Ravel: Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

Ravel's unique work for a war veteran gave the piano repertoire a dark and sombre masterpiece.

Losing his right arm in World War I resulted in the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein making an extraordinary contribution to the piano repertoire. Intent on continuing his career, which he had only launched in 1913, he developed a formidable capacity to play with his left hand alone, adapting and arranging concert works, and commissioning new pieces from the leading composers of the day.

The fiercely opinionated pianist initially didn’t take kindly to Ravel’s offering. Seeing the long solo that opens the work, Wittgenstein told the composer, “If I wanted to play without the orchestra, I wouldn’t have commissioned a concerto!” Ravel refused to change a note and Wittgenstein performed it as written in November 1931, in Vienna.

Up to that point Ravel had not written a piano concerto, although he had thought of getting one ready for a concert tour of America. Wittgenstein spurred him to get down to it and, from spring of 1930 until autumn of 1931, he worked simultaneously on the Concerto in G for himself, as well as the left hand commission.

It emerged as a powerful, original work, with a darker feeling than Ravel’s more popular concerto. It is in one movement, though in three sections. Ingeniously, Ravel’s writing for the soloist rarely gives a clue that but one hand is involved. The scoring makes much use of the rich, lower pitches of the orchestra giving the Concerto a rather sombre, but heroic mood.