Piano Music for the Left Hand Alone
With catalogue of more than
site is dedicated to the memory of Paul Wittgenstein whose determination
to pursue an international career as a concert pianist with only one arm has
enriched the piano literature with many great works and has been an
inspiration for later pianists in more or less the same situation.
Vienna, 05.11.1887 - New York, 03.03.1961
Index of alphabetical catalogues
The site is meant to serve three purposes:
1. To widen the knowledge of this unique art, and
2. To encourage the readers to contribute with corrections and additional information about composers and works to make the site as complete as possible. - So comments will be welcomed - at the bottom of the page you can click to contact me, and - finally
3. To tell many stories that were never told about composers and artists. With this site you will - I hope - have a data base of all left hand works (a page about the comparatively few right hand works will come in due time) and, at the same time, you will have biographies and (hopefully) interesting stories about the composer who created this unique art. The data base and the information should all be accurate - so are the history - but they are seen through my eyes after working with music and musical history for more than 40 years.
No attempts have been made to make this page interesting with fancy effects, visual gimmicks or any such things. Its sole purpose is to serve this musical phenomenon, which by closer acquaintance will prove rewarding and contain interesting stories from the tragic over the purely informative to the funny. And - mea culpa - the background and the text is carefully chosen, so that you can - in opposition with many web-sites - easily read the text
My own interest and work on this project began more than 30 years ago and was first meant to be published in the form of a book. Since then the project has been halted several times by personal matters, and meanwhile I learned that I had been beaten by Dr. Theodore Edel, whose book Piano Music for One Hand (Indiana University Press - 1994) I highly recommend. Here you will find much additional information and valuable technical and musical evaluation of many of the works. You will also find chapters about other combinations - such as right hand alone, two left hands, three hands, five and so on - which I urge you to read about in that book. But the final decision for publishing my research (without any personal financial proceeds at all) is that Edel's book is marred by many errors and besides the present site lists a much larger number of works and composers, which Edel has either overlooked - or had no knowledge of. His book is still valuable and together with the present site you will get a full overview of how large this repertoire is. In fact that is the beauty of the net vs. a printed book. Many works for the left hand has been composed since the publication of Edel's book - and I have information about many works which have been composed since 1994 or are being composed by composers from all over the world at this very moment but have not yet been completed and published.
(One small piece of practical information to the music lover who does not play the piano him- or herself: I shall many times be referring to Fingering: This is quite an important issue and it is the composer's or the editor's suggestions as to which finger should be used to the best advantage on this or that key. This fingering is marked in the scores by small numbers and the fingers are always counted like this: Thumb is nr.1 and the little finger is nr.5 - (the rest thereby being hopefully obvious.) This fingering is extremely important with, for example, a composer like Godowsky.)
The history of piano music for the left hand alone really began with the invention of the modern piano in the 18th century. There are a few early works, which may as well be played with one hand on the organ or the harpsichord, but it was the invention of the sostenuto (or forte) pedal, that made the whole difference. With that it became possible to let one or more tones keep on sounding, after the keys had been released. And by striking other keys immediately after, you could make the illusion that you were actually playing in more places at the same time. This is the very essence of modern left hand playing: Making believe that you are in fact playing with two hands. Maurice Ravel said about his own piano concerto in D major: "The listener must never feel that more could be accomplished with two hands".
The literature roughly falls in two categories: one has the tragic background, that pianists - like everyone else - may loose an arm or a hand or anyway the use of it. (And - mind you - a pianist's hand is a very delicate instrument; either it works 100 % or it does not work at all - and just an injury to one finger can ruin the instrument).
The other category can best be described as musical-intellectual gymnastics, and here I talk about composers who - without a tragic background - try to push the limits to the absolute maximum of what you can do with one hand alone. Whether this illusion is successful depends on the composer's or the arranger's imagination and understanding of the subject, and here Leopold Godowsky clearly represents the summit of the art. His insight and ingenuity has not yet found its equal though composers and transcribers like Frédéric Meinders has challenged his skills to the point of a photo-finish. Virtuoso or not; Godowski's compositions and arrangements (paraphrases) for the left hand are so convincing that the illusion is perfect. Now you would be tempted to think that this always means a high level of difficulty, but that is not the case. Godowsky's paraphrase on Chopin's Etude, E major op.10 nr.3 can be played by a moderately advanced pianist - but then again - some of his other works for one hand alone are really hard core pianistic pyrotechnics.
