World’s only one-handed concert pianist reveals fascinating history of left hand piano

21 March 2024, 18:10 | Updated: 21 March 2024, 18:16

One-handed concert pianist reveals fascinating history of left hand piano | Classic FM

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Meet Nicholas McCarthy – born without his right hand, Nicholas is a left hand alone pianist who is inspiring the next generation of musicians with limb differences.

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Nicholas McCarthy is a British classical pianist with, in his words, “a little bit of a difference”.

Born without his right hand, McCarthy specialises in left hand alone pianism and is the only one-handed professional concert pianist in the world today.

A few years after he started playing, McCarthy was told he would never succeed as a concert pianist. Defying expectations, he made headlines in 2012 as the only one-handed pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in its 130-year history.

In 2018 he was given honorary membership of the RCM by King Charles III.

We met Nicholas at London’s Southbank Centre, in the iconic Purcell Room, to delve into the fascinating history of left-hand piano playing, and how pioneers of the past have shaped him as a musician today.

Read more: The 16 best classical piano pieces of all time

Nicholas McCarthy is a champion for left hand alone piano-playing
Nicholas McCarthy is a champion for left hand alone piano-playing. Picture: Classic FM

‘It all started in the 19th century’

For Nicholas, the history of left-hand repertoire is very special, “because without it, I wouldn’t have the career that I’m able to have today”.

“It started really in the 19th century,” he says. “Back then, concert pianists, they were like rock stars. They used to sell out concert halls throughout Europe really quickly.”

McCarthy refers to the likes of Franz Liszt, whose pianistic devilry would send audiences into a sort of mass hysteria, like you might see at a Harry Styles concert today.

“These two-handed concert pianists would try to impress their audiences by doing something with their weaker hand,” the pianist adds.

“Almost like, ‘You thought I was good with two hands? Wait till you see what I can do with my left hand alone!’ And this kind of used to drive the crowd wild for an encore.”

Nicholas plays repertoire arranged for the left hand alone
Nicholas plays repertoire arranged for the left hand alone. Picture: Classic FM

‘My piano hero – Paul Wittgenstein’

In the 20th century, the First World War saw thousands of servicemen come home from battle, often with injured or missing right limbs.

“There was one particular man named Paul Wittgenstein, who is my piano hero, really,” Nicholas continues. “He came back from battle after losing his right arm, and then he used his steely determination to commission the leading celebrity composers of the 20th century.”

Blazing a trail for one-handed pianists of the future, Wittgenstein commissioned left-hand piano repertoire from all the 20th century greats, from Ravel and Britten to Prokofiev and Strauss.

Left hand along piano repertoire would then rapidly develop, largely thanks to Wittgenstein’s commissions.

‘There’s a lifetime of works for left hand’

“The biggest misconception that I hear about left hand alone piano is that there’s only a few works for left hand,” McCarthy adds.

Citing Ravel’s Left-hand Piano concerto – “a concert I play lots!” – and Scriabin’s prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand, Nicholas says, “There are 3,000 works for left hand alone solo. There’s a lifetime worth of work there.”

Of his favourites left hand along arrangements to play, Nicholas chooses Brahms’ arrangement of the beautiful ‘Chaconne’, originally written for Bach’s violin.

“He actually wrote this for Clara Schumann when she injured her right hand and he came, knight in shining armour, with this wonderful left hand alone arrangement.”

McCarthy performs an excerpt from the beautiful arrangement below, in the striking surroundings of the Purcell Room.

“The ‘Chaconne’ for me is a very special piece,” he adds. “I learned it quite early in my career, then didn’t perform it for years and then performed it later on. Every time I play it, I feel very privileged to get to play it.”

World’s only one-handed concert pianist Nicholas McCarthy plays emotive Bach 'Chaconne'

‘Géza Zichy, the world’s first professional one-armed pianist’

Playing at the level of a concert pianist is already incredibly challenging. But playing for the left hand alone can be extremely physically demanding – “a real workout!”.

Many of today’s most popular left hand alone piano arrangements are by Count Géza Zichy, who Nicholas describes as another of his “piano heroes”.

Zichy, a Hungarian composer, lost his right arm from a hunting accident, and went on to triumph across Europe as a left hand piano champion.

“He was the first ever left hand alone pianist, and he was actually a student of the great Franz Liszt and became great friends with Liszt,” Nicholas says.

“He was such a game-changer in the world of left-hand repertoire, especially the Schubert arranged by Zichy, the Earl King or ‘Erlkönig’. It’s a wonderful piece and I love it, but stamina wise, it’s hard.”

Watch Nicholas play a passage of the Schubert in the Instagram video above.

‘I hope to inspire future generations with a disability’

“Being a left hand alone pianist and obviously having only one hand, the rewards I feel the most are the surprise of the audience and people coming to my concerts, who have really never been to a classical concert – let alone to a piano recital, let alone to a left hand piano recital,” Nicholas tells Classic FM.

“I think because of that interest and that human interest around my story and how I play – that has kind of drawn in audiences, really.”

But now for Nicholas, nearly 10 years after releasing his debut album Solo (2015), it’s all about looking to the future.

“I’m very passionate about trying to inspire the next generation of disabled musicians,” he says.

“I hope that my career kind of provides some form of inspiration to future generations who have a disability or a limb difference. And they see me and think, ‘Well, he’s done it, and this is what I want to have a go at.’”

See Nicholas McCarthy: Journey into Left-Hand Piano at the Southbank Centre on Saturday 23 March at 5pm – final tickets here.