Haupz Blog

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Left-Handed Music

2021-09-05 — Michael Haupt

Sometimes tragedy begets beauty. There is a (still growing) collection of piano music compositions for the left hand only. The Wikipedia list of such works for piano and orchestra has the earliest entry for the year 1895. Composer/pianist G├ęza Zichy, who had lost his right arm early on, had composed a piano concerto for himself. Then, nothing for a long time. Then, in and after 1916, an eruption of creativity. What happened?

World War I happened, and maimed Paul Wittgenstein, who had been a successful pianist before the war. He used his influence to commission compositions for the left hand only from numerous composers, including such titans as Maurice Ravel, Sergei Prokofiev, and Richard Strauss. Listening to Ravel's concerto alone, it becomes clear that playing with only one hand doesn't imply a reduction in complexity and expression. Playing this kind of music involves a stunning amount of very quick and precise jumps between the low and high registers.

There is also quite some music for left-hand piano solo, of course, and stumbling over one of the pieces actually made me write this. Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji, known for his tendency to write slightly, erm, longer pieces, has composed a collection of 100 Transcendental Studies, and no. 36 is, you guessed it, for the left hand only. It's still very complex and beautiful. Check it out.

Tags: music