Guest post: A History of Left-Hand Piano

by Keith Snell

Most pianists are surprised at the abundance and variety of repertoire for the left hand alone. I know I was. In the early years of my right hand injury, I never gave serious thought to a career as a “left hand only” pianist, because I was completely unaware of the vast amount of very fine left hand literature. I recall thinking that there was barely enough to put together one “just OK” solo recital, and the only two concerti I knew were the Ravel and Prokofiev. It hardly seemed enough to build a performing career. It was many years before I really started to investigate and discover a whole world of music that was available for me to play; that there is really enough music for me to play and enjoy for my lifetime!

Well, maybe it is OK that I did not know sooner: otherwise, I may not have had the opportunity to edit, write, and produce all the teaching material that I have. I wouldn’t trade that — I have been most fortunate. But, in 2004, I realized that a very important piece of my life was missing, that the creative process of practicing was essential for me. When I started practicing again, I felt like I had been in the desert and finally found water. My soul was being fed. And as I worked, I uncovered more and more… and more! wonderful music written for the left hand alone. I started playing left hand alone concerts in 2006. I love sharing this music, and it is so wonderful when people hear it for the first time and are amazed at how beautiful sounds, and how complete the musical experience feels. The best compliment I get is when someone says, after a concert, “I enjoyed that music so much, that I forgot you were playing with just one hand!” My particular interest in piano music for the left hand alone began with the onset of focal dystonia in my right hand; but my passion for left hand alone music grew from my need for self-expression through music.

You may wonder, “Why is there piano music for the left hand alone?” There are four basic reasons composers write music for the left hand alone:

Leopold Godowsky

1. Technical development: As we are all aware, the standard repertoire for the piano generally places greater demands on the right hand than the left. The need for strength, speed, and the ability to project a melody (especially with the weak fifth finger), are most often found in the writing for the right hand. However, every pianist at some point will encounter a passage for the left hand that will expose the unequal development between the hands. Certainly there are two-hand etudes, such as those by Czerny or Chopin, which emphasize the development of the left hand; but we also have a significant body of etudes for the left hand alone, designed for the same purpose. The most prolific composer, and one of the best composers of music for the left hand alone, was Leopold Godowsky (1870-1938). Of his fifty-three Studies on Chopin Etudes, twenty-two of them are for the left hand alone. He became fascinated, even obsessed with the idea of a greatly developed left hand. His theory was that if the left hand could be trained to do the work of two hands, then, when you added the right hand back in, the pianist could manage, or at least sound as though they were doing the work of three hands! The Godowsky Studies on Chopin Etudes are at the very top in difficulty, played generally by the greatest virtuosi. Mozskowski’s Op. 92 is a set of 12 Etudes for the Left Hand Alone, which are not as formidable as the Godowsky. There are ‘Schools for the Left Hand’ by Berens, Blanchet, Bonamici, Phillip, and Wittgenstein. Czerny’s Op 718 Left Hand Studies are played with both hands, but the etudes emphasize the development of technique in the left hand.

2. Injury: The truth is, most pianist will not play music for the left hand alone until the have to, usually because of injury – whether temporary or permanent. Many of the works written for the left hand alone were written for pianists with an injured right hand or arm. Some of the most well known and best music was written for Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who lost his right arm in WWI. The wealthy Wittgenstein family commissioned dozens of pieces — about forty works. Among those are some truly great concertos for the left hand alone: Ravel Concerto in D, Prokofiev Concerto No. 4, Britten Diversions, and Korngold Concerto in C-sharp. The Czeck pianist Ottakar Hollman suffered permanent injury to his right arm during WWI. Several of his fellow countrymen wrote music for him, including Janacek (Capriccio for Piano and Winds), Martinu (Divertimento for Piano and Chamber Orchestra), Tomasek (Sonata), and Schulhoff (Suite No. 3). British pianist Harriet Cohen suffered permanent injury when a glass shattered in her right hand, and the English composer Arnold Bax wrote a concerto for her. Dutch pianist Cor de Groot had a temporary injury that produced works from six different Dutch composers, as well as his own set of variations for piano and orchestra. Of course, present day pianists Leon Fleisher and Gary Graffman have had music written for them as well. I have been fortunate to have works written for me: Verbs is a set of Twenty-four Preludes for piano left hand by the Irish American composer Kalthleen Ryan, and Canadian born English composer Beverley Flanagan wrote a four movement suite called Without a Trace. American composer Andrew Norman has been commissioned to write a Piano Quintet for string quartet and piano left hand for me and the San Francisco based Ives Quartet.