(In a few cases one further category would have to be mentioned and that concerns pieces, where the other hand is going to be used for some other purpose than playing. I have touched this phenomenon a little with the composers Hans Abrahamsen and Haydn, but one of the more interesting examples is Cathy Berberian who has written a piece for the right hand, where the left is supposed to be trying to catch an imaginary irritating mosquito, while the right is making the sounds of the insect on the keyboard. Finally there is the perhaps most sound reason for only playing with the left hand; se Gerhard Rühm. A page about what to do with the right hand during playing left hand works is under construction. Actually I thought it irrelevant till I was made aware of it by Mr. Oberon Smith to whom I am very grateful and whose text is printed on that page - the problem which is also mentioned in Claudette Sorel's book Mind your musical Manners - on and off Stage).
Vilna, Poland, 13.02.1870 - New York, 21.11.1938
hands - reaching for a truly ugly chord! -
well - anything to please the photographer.
These hands were insured for 1 million dollars -
quite a lot of money back in 1930
But - why the left hand and not the right? When talking of the first (tragic) category, the risk is almost the same; you may due to illness or accident just as well lose - or at least injure the right hand as the left. There is a small repertory for the right hand, but it can not by far be compared with the vast repertory for the left. The reason for this is very simple. The left hand is simply just better built for playing alone - especially when you consider the way traditional classic or romantic music is constructed. In its simplest form there is a melody with an accompaniment some tones lower. This is in fact just as if it were created for the left hand: the thumb of the left hand takes care of the melody, and the other four fingers take care of the accompaniment. The following three bars from the beginning of Scriabin's prelude op. 9 nr. 1 is a very good example.
All the notes in the top line (the melody - and marked with the fingering: 1) are played with the thumb - and all the others are played with the four other fingers. Any beginner who is just able to manage Für Elise can play these three bars. That is: reproduce the notes as they are written. The point where true art and the illusion begins, is when you can make the melody sound as one long smooth phrase and at the same time make the impression that the accompaniment is played by the other hand. In this example no great stretch is needed between the 1st. and 2nd. finger, as the melody and the accompaniment are very close. But things are not always that easy.
Above you see my two hands reaching as far as I possibly can - and I have the normal reach among pianists of a 10th. The reach between my 1st. and 2nd. finger on the left hand is easily one octave. But even stretching as far as possible the reach between my 4th. and 5th. finger on the right hand is only a fourth, and if I wanted to use my right thumb too I would probably need an experienced carpenter to get me out again. Try it yourself on a piano, and you will notice the difference.
Of course reach is not everything, but as one of my piano teachers, Teddy Teirup used to say: It is easier to strike a key, once your finger is already there - than when you have to make a jump to hit it. Well - actually he didn't say it exactly like that. I think he said: Playing the piano is the easiest thing in the world - it is just a matter of having the right finger on the right key at the right moment! - How very true. Anyway - we are not all some kind of a new Busoni, who - according to his pupil, Percy Grainger - never had to feel his way on the keyboard. He just hit the blessed key - however distant - without searching for it.
Benvenuto Dante Michelangelo (no less!) Busoni's hands.
(The checkered sleeves are from his dressing gown -
reminding piano students to rise early and practice)
A PRAYER: Thanks - God - that Rachmaninoff did not write any music for one hand alone! With his reach he would probably be the only person on the planet who would be able to play it. His colleague Cyril Smith once saw him take the following chord with his left hand: C-E flat-G-C-G. Well - there are some pianists (but fewer than they claim) who can take an octave and a half, but now comes the point of sheer horror: With his right hand Rachmaninoff could take the following chord: C (second finger)-E-G-C and E (thumb under all the other). This has nothing to do with piano technique - It is physical abnormality!
