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 magnificent work and is a staple of the repertoire today.

The left hand alone 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. Four performances of the Bach/Brahms Chaconne are offered below. Of the four, I quite like the way Sokolov and Béroff play 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.

The Etude by Blumenfeld is performed by two pianists. I find the Barere much more to my liking. The slower performance recalls to mind the comment of the emperor in the movie Amadeus, "Too many notes."

Leopold Godowsky's transcriptions of some of the Chopin Etudes for the left hand alone 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 minor, BWV 1004 for the left hand

Anatol Ugorski, Russian pianist  (b 1942)



Grigory Sokolov (b 1950), Russian pianist
recorded live in 2003

Michel Béroff, French pianist (b 1950)

Adrian Vasilache, contemporary Romanian pianist
recorded live in 2005 



Kalkbrenner  Fugue in D major for the left hand alone
Takeo Tchinai, contemporary Japanese pianist

2011 video

Liszt  "Hungary's God" for the left hand alone
Takeo Tchinai, contemporary Japanese pianist

2011 video

Reinecke  Piano Sonata in C minor for the left hand alone, Op 179
Takeo Tchinai, contemporary Japanese pianist

i Allegro moderato
04:46  ii Andante lento
08:35  iii Menuetto - Moderato
12:00  iv Finale - Allegro molto

Leschetizky  Andante Finale, Op 13 for the left hand
Peter Ritzen,
Flemish pianist (b 1956)

Saint-Saëns  6 Études pour la main gauche seule, Op 135 (1912)
Bernard Ringeissen, French pianist
(b 1934)

1 Prélude in G major
02:31  2 Alla Fuga in G major
04:19  3 Moto perpetuo in E major
05:54  4 Bourrée in G minor
09:35  5 Élégie in D major
15:56  6 Gigue in G major

recorded in 1975

Duparc-Ilić  "Sérénade Florentine"
Ilić, Serbian-American pianist (b 1978)

Moritz Moszkowski  Etude, Op 92~2 for the left hand
Alain Raës, French pianist (b 1947)

Blumenfeld  Etude in A major for the left hand alone, Op 36

(Felix Blumenfeld was the teacher of Vladimir Horowitz)

Simon Barere, Russian pianist (1896-1951)

Daniel Blumenthal, German-born American pianist (b 1952)

Reger  Four Études for the Left Hand Alone
Takeo Tchinai, contemporary Japanese pianist

1 Scherzo
02:50  2 Humoreske
04:09  3 Romanze
07:04  4 Prelude and Fugue

recorded live in 2011

4 Prelude and Fugue
Hans-Dieter Bauer, German pianist (b 1937)

Scriabin  Prelude in C♯ minor, Op 9~1 for the left hand
Vladimir Sofronitsky, Soviet-Russian pianist (1901-1961)

recorded in 1960

Scriabin  Nocturne in D major, Op 9~2 for the left hand
John Bell Young, American pianist (b 1953)

Frank Bridge  Three Improvisations for the left hand alone (1926)

1 At Dawn
04:31  2 A Vigil
06:28  3 A Revel

2011 video

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

Zoltan Kocsis, Hungarian pianist
(b 1952)

Takeo Tchinai, contemporary Japanese pianist

Erwin Schulhoff  Suite 3 for the the Left Hand Alone (1926)
Takeo Tchinai, contemporary Japanese pianist

i Preludio
02:41  ii Air
04:58  iii Zingara
06:46  iv Improvisazione
10:23  v Finale

Sophie-Carmen Eckhardt-Gramatté (1899-1974)  Piano Sonata 6 "Drei Klavierstücke" (1951-52)
Marc-André Hamelin, Canadian pianist (b 1961)

I For the left hand alone: Prestissimo, e molto preciso
03:36  II For the right hand alone: Lustig und mit Witz
08:20  III For both hands: Vivo assai e marcato

Dinu Lipatti  Sonatine for the left hand alone

Béla Síki
, Hungarian pianist (b 1923)
recorded live in 1967

Takeo Tchinai, contemporary Japanese pianist

John Corigliano  Etude 1 for the left hand alone
Woori Kim, South Korean pianist

2012 video

Wagner/Cimirro  "The Valkyries" from Die Walküre for the left hand
Artur Cimirro, Brazilian pianist (b 1982)

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, and in the context of German composers, 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, contemporary Turkish pianist

For those of you who enjoy murder mysteries, here is my first with a strong musical polemic as background

Murder in the House of the Muse

which is also available as an audiobook.

And this is the more recently published second mystery in the series:

Murder Follows the Muse

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