3. Virtuosic display: We certainly have many two hand “concert” etudes intended for the demonstration of technical prowess; and what could be more impressive that an etude which shows mastery of the left hand? Especially since the left is generally considered the lesser of the two! Many of the virtuoso pieces for the left hand alone were written by two handed pianists, who wanted the opportunity for LH display. Bartok (“Etude” — which he included on his Berlin debut), Godowsky (Studies on Chopin Etudes), Leschetitzsky (an opera paraphrase on the sextet from ‘Lucia di Lamermoor’ by Donezetti). A century earlier Alexander Dreyschock and Adolfo Fumagali also wrote “show-stoppers” for the left hand alone which they always included as featured works in their otherwise two-handed recitals.

4. Compositional challenge; The first three categories of left hand piano music are from the viewpoint of the pianist. Now, we will think about left hand music from the view of the composer. It is a distinct compositional challenge, for which the composer must be motivated. It seems to me that most music for the left hand alone usually falls into two or more of the above categories. For example, a composer may undertake to write for the left hand alone because the challenge is of interest, but they may be writing for an injured pianist. Or, a pianist/composer may start by writing an etude for left hand technical development, and end up with an excellent concert piece of virtuoso display. There are particular challenges in writing for the left hand alone. First, is the challenge of working around being in two places at the same time, i.e. bass and treble, or melody w/accompaniment. (However, there is also left hand music which moves in single notes, or single line texture.) To utilize the rich textures possible with the piano, composers look for ways to use a great deal of pedal and frequent lateral movements of the left hand, to blend melody and bass. The most skilled left hand writers, such as Godowsky, Scriabin, or Ravel, find ingenious ways to integrate the melody and accompaniment in a seamless and natural sounding way. One of the very finest examples of all is the Etude in A-flat by Felix Blumenfeld. The least effective writing for the left hand, I think, is when a composer thinks in too much in a “two handed” way, requiring the breaking of chords and constant use of grace notes from bass to treble

Left Hand Pianists in History

Czech pianist Alexander Dreyschock (1818-1869) is the first pianist known to perform with his left hand alone. He was a fanatical practicer, keenly obsessed with developing the technique of his left hand. Dreyschock was particularly know for his skill with 3rds, 6ths, octaves. He played the left hand part of the Chopin Etude Op. 10 no. 12 entirely in octaves! From all reports, his technique was astounding, and equal to that of Thalberg and Liszt. The first known concert which included a piece for the left hand alone is in 1843, at Dreyschock’s first concert in Paris, when he included his own Variations for the Left Hand Op. 22. His very successful concert tours took him throughout Europe, and the Variations for left hand alone became a successful “gimmick” for him. At a concert in Brussels, the audience reacted so strongly to the left hand piece, that he had to play it a second time. In Copenhagen, the same piece caused such a sensation that the King of Denmark gave him a box of cigars wrapped in 100-thaler bank notes. Eduard Marxsen (teacher of Brahms) wrote Three Left Hand Impromptus with a subtitle ‘Hommage a Dreyschock’. Leschetizky’s paraphrase of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor is dedicated to Dreyschock.

In 1862, Dreyschock became a staff member at the newly-founded St. Petersburg Conservatory, at Anton Rubinstein’s invitation. He was appointed Court Pianist to the Tsar, as well as Director of the Imperial School of Music for the Operatic Stage. He maintained this double post for six years, but his health suffered from the Russian climate. He moved to Italy in 1868 and died of tuberculosis in 1869.

