One Hand Piano
History and Repertoire

This is an excerpt from an interview with Dr. Theodore Edel, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL USA

As one of the world's experts on the piano one hand repertoire what sparked your interest in this area?

One day my wife wondered aloud whether anyone had made a thorough study of the one hand literature, and that it would meet a valuable need for pianists and teachers. A light bulb went off when I realized that, indeed, no one had ever done so.

What occasioned the development of the extensive one hand literature?

Of course, we are really talking about two literatures — one for the left and the other for the right. There are four main reasons for the left hand repertoire. It all began as a stunt in the carnival-like atmosphere of the early piano recital (the 1840s and 50s). Alexander Dreyschock and Adolfo Fumagalli, two of the most important purveyors, were simply showing off. Then in the latter part of the 19th century, as the level of playing rose and piano pedagogy was codified, dozens of etudes appeared whose purpose was to shore up the disparity in skill between the two hands. Injury has played a major role, particularly in the 20th century with the many commissions from Viennese pianist Paul Wittgenstein. Some composers have responded to the challenge of limitations: how much can be accomplished with five fingers? Brahms said that he played with his left hand alone in order to "feel like a violinist"; from this arose his arrangement of the Bach Chaconne. The fugues by Reger, Dohnanyi, and Godowsky represent "mind over matter". With his left hand Paraphrases on Chopin Etudes, the master pianist Godowsky was out to revolutionize piano writing itself. Written a century ago, these 22 pieces represents the pinnacle of the left hand literature and have never been equaled in terms of difficulty and ingenuity.

All of these motivations for left hand music help to explain the paucity of right hand works. Dreyschock and Fumagalli could never have advanced their careers an inch with music for the right hand alone. In fact, most of the two-hand music by those early virtuosi was in a sense "for the right hand" — glittery, light-weight concoctions designed to show off digital skills in the brilliant new upper reaches of the keyboard. As for technical development and challenge the standard repertoire has always been a gold mine for the right hand. And finally injury: it seems that few pianists have damaged their left hands either away from the piano or while practicing.

We are often asked by those with hand impairments about the possibility and feasibility of playing the piano. From a musical, rather than medical standpoint, what issues should such individuals take into account?

I can assure all the left hand players that they will find enough material to last them longer than one lifetime. In my book, Piano Music for One Hand (Indiana University Press), I discuss over 1000 left hand works by 350 composers. The range of difficulty here absolutely parallels the standard piano literature, from children’s materials to the dizzy heights of Godowsky — and every stage in between. What’s missing is the "immortals" like Chopin, Schumann, Brahms (except as an arranger of Bach), Liszt (except a simple late work), etc. The big names in the left hand solo literature are Scriabin, Saint-Sans, Moszkowski, and Reger. And since the genre began in the mid-19th century and had its heyday during the following decades, the Baroque and Classical styles are found only in transcription.

From the psychological viewpoint it seems to take considerably more nerve to perform with the left hand alone, harder to feel that edge of confidence. And the memory requires more repetitions, at least it does for me and others with whom I’ve spoken. But some pianists may not find this to be true.

As for the right hand, I mention 60 composers in my book, but see my article in Piano & Keyboard (May/June, 1998) for several others (plus some musical examples). In contrast to the left hand repertoire, all but two works are from the modern period. Some of the names here are Vivian Fine, Jean Absil, Richard Rodney Bennett, Allen Shawn, Louis Calabro, and Ned Rorem. Strangely enough — and this will disappoint anyone seeking display repertoire — the right hand works are devoid of virtuosity. Not only are they far easier than the left hand solos, but even simpler than the parts we think of as challenging in our standard two-hand repertoire.

Pianists looking for right hand music — those with left hand injuries and teachers dealing with such students — should also try adapting left hand pieces. With simple music there’s no problem, but the more idiomatic and difficult the writing is, the more impractical this becomes. To give one example: Scriabin’s Prelude in C# minor is technically quite easy and can be played nicely by the right hand, but his more difficult and widely-ranging Nocturne would be awkward. I encourage all pianists to explore the entire literature fully, meet the challenges, and make whatever changes are necessary. The main point is to be active and to make music.

Are there any special concerns or cautions, musical or physical, that those contemplating playing the piano one hand literature should keep in mind?

