Necessity is the Mother of Invention

One can't help wondering why it is that so much music has been written for the left hand alone and virtually none of any significance for the right hand. The answer is that almost all of the great music written for the left hand alone is the result of a determinedly heroic concert pianist having lost his right arm during World War I. Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), an Austrian pianist and, interestingly, brother of the celebrated philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, refused to allow his career as a concert pianist to be ended almost before it had begun in earnest by the loss of his arm. Fortunately for us all, his was by no means an insignificant family in the world of music. As a young man he had played duets with Richard Strauss, and Strauss, Brahms, Joseph Joachim, and Gustav Mahler we family friends. And as a student of Theodor Leschetizky, he had an excellent pedigree as a pianist.

Wittgenstein was in a position to ask many of the most important composers of the day to compose music for for him to play. Among these were Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schmidt, Paul Hindemith, Alexander Scriabin, Benjamin Britten, Josef Labor, Sergei Bortkiewicz and Maurice Ravel. The Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is a staple of the repertoire today.

The repertoire resulting from Wittgenstein's efforts has been veritable lifeline for other pianists as well who for one reason or another lost the use of their right arms. Brilliant concert pianists such as Leon Fleisher, João Carlos Martins, and Cor de Groot would not have been able to continue their careers successfully without it.

Prior to Wittgenstein's injury, a number of composers had composed or transcribed such piano music. Among these works are the Reinecke Sonata, the Reger Studies, and Johannes Brahms' Transcription of the Bach Chaconne in D minor from the 2nd Partita for solo violin BWV 1004. The Reinecke and Reger are curiosities, not particlarly brilliant pieces.

There was an earlier pianist who lost his right arm, the Hungarian Count Geza Zichy, a student of Liszt and the first to have a very successful career as a one-armed pianist. He was a sensation, but the piano music for the left hand that he composed or arranged for his own use was considered mediocre by Wittgenstein and seems to have died with him.

The Brahms work is sheer genius. It was transcribed for the left hand alone for Clara Schumann when she suffered an injury to her right hand. The Brahms transcription is much more faithful to the original than the more famous and more popular Busoni two-hand transcription which it predates by 16 years. Three performances of the Bach/Brahms Chaconne are offered below. Of the three, I quite like the way Sokolov plays it. Also to be found below are excellent pieces by Blumenfeld, Moszkowski, and Scriabin . We end with a tour de force by a young Brazilian pianist playing his own transcription of the Ride of the Valkyries from Wagner's Die Walküre that will leave you out of breath if not necessarily breathless.

Leopold Godowsky's transcriptions of some of the Chopin Etudes for the left hand are simply beyond belief. You can hear a few of these as well as transcriptions by music of other composers and several original on the Godowsky Left Hand page. And perhaps the most interesting of all, from a historical perspective, are the recordings made by Wittgenstein of transcriptions by him and others for the left hand of such works as the Sextet from Lucia and the Liebestod from Tristan, including the Brahms transcription of the Bach Chaconne.

Bach/Brahms Chaconne in d-moll BWV 1004 for left hand

GRIGORY SOKOLOV (b 1950), Russian pianist
recorded live in 2003

Bach/Brahms Chaconne in d-moll BWV 1004 for left hand
ANATOL UGORSKI (b 1942), Russian pianist

Part I

Part II

Bach/Brahms Chaconne in d-moll BWV 1004 for left hand
ADRIAN VASILACHE, contemporary Romanian pianist
recorded live in 2005

Part I

Part II

Leschetizky Andante Finale, Op 13 for left hand
Flemish pianist

Saint-Saëns 6 Études pour la main gauche seule, Op 135 (1912)
1 Prélude in G major
2:31 ➢ 2 Alla Fuga in G major
4:19 ➢ 3 Moto perpetuo in E♭ major
5:54 ➢ 4 Bourrée in G minor
9:35 ➢ 5 Élégie in D-flat major
15:56 ➢ 6 Gigue in G major
BERNARD RINGEISSEN (b 1934), French pianist
recorded in 1975

Reger Four Études for Left Hand Alone
1 Scherzo
2 Humoreske (02:50)
3 Romanze (04:09)
4 Prelude and Fugue (07:04)
TAKEO TCHINAI, contemporary Japanese pianist
recorded live in 2011

Bartók Study for the left hand
1 from "Four Pieces for Piano" (1903) for the left hand

ZOLTAN KOCSIS (b 1952), Hungarian pianist

Blumenfeld Etude for the Left Hand
(Felix Blumenfeld was the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz)

Simon Barere, piano

Moritz Moszkowski Etude, Op 92~2 for the left hand
Alain Raes, piano

Carl Reinecke Piano Sonata for the Left Hand Alone Op.179
James Iman, piano

i Allegro moderato

ii Adagio lento (Variations)

iii Menuetto: moderato

iv Finale: Allegro molto

Erwin Schulhoff Suite 3 for the Left Hand Alone, Op 179 (1926)
TAKEO TCHINAI, contemporary Japanese pianist

i Preludio
Air (02:41)
Zingara (04:58)
Improvisazione (06:46)
Finale (10:23)

Scriabin Prelude in C♯ minor, Op 9~1 for the left hand
Vladimir Sofronitsky, piano
recorded in 1960

Scriabin Nocturne in D♭ major, Op 9~2 for the left hand
John Bell Young, piano

Wagner/Cimirro "The Valkyries" from Die Walküre for the left hand
Artur Cimirro, piano

Finally, La Mano Sinistra by the monumental 20th Century German composer, Hans Werner Henze. I will address his work elsewhere in these pages. Suffice it to say for now that, in my esteem, Henze is the Beethoven of the 20th Century. His music is that good, his opus that important. And the future will support me in this view.

Hans Werner Henze La Mano Sinistra for the left hand
Seda Röder, piano

Here is my new book, a murder mystery with a musical polemic

and the audiobook version

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