The Unconservatory  

Playing Left Hand Piano Music

An article by Antonio Iturrioz, concert pianist and educator

Piano music written for the left hand alone evolved from either temporary or permanent handicaps of pianists, with the exception of Leopold Godowsky's exploration into the innermost recesses and possibilities of playing the piano, which involve a separate, penetrating, unbelievably ingenious look at this subject to a degree that has never been equaled.

The pianist must respect the composer's thoughts, intentions and directions of the printed score, and make a percussive instrument sing. No matter how brilliant, how intense, how passionate, how intimate or how delicate, the piano must sing. (Chopin said to his pupils, "Canta!") If one keeps this aesthetic in mind, he will eliminate the possibility of making a harsh sound or shattering an eardrum. Imagine transferring all these ideals to one hand playing.

To begin with, there is an immediate tendency to want to play louder because we are conditioned to hearing the voluminous sounds of normal two hand piano music. Therefore left hand playing is vulnerable to unfriendly sounds. We pianists must listen to ourselves with a greater degree of attentiveness than ever before. At the same tine, left hand playing enables us to be more intimate and personal (almost fragile) without as much physical effort as in normal playing.

In contrast to what the layman may think, it is more difficult to play music with one hand than with two. With two hands, one is always subservient to the other. With one hand there are never any silences. You can't rest for a moment. Everything is more exposed. You can't use the acoustical range you get with two hands.

Sir Donald Tovey, the great musicologist and pedagogue said, "Writing for the left hand is of great aesthetic interest because the restrictions it imposes on the composer are a stimulus to his invention." I would like to add that it also becomes a stimulus for the performer because it forces him to bring out the best in himself. It forces him to ask questions such as: what colors are capable of being produced with just five fingers, how does one treat the bass line, the harmonic structure, and the melody in relation to what musical forms are being played at the moment? How does one balance the technical and musical requirements of a work and bring it to life in a poetic manner? And all of this with only one hand.

Unfortunately, there will always be someone to accuse the pianist of exhibitionism for playing left hand pieces. My response to that is to try to impress upon that person that it is really just the opposite; it is an act of total humility. It is a tremendous challenge to play with the left hand alone because of the limitations involved and because listeners in general are conditioned to the sonorities of two handed piano music. And so it becomes an act of affection using one humble hand.

It is my hope that with increased exposure to the left hand piano repertoire the general public will become more aware of the musical treasures that exist in this domain. And that when an uninformed listener says, "He's an exhibitionist. He plays with only one hand," someone else will come to the rescue of left hand piano music and champion the humble performer.

Editor's note: For those of you wishing to further explore music of the left hand repertoire the following pieces are suggested as a starting point: Chaconne in D Minor by J.S. Bach as arranged for the left hand alone by Johannes Brahms, the concertos for left hand piano and orchestra by Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev, Nocturne for the left hand alone by Alexander Scriabin, and (of course) the left hand etudes of Leopold Godowsky. "Antonio Iturrioz: