left hand is physically much better suited to single-handed pianism, especially when you think about the way a typical piano piece in a Romantic idiom is written, with a tune and accompaniment. With the left hand you can play the tune with the thumb and have the four fingers provide a harmonic accompaniment. But there is also a strong historical reason in that a great deal of left-hand only pieces were commissioned during the last century by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein.

Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), brother of the philosopher Ludwig, was shot in the elbow during the First World War and had to have his right arm amputated. Determined to overcome this trauma and pursue a career as a pianist, he decided during his recovery to commission new works from a wide range of leading composers such as Britten, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Tansman, Korngold, and most famously Ravel, whose Piano Concerto for the Left Hand has entered the canon of great piano concertos of the twentieth century. Wittgenstein’s sheer determination to make a career for himself as a concert pianist led to an amazing enrichment of the piano repertoire during the twentieth century and he continues to be an inspiration to many pianists throughout the world.

Ravel’s masterspiece perfectly illustrates how with ingenious pedalling and clever hand movement combinations, the single-handed pianist is able to deploy the full resources of the instrument. It is the ability to give the impression that the pianist is in fact playing with both hands that is at the heart of what single-handed pianism is all about. Ravel said of his Concerto that ‘The listener must never feel that more could be accomplished with two hands’. Apparently Wittgenstein made some changes to the score for the premiere of the concerto which Ravel was less than pleased about. Sadly the two men never reconciled their differences.

Today the vast repertoire of left-hand only piano pieces is increasingly heard in concert halls, recordings and broadcasts, and there are notable exponents throughout the world. In the UK the inspirational Nicholas McCarthy leads the way. I met Nicholas a year or two ago as we were both involved in the work of OHMI – the One Handed Musical Instrument Trust. He mentioned that he was working on a new programme based on music by Rachmaninov, which inspired me to make an arrangement for him of the slow movement of the Cello Sonata. The challenge of deciding how best to convey the composer’s musical intentions through the resources of one hand at the keyboard was one that I thoroughly enjoyed! This beautifully lyrical music allows the pianist plenty of space and there is just enough scope to convey the full texture. This arrangement is featured on his next CD called ‘Echoes’ which is out later this month and which I’m much looking forward to listening to. Given the panache Nicholas displays on his ‘Solo’ CD, I’m sure it will be a real treat!

If you want to explore the repertoire for left-hand piano, there is a useful list of works here:

There’s also a book on the subject by Theodore Edel, called Piano Music for One Hand (Indiana University Press, 1994). Once you start exploring this area of piano music you’ll be amazed at the riches it contains!


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