Italian pianist Adolfo Fumagali (1828-1856), was ten years younger than Dreyschock. There were four Fumagali brothers, and they were all professional pianists, and published composers. Adolfo was the most successful. Although he looked rather frail, he had a phenomenal technique and strong fingers that astonished everyone. He was respected and loved by both the critics and the public, but did not become a truly unique sensation until 1855 when he began performing his work for left hand, Fantasy on Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable – a 27 page blockbuster for LH alone. It brought down the house! He also had great success with his left hand version of ‘Casta Diva’ from Bellini’s ‘Norma’. But it was the Fantasy which really made his name. With many wonderful reviews, a repertoire of successful “salon” pieces, and a half dozen left-hand opera paraphrases, Fumagali was on the verge of a hugely successful European career. However, he contracted cholera at the age of 28 and died. Italy lost its most celebrated pianist of the day.

Fumagalli’s output is quite extensive, though almost all of it is extremely difficult to obtain today. Theodore Edel writes about him: “Although he was perhaps not a very inspired or ingenious composer, his works for left hand alone stand nonetheless as an important testament of the progress in technique and virtuosity of the period, especially of single-handed works.”

The Hungarian pianist Géza Zichy (1849 – 1924) was the world’s first professional one-armed pianist. He lost his right arm in a hunting accident at the age of fifteen. After the hunting accident, he became determined to be independent and learn to do as much as possible with one hand — to dress, eat, even peel an apple and clip his own fingernails. His determination to be a pianist seems to have begun after losing his right arm. “I did not ponder over theories of one-hand playing; I knew nothing about how it could be done, but I did it.”

At 26, in 1875, Zichy impressed Franz Liszt with his arrangement and performance of the Schubert Erlkonig. Liszt encouraged him to publish as set of Etudes, for which Lizst wrote a preface. By 1880, Zichy had about 15 pieces of his own devising, and he began his concert career in earnest. Dreyschock and Fumagali had really made their careers by playing left hand alone works; but they were two handed pianists, and that was only part of their performances. Zichy was the first to make an entire recital of just left hand. Liszt wrote in a letter to a friend: “Geza Zichy created a sensation at a recent concert (the first time he has favored Budapest with his extraordinary virtuosity). The hall was packed and his success complete.” Later, Liszt also wrote: “Geza Zichy’s reputation is not just parochial Hungarian. He is an astounding artist of the left hand, which is so remarkably dexterous to the point that the greatest pianists would be hard put to match him.”

Since Zichy was quite a wealthy man, he gave every penny earned from concerts to charity. Despite his great wealth, he did not commission composers to write for him. This seem so unfortunate, especially considering his close friendship with Liszt, but also for the fact that he was a rather unremarkable composer. His left hand piano music, although plentiful, is among the least played of the repertory. It is interesting to note that he wrote the very first concerto for the left hand alone. Besides an active concert schedule, Zichy served forty-three years as director of Hungary’s National Conservatory.

In 1915, Zichy gave a concert to one-armed men crippled in the first year of World War One. The purpose of the concert, and the lecture which followed, was to be inspirational: Zichy wanted to lift these men from their despair, and show them that it was possible to feel whole again. He also wrote The Book of the One Armed, in which he gave advice on how to learn skills to live independently. The book included exercises, 40 photos, and explanations, so that the reader could learn to use his one hand – and two feet – in ways he would not likely have devised. During the First World War, it went through five printings.

The Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) had a most fascinating and courageous career as a one-armed pianist. He was called for service in the Second World War, was wounded, and had his right arm amputated. With a remarkably tenacious personality, he became determined to pursue a career as a one-armed pianist. Wittgenstein became the second one armed pianist in history, after Zichy. An interesting difference between Zichy and Wittgenstein is that Zichy was an amateur when he lost his arm, but Wittgenstein was already an aspiring professional. Before the war, as a two-handed pianist, Wittgenstein had studied with Leschetizsky, and made his Vienna recital debut at the age of 26, in 1913. Then in the following year, made his debut as concerto soloist.

The Wittgenstein family was extraordinarily wealthy. At an estimated £4 billion at the start of the war, it may have been the largest private fortune in Europe. As a result of their prominence, the Wittgenstein home hosted the cultural elite. As a child, Wittgenstein sat at elegant dinner parties with Brahms and Clara Schumann. The first performance of the Brahms clarinet sonatas was in the Wittgenstein living room. Casals, Bruno Walter, and Mahler, were all guests in the Wittegenstein home. Paintings by Klimt hung on the walls, and there were Bach and Mozart manuscripts on the piano.

Despite loosing his right arm, he refused to give up. His teacher, Leschetizsky was dead, but Wittgenstein practiced seven hours a day, keeping his teacher’s principles before him — especially the loose wrist. He wrote: “It was like climbing a mountain. If you can’t get up one way, you try another.” He was clearly determined to be a pianist, but he had to find repertoire. Wittgenstein knew Zichy in passing, and was inspired by him as a performer; but found his music trivial and did not play it. He admired the Bach/Brahms Chaconne, the etudes of Saint-Saens and Reger, and the Scriabin Op 9 Prelude and Nocturne. Sifting through the hundreds of German salon pieces, he found the excellent music of Alexis Hollander for left hand. He was of course also taken with the great music of Godowsky for left hand. To this repertoire he added his own transcriptions of opera, lieder, and two-hand piano works, arranged for one hand.

Wittgenstein used his substantial financial resources to commission original works. He returned to the concert stage in 1916 performing a Kozertstuck by his composition teacher, Josef Labor. The list of commissions reads like a who’s who of 1920’s music, but most of these are not composers we are familiar with today. However, there are a few distinctions, such as Ravel, Britten, Strauss, Korngold, Hindemith, and Prokofiev. The premieres of concertos by these prominent composers were “star” events; and Wittgenstein played with great orchestras, and prominent conductors such as Bruno Walter, Pierre Monteux, Furtwangler, Koussevitzky, and Ormandy.

Wittgenstein received about 40 works in all — the most for any single musician in history. He paid enormous fees to his composers, but they had to put up with his many complaints and difficult personality. Wittgenstein had a pugnacious spirit and relished a good battle with colleagues. He was also quite possessive with works he commissioned, and insisted on exclusive lifetime performing rights for all the pieces written for him. “You don’t build a house just so that someone else can live in it. I commissioned and paid for the works, the whole idea was mine […]. But those works to which I still have the exclusive performance rights are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public; that’s only right and fair. Once I am dead or no longer give concerts, then the works will be available to everyone because I have no wish for them to gather dust in libraries to the detriment of the composer.” However, he did not play every piece he had commissioned. He told Prokofiev that that he “could not yet understand the 4th Piano Concerto, but would play it when he did.” However, he never reached that point! He rejected outright Hindemith’s Piano Music with Orchestra Op. 29. He hid the score in his study, and it was not discovered until after his widow’s death in 2002 (by which time Hindemith himself had been dead for 39 years).

Wittgenstein was not permitted to perform in public concerts under the Nazi regime. He departed for the United States in 1938, and became an American citizen in 1946. Wittgenstein spent the rest of his life in the United States, where he did a good deal of teaching as well as playing. He died in New York City in 1961.

3 thoughts on “Guest post: A History of Left-Hand Piano”

  1. It is unfortunate that not all piano music devised for the left hand alone is playable by the RIGHT hand alone (mostly because of the thumb – spread problem being at the “wrong” end of the hand. When paralysis follows a stroke it is often the left side which suffers, and consequently many would – be pianists are stymied by the lack of piano music for the Right Hand! Now there’s a challenge for any composers out there!

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