Rachmaninoff's truly wonderful piano hands
Those hands were the marvel of piano playing, and when Rachmaninoff was dying he looked at them and said: Good bye - my poor hands!. His recordings are among the crown jewels of recording history, and although there are quite a lot of them, there could have been many more. About 1941 he suggested to the Victor Company that he record a series of his recital programs, but this proposal was bluntly turned down. I think the people of that company deserve a major place in the book Great Blunders of the World - but then again - there is unfortunately no law against pure stupidity. And less than a year later Rachmaninoff was dead.
(By the way Cyril Smith (1909 -1974) - mentioned above - became another example of the tragic-heroic pianists. In 1956 he was stricken by thrombosis during a tour of Russia and his left hand was paralyzed. But he continued his career as a duo pianist with his wife Phyllis Sellick having concertos written or arranged for them by Ralph Vaughan Williams, Sir Arthur Bliss, Gordon Jacob and others.).
- a large stretch is of course of great value, but an octave and a half
is something you will not need very often. Franz Liszt could just
take a 10th and according to Chopin himself - his largest reach was
just an octave. Unfortunately Harold C. Schoenberg (in his otherwise
marvellous book: The Great Pianists) contributes to the rumor, that one
Martinus Sieveking - nick-named The Flying Dutchman had the stupendous reach of two
octaves. But here Harold C. Schoenberg was wrong, in
Sieveking's own words it was only an octave
and a half. Which in fact many conductors (Klemperer) and pianists had.
Besides - you have not much use for it in the standard literature.
words - c to g:
These statements were all about stretch between the 1st. and 5th. fingers; the inner stretch between the other fingers is more vital to left-hand player.
of Chopin's and Beethoven's left hands ( I sure
know whose manicurist I would bet my money on!).
of Liszt's right hand - which of course has
nothing to do with this site - but is included
in memory of his many memorable feats
with this hand - also when it was
concerning piano playing.
So much for stretch. The other important question is muscular strength. With the right hand it would be the weak little finger, that would be responsible for the melody. (Well - I can strike a note harder with my right hand's little finger, than I can with my left thumb - but that little trick would give any piano teacher sleepless nights). Wittgenstein himself commented on the issue of strength: Even if the right hand normally is stronger, it is easier to play with the left alone. The thumb of the left hand is the strongest and it is on top, so my left thumb replaces my lost right hand and that is what I play the melody with. Every pianist knows that jumps (the fast movement from bass to treble - and back again) are much easier to perform with the left hand than with the right. Of course I cannot play the notes in the bass and the treble at the same time with only one hand. I have to break the chord, but the listener must never notice.
Breaking a chord - that is playing each note of the chord one after the other in quick succession - just like a harp; (listen - for example - to Chopin's study op.10 nr.11 or listen to Bach's solo works for violin or cello - there all chords of more than two tones are broken). This practice was very common in piano playing right up to the middle of the last century - even though it was not indicated in the score. Much of the singing quality in, for example, Paderewski's playing came from breaking chords - and of course from an extensive use of rubato (a slight wavering in tempo - generally and between the two hands - normally with the left before the right). But mind you - in these days of paroxysmatic hysteria about original performing practice you are faced with a severe problem, that requires a great deal of indulgence and diplomacy. In Baroque music you must play on original instruments to be accepted at all, and with tempos and phrasings, that sometimes are based on sources, that wouldn't be accepted in science elsewhere. But if you try to play romantic music - or for that matter Mozart or Beethoven - the way we know from reliable sources these composers actually did - then you are in serious trouble. So - don't ever listen to anyone, who uses the words: The correct ... so and so in connection with musical performance. Such a thing doesn't exist - thanks God - for that would kill the whole art of music. This problem was beautifully summed up by Brahms, who was never blessed with any kind of diplomacy. One evening he listened to a pianist playing one of his works and afterwards Brahms said: This is exactly the way I had imagined it. The next evening he listened to another pianist playing the very same work - but quite differently. And Brahms said: This is exactly the way I had imagined it.. Well - anyway - who was Brahms to judge, when we have so many experts telling us otherwise? Dinu Lipatti also commented on this issue, see appendix.
