On This Day (January 5)…Piano Concerto for the Left Hand Premieres

Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto For the Left Hand in D Major premiered on this day in 1932 in Vienna.

Ravel wrote this concerto on commission for Paul Wittgenstein, a noted Viennese concert pianist who debuted in 1913 on the eve of World War I. While fighting in the war in 1914, he lost his right arm, providing a setback in his musical aspirations. However, Wittgenstein did not give up and instead developed his left-handed technique. As he came from a very wealthy Viennese family, he was able to commission several noted composers of the day to write concertos for the left hand, including Prokofiev, Britten, and Hindemith. Ravel’s has survived to the present day as the most famous.

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Paul Wittgenstein. Photo retrieved from here.

This piece was one of Ravel’s final compositions. Surprisingly for its lateness in Ravel’s canon, this was the first of Ravel’s piano concertos. Prior to receiving the commission, Ravel had only completed one other concerto and finished sketches for another. However, while working on this piece, Ravel also returned to these sketches; this became his Piano Concerto in G Major. It was completed soon after and reportedly premiered days after this one.

Wittgenstein and Ravel had a serious falling-out early in the piece’s performative life when the pianist attempted to change the scoring, taking on portions of the orchestral melodies for the piano. Ravel was apparently incensed over this disrespect for his work. Sources vary on what exactly happened, but the consensus appears to be that the piece ended up being played as written later on in its compositional life, though the two men remained at odds over the incident. Wittgenstein himself never fully adapted to the piece, remaining critical of it throughout his life. This is not much of an indictment, however; Wittgenstein liked very few of the pieces he had commissioned!

Ravel did not attend the premiere. Wittgenstein on piano was accompanied by the Vienna Symphony, conducted by Robert Heger. He later conducted Wittgenstein for the 1933 premiere.

An impressive feat of musical legerdemain and illusion, the full sound and texture of the solo part [of the concerto] rarely give the slightest hint that a mere single hand is involved. 

Kathy Henkel about this piece. Retrieved from here.

The piece is notable for its unusual form (slow-fast-slow, an inversion of typical concerto structure), its difficulty, dark atmosphere, and its remarkable orchestration. It is still performed quite frequently today. Pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet gives an interesting walkthrough of the piece here.

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