Yes, left hand playing can be strenuous. A half hour of even moderately fast music can bring on fatigue: all the fingers used constantly and sometimes in unfamiliar positions; the effort of bringing out certain notes. It's important to consciously lighten up the dynamics, keep calm while practicing the exciting parts, and make sure the wrist is relaxed at all times. Sitting one octave to the right of middle C is helpful: the wrist doesn't have to turn so much. When the left hand has to go high into the treble, shift the torso far over, holding on to the corner of the piano with your right hand. Even in middle-range passages, holding on to the bench with the right hand serves as an anchor. With all of that said, there is one thing that makes the left hand superior for piano playing: the strong fingers are on the right side, well-suited for bringing out the melody. Of course, composers sometimes put the melody on the bottom too!

Probably the most famous (and deservedly so) work in the one-hand literature is the Ravel Concerto for the Left Hand, written for Paul Wittgenstein, a pianist injured in World War I. What makes this work stand out and what other one-hand works do you find particularly worthwhile, both to perform and to hear?

Few people realize that Wittgenstein received seventeen concerti (some were never published). But you are right: the Ravel is the best, simply because it’s genuinely great music. If he had written it for two hands it would definitely be in our repertoire. (Actually Ravel, who was not the world’s greatest pianist, did have to use both hands when he played it for Wittgenstein the first time).

Another good concerto is the Diversions by Britten. I find the two Strauss works, as well as Prokofieff’s No. 4, uninspired. The score by Hindemith, which Wittgenstein rejected, has completely disappeared. Among Wittgenstein’s best commissions are three Quintets by Franz Schmidt. A less-known pianist who lost his right arm in the first World War was the Czech Otakar Hollmann, who convinced Martinu and Janácek to write for him (a concertino and a chamber work respectively).

Turning to the solo repertoire, the Godowsky Paraphrases on Chopin Etudes are miracles of piano writing. While most are beyond the average pianist, the E-flat minor, Op. 10 No. 6, is approachable; Raymond Lewenthal wisely chose it for his excellent anthology Music for One Hand (Schirmer). At the top of the list comes Scriabin’s Prelude and Nocturne, op. 9, which, like Ravel’s Concerto, would be played even if he had scored them for two hands. Other Romantic repertoire I recommend are the études (character pieces, really) by Blumenthal, Sauer, and Reger. Saint-Saëns’ 6 Etudes are much simpler. Moszkowski was not a deep composer, of course, but his 12 Etudes cover the whole spectrum of technique. Though little-known today, Alexis Hollander and Josef Rheinberger were distinctly superior salon composers. Bartok’s 1903 Etude, is exciting but a bit long, and a surprising example of his early style; it requires excellent octaves. For sheer musical worth, nothing can top Bach’s violin Chaconne as arranged by Brahms; it’s fairly difficult. For teaching young children, the volume Piano Music for One Hand by Australian Composers (Allans) is filled with charming things.

In the modern idiom there are important works from Willem Andriessen, Joseph Dichler, Robert Helps, Marcel Mihalovici, Franz Schmidt, and Jeno Takacs. Robert Saxton’s complex Chacony is one of several works recorded by Leon Fleisher. The avant garde Etude pour agresseurs by Alain Louvier is scored for fingers, palms, wrists, and forearms.

What recordings do you find particularly worthwhile for those who wish to explore the piano one hand repertoire?

The concerti and chamber works are well represented on disk. Leon Fleisher has a solo CD with excellent renditions of Saint-Saëns, Blumenfeld, Scriabin, Godowsky, Takacs, and Saxton. Geoffrey Madge recorded all the Chopin-Godowsky Paraphrases; Ian Hobson plays a selection. I did a Web search which turned up isolated recordings of single pieces by Nepomuceno, Ponce, Lipatti, Mompou, and Moszkowski; Josef Hofmann recorded his own Etude. That's a tiny percentage of the left hand solo repertoire. As far as the right hand is concerned, Lionel Nowak made a cassette of some significant works written for him (available from the Bennington College Office of Public Affairs).Anyone who wants to explore the left hand literature with real thoroughness will have to look at the music, either through inter-library loan or a visit to a major national library. The nice thing about one-hand music is the comparative ease of sight-reading.

Should people without hand impairments give the one-hand literature consideration and, if so, why?

Definitely, yes. Left hand music is good for everyone. Is there a pianist whose left hand is equal to his/her right? I doubt it, because during the years spent working at the standard repertoire our right hands are continually in the spotlight. With music for the left hand alone, we can focus on any imperfections which may be partly hidden by the busy right hand. We can refine and set higher standards not only in technical matters, but the balance, phrasing, and dynamic gradations. Many students now playing Chopin’s "Revolutionary" Etude might gain more from careful work on a couple of Moszkowski Studies. I consider Godowsky’s Paraphrase of the Chopin Etude in A minor, op. 10 no. 2 (for the fourth and fifth fingers) to be the greatest of all technical drills, if practiced with a free wrist and not too loudly.

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