Left Behind: Putting Your Left to Rights

Equal Rights for Lefts


In most piano music the left hand is the 'Cinderella' hand, subservient to the right hand and its showy passagework. But many pieces contain left hand writing that is just as difficult, and enabling the left hand to cope with these challenges and play with control, agility, subtlety and precision is hard for the majority of pianists. If you're serious about improving your left hand, Theodore Edel's Piano Music for One Hand is a good place to start. It reveals a fascinating cornucopia of composers, most of who are long-forgotten. Almost one thousand works have been written for the left hand alone, but little has entered the mainstream repertoire and much is no longer in print.

It's interesting to note that while so many pieces have been written for the left hand, there are virtually none for the (far more capable) right hand. By its very name, the left hand sounds inferior: think of the French word gauche or the Italian sinistra, and you're left with the impression that the left hand is somehow suspect and clumsy. Contrast this with the right hand: dextra (dextrous) and droit (adroit). Yet it's precisely this contrast that has bequeathed us such a rich heritage of left hand pieces. We're quite used to hearing right hand fireworks in two-handed works, but it's so much more impressive to witness the usually reticent left hand tackle such bravura displays.

The Czech composer Alexander Dreyschock (1818-1869) set the standard when, in response to a dare, he performed the left hand part of Chopin's Revolutionary Étude in octaves instead of single notes. He became obsessed with the possibilities of the left hand, and wrote several long and difficult pieces for the left hand alone. Other composer-pianists vied to transfix audiences with their technical prowess, and the inclusion of a daring left hand piece in a concert guaranteed adulation. Leopold Godowsky performed several of his Paraphrases on Chopin Studies in Berlin in 1900, later describing how 'the entire audience went mad ... screaming like wild beasts.'

Godowsky's name became synonymous with left hand works. As well as transcribing twenty-two of Chopin's Études, he wrote a number of his own compositions and took the genre into a new level in terms of what could be achieved by the left hand alone. He maintained that the left hand is actually more adaptable to cultivation that the right hand, as it is used less in daily life. Therefore, its muscles are less cramped and more able to be relaxed. He also observed that the left hand commands the superior register of the piano, with its 'splendid sonority, mellowness and tonal sensitivities ... as compared with the thin, brittle, tinkly sounds of the upper register.'

Productive Pain

Even though a number of composers were preoccupied by the challenges of writing for the left hand, most repertoire came to be written because the right hand is more prone to injury (both at, and away from, the keyboard). It has the lion's share of the notes and must project the melody with the weaker fingers, so it's not surprising that it is usually the hand that suffers injury. A competitive rivalry with Josef Lhévinne caused Scriabin to over-practice Balakirev's Islamey and Liszt's Don Juan Fantasy, resulting in tendonitis in his right hand. It took him two years to fully recover, during which time he composed his sublime Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand.

While the Prelude has a touching Russian melancholy to it, the Nocturne is a glorious outpouring of Chopinesque lyricism. Both pieces demonstrate a complete understanding of the pianistic difficulties of writing for the left hand. Consider how, in the opening bars of the Nocturne (above), Scriabin sometimes delays the bass notes on the downbeats and at other times the melody. Also, how he ingeniously dovetails the melody within the textures. Seamless perfection! Another pianist, the Hungarian Count Géza Zichy (1849-1924) lost his right arm in an accident when he was fourteen. His is an extraordinary story of determined willpower, in deciding still to have a career in music.

Zichy was remarkably successful, and played to audiences all over Europe. He composed about fifteen pieces for the left hand and idolised Liszt, who found him to be 'an astonishing musician of the left hand'. They became great friends, and even performed Zichy's three-hand arrangement of Liszt's Rakoczy March together. Liszt also arranged one of his songs, Hungary's God, for Zichy, but sadly this atypical composition was his only contribution to the left hand repertoire. The most important of the one-armed pianists was Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who had already embarked on a successful performing career when he was wounded in the First World War.

With great fortitude, Wittgenstein refused to give up the piano and worked for hours every day to build his technique. He used his considerable wealth to commission some forty works, and the list of composers he was able to call upon (including Britten, Hindemith, Prokofiev and Ravel) is impressive. However, he was quick to criticise his commissions, and would freely re-arrange scores (which did not go down well with Ravel when Wittgenstein first played his Concerto to him in rehearsal). On receiving Prokofiev's fourth Concerto, he wrote to the composer: 'I don't understand it, and I won't play it!' Hindemith's Concerto met a similar fate, and the manuscript is now lost.

Left Hand Forward

Franz Schmidt wrote six commissions for Wittgenstein, including three beautiful quintets, but none are published in their original left hand version today. However, a significant amount of excellent left hand repertoire is still available, and if you want to improve your left hand much will depend on your ability and curiosity. Raymond Lewenthal has collected an excellent volume of studies and pieces for one hand, which includes CPE Bach's Solfeggietto, Felix Blumenfeld's melodious Étude in A flat, an early study of astonishing bravura by Béla Bartók and two original Godowski compositions. The Fand Left Hand Piano Album is also charming and accessible.

The list of famous left-handed pianists is a who's who, from twentieth century legends Horowitz, Rubinstein and Gould to Barenboim, Andsnes and Grimaud today. (Grimaud claims a particular affinity with the harmonically rich music of Beethoven, Schumann and Rachmaninov, composers she feels certain were left-handed. Most pianists agree that Schubert and Chopin favour the right hand, and that Mozart feels ambidextrous.) Hopefully by now you're itching to make your left hand the equal of your right, but overcoming the two hands' resistance to working separately is not easy. Fortunately, there are a number of complete courses in left hand playing worth exploring.

My favourites are Hermann Berens' The Training of the Left Hand (1872), Isidor Philipp's Exercises et Études Techniques (1895) and, most extensive of all, Wittgenstein's School for the Left Hand (1957). The latter runs to three volumes, and contains every type of exercise imaginable! But, assuming you're perfectly able to use your right hand, why bother with left hand repertoire when you can just isolate the tricky passages in your existing pieces and practice them? The answer is that playing music specifically written for the left hand demands total focus on that hand, which would never happen with a line of music that is ultimately incomplete.

When using the left hand on its own it is best to sit on a bench, as this will allow you to shift your body slightly when you cross your hand over to reach the upper registers of the keyboard. You will also want to sit a little to the right of where you would normally sit, though be careful this doesn't cause tension in your lower torso when pedaling. Your right arm should be as relaxed as possible, especially when playing taxing passages, as its muscles are likely to tense up in sympathy. Your wrist must also be relaxed if you're going to improve the agility of your left hand. This is particularly important with left hand repertoire, as the keyboard's lower notes require more weight.

Godowski achieved his dexterity by consciously relaxing his arm and using only its natural weight without force. Remember that your pedal technique will be different. A lone hand is less able to sustain sounds, so there is an almost constant need for the pedal to cover up as it moves to different parts of the keyboard. Experiment with half pedals, quarter pedals and, of course, the sostenuto pedal. My final piece of advice is something of a paradox. Part of the process of learning a two-handed piece is to practice each hand separately. However, when you're learning a left-handed piece, practice it occasionally with both hands so you can clearly hear the different voices.



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