What's left and what's lost

On my desk this week has been Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. This concerto is probably the most well known of the numerous works commissioned by the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who sought new body of repertoire after losing his right arm on the Eastern Front during the First World War. From what I have been discovering about Wittgenstein this week, he seems a fascinatingly complex personality. Though self-possessed enough to envisage restarting his musical career after the horrific loss of his right arm, it is hard not to read his absolute insistence on sole performing rights – for life – of all of the works he commissioned and arranged as a sign of underlying insecurity. Wittgenstein famously said of his decision to maintain exclusive performance rights “You don’t build a house just so that someone else can live in it.” This seems a particularly apt metaphor to Wittgenstein's way of thinking, suggesting the kind of security of continued engagements that he might have envisaged from his exclusive repertoire of works from notable contemporary composers: these pieces would, in a sense, house his career.

Wittgenstein’s exclusivity of performing rights was upheld in a sometimes maddeningly dogmatic way, extending even to those commissions he had no interest in. Refusing to play Paul Hindemith’s Klaviermusik (1924) claiming that he found it incomprehensible, the score was buried and only surfaced again in 2002. A similar situation transpired with Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No.4 (1931), Wittgenstein refusing to play the piece until he felt he had comprehended it fully. In fact he would never perform the work, though it was premiered during his lifetime by the German pianist Siegfried Rapp in 1956. (Rapp, like Wittgenstein, had lost an arm in combat on the Eastern Front, his injury occurring during the Second World War.) Wittgenstein fell out with Ravel after making alterations to the Left Hand Concerto before its 1932 premiere. However, though the two never reconciled, it is notable that whilst many of the composers commissioned by Wittgenstein later arranged their pieces for piano two hands, Ravel refused to do so, and indeed fought to stop performances of an unsanctioned two hand version of the Left Hand Concerto made by the pianist Alfred Cortot.

To my mind Ravel’s insistence that the piece not be adapted to two hands speaks to the way that its “lefthandedness” is written into the work. In the piano’s first entrance we hear chains of indeterminate triads (the octave and the dominant). Were this a two handed concerto then it would be easy to imagine this first entrance being written as octaves in both hands – consider the opening of the Grieg, also in A minor, for example. By adding the fifth to the octave Ravel not only gains some richness in the single-handed texture, and also connects the piano’s first entry to a sonority made familiar in the orchestral introduction, built as it is around a stack of perfect fourths (E-A-D-G). Aside from these pitches (just about) fitting within the compass of one hand, they are also the four open strings of the double bass that plays them, and it seems significant that the opening six bars are, in effect, written for one-handed double bass. This strikes me as one of several ways in which Ravel uses the idea of the “limitations” in a single-handed piano concerto as a source of inspiration for the piece.

All of this is to say, then, that to rewrite the concerto with a right hand part would ignore the way in which the orchestral parts support and affirm the its absence in the concerto. Indeed, it seems to me that we might be encouraged to hear this piece as much as a piano concerto for a missing right hand, reminiscent as it is of the elegiac quality one hears in those musical reflections of friends lost in the Great War in Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin. The musical world of Wittgenstein’s childhood home – where Brahms, Mahler, and Strauss were all guests – seems very distant from the Jazz-infused atmosphere of the early 1930s that Ravel captures in the Left Hand Concerto. And yet given Wittgenstein’s noted hostility towards music he felt he did not “understand” I think that we must acknowledge Ravel’s extraordinary achievement in crafting a piece that spoke as much to the technical possibilities of a work for left hand alone, as it did to the complex emotions and personality of the pianist who commissioned it.