But - anyway - Wittgenstein was very obsessed with volume and strength - in fact he was often afraid, that he would not be heard. Even before he lost his right arm he was known as a "string basher", but in his School for the Left Hand he deals with the problem by giving some strange indication of "fingering": two og three fingers on the same key or (with black notes) even using the whole fist.
Fortunately piano music for the left hand is composed even today. The risk of accidents or illness will always be there, but it is the cruel irony of Fate that World War I indirectly became the great supplier of this special genre. As an officer in the Austrian army Paul Wittgenstein was wounded near the Polish border and had his right arm amputated. But with this tragic incident this particular art form had a new impetus - for after a period of convalescence and - later back in Vienna - retraining he embarked on a career of more than forty years stunning audiences in Europe and America with his virtuosity. At the same time he used his enormous fortune to commission works from a number of contemporary composers. So we owe our thanks to him for works by Ravel, Britten, Richard Strauss, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Franz Schmidt and many others,
And these composers were also indebted to Wittgenstein - for not only did he pay them well but he paid them so well indeed, that they could build new houses for the money, redecorate the old ones and so on - some of them - as with Hindemith - even selling the skin before the bear was shot.
Paul Wittgenstein at the height of his career.
Some of these works have only become known to a larger public within the last fifty or sixty years, due to the fact that in connection with his commissions Wittgenstein made very firm conditions about exclusive rights of performance for a period of time (for the Ravel concerto it was six years and with Korngold's it was life-long). All these clauses expired when Wittgenstein died in 1961, and today quite a number of pianists (Leon Fleisher, Gary Graffman and Raoul Sosa - to mention but a few) are able to continue their careers as pianists - but now only with their left hands.
The repertory for the left hand has one further benefit. Some piano students are now and again injured - leaving their right hands useless for a short period of time - though seldom due to strain from practicing. Normally they would be able to use this as a marvellous excuse for taking leave from practicing. But with this vast amount of music? - No way! and I talk of bitter experience.
There are a number of recordings with Paul Wittgenstein himself playing, but they are mostly from his old age and do not justify the respect and admiration he enjoyed at the height of his career, when he performed with Wilhelm Furtwängler, Bruno Walter, Willem Mengelberg, Serge Koussevitzky, Pierre Monteux, Erich Kleiber and others. Dr. Edel comments on a couple of these late recordings and calls them awful - and I tend to agree with him. But they should not be underestimated as historical documents. Furthermore, it must be admitted that being a musician of the 19th. century (as Prokofiev rightly described him), Wittgenstein did not have much understanding or sympathy for the music of the 20th century, and he simply refused to play some of the works he commissioned (for example the Hindemith concerto). In other works - which he did play - his classic-romantic attitude and understanding caused, that his performances hardly presented these works from their best side. There have been a Douglas Fox, a Otakar Holman, a Siegfried Rapp and others, who suffered the same fate as Wittgenstein, but it was he, that put left hand playing back on the map. Just think of the musical scene today without the left hand works of Ravel, Prokofiev, Britten, Strauss, Schmidt and Korngold - and you will see, what I mean.
Finally it should be remembered that he was a very generous but not always a very easy man. Despite his brilliant career and his courageous determination to pursue it, he never learned to accept his handicap, and as an artist he was convinced that he often knew better than the composers - at least about left-hand playing - which he probably did. But the results were often quarrels, harsh letters and unauthorized changes in the scores which he received, with scandal following upon scandal. Well - time heals all wounds, and today Wittgenstein should be remembered in gratitude for his pioneering work and for the many works he commissioned. And his three volume School for the Left Hand is a work of genius with many exercises that even pianist with two well-functioning hands ought to study.
Wittgenstein towards the end of his career
There are some examples of pianists who have arranged left-hand music for both hands together. Well - this is an issue which will always be open to discussion - pro et contra. See appendix .
contains many anecdotes - some of which have gotten their own appendix -
but some are included in the entries about the composers. The reason for
this is that some of the anecdotes are of minor importance to the
subject, but some are more important. I have tried to keep this site
from being a 'dusty' musicological site and instead tried to concentrate
on living up to the strictest and authentic demands and at the same time
making the site one which can be read as a history with good stories at
the same time.
And under this category comes the following explanation for playing with just one hand. What this explanation lacks in scientific value it certainly gains in humour - and like all great humour it may just contain a bit of truth. It appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on February 6, 2007 :
- - - but of course this has nothing whatsoever to do with Piano Music for the Left Hand Alone
If you detect a slight difference of style - mainly in the biographies there are three natural reasons for this: Mostly the biographies are written by me - but often (with contemporary composers) they write it themselves or - sometimes they already have their biographies on the net and urge me to use that. So - there is nothing mysterious about that.
to the catalogue of composers and their works:
truly in a rare jolly mood.
Born: May 11 1948
Thus sharing birthday with
Irving Berlin, Margaret (Miss Marple)
Rutherford. Salvador Dali and
- alas - Baron von Münchhausen!
... But many people have wondered - who am I?
Credits, history, explanations, contact, and - of course - bad excuses!
This site is created with the help from books, anthologies, study travels, scores from my own collection or in libraries, encyclopedias and the Web (not always trustworthy - except for this site - of course!). From these sources I have collected my information. Some items need to be examined closer, so there may be faults, which I - in all honesty - shall be the last to admit.
The pages should not just be seen as any contribution to musicology. To quote the great British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham: I am very little interested in "-ology" - but I am interested in Music. So these pages are simply the history of the composers and transcribers who have contributed to the left-hand literature and the history of the works they composed.
I have not tried to make any discography - and there are reasons for that. First of all Ravel would fill a whole page and Prokofiev would perhaps creep in on a second place together with Scriabin, and I think that would be most incongruous - albeit very realistic - since record companies are not interested in Piano Music for the Left hand Alone. No - I have chosen another solution which you will have to put up with: I have listed one or (rarely) two recordings which I think represent this or that work best. They were all available at the time of writing and should be possible to find.
Although my native tongue is Danish, I have chosen to publish this site in English thereby making it available to a much larger public. (May my old English teacher - and The Good Lord, or perhaps the order should be reversed - forgive me for my own translation.)
This project is still
construction - and by
that I mean, that this first page is already - more or less - in its
final form, but the catalogue of composers and their works is still embryonic
- but it will grow until it has entries of more than 6000 works by 6-700
composers - or perhaps even more since piano music for the left hand is
booming right now. Many pages or links may not work yet - but they will - just
give me a little time.
If sometimes a Danish word or phrase creeps in, it is because this project began many years ago in this language - and cut and paste is a very nice thing on the computer. Also - now and again an "xxx" may appear. This means either that some further information was due to be entered here - and - most likely, I had forgotten what to write - or perhaps I had mislaid my English dictionary. In some places an "???" will appear - this means that a reference to some work appear in some sources but without any specification.
And - again - I want to encourage readers - that is, those who have kept awake until here - to contribute with corrections and additional information about composers and their works, in order to make this site as complete as possible. But - please: Don't just tell me this or that. Since I don't even trust myself, I will need references to sources etc. You will also notice, that a lot of portraits are missing, so I will appreciate any help with this - plus, of course - permission to use them.
Any language will be
accepted. Mind you - I didn't say understood. I will prefer English, German, "Scandinavian", French and
(the last two hopefully in an easy version; perhaps not
like: "Me Tarzan - you Jane" - but - please not too
advanced). And - by the way - I believe I can get along in
It would also be very useful to me if you just write a word or two about your relationship to music: That is if you play the piano, on what level and if you are one of those who simply just love music - or someone - like myself - who just gets paid for it (professional or non-professional).
A lot of people have most kindly helped with inspiration, encouragement, contributions, suggestions and with finding and giving permissions to publish pictures and musical notes for this site.
By this time the list has grown to such proportions that it would be impossible to list them all. Some have been with me from the very beginning and new ones are still coming. Still one person is my "guru" whenever I get into trouble IT-wise. In that case Niels Johan Petersen is no longer away than my telephone and gives me best advice and good company while he sorts my things out.
To all these and many many more I extend my warmest thanks. Errors and omissions - in lack of someone else to blame - I take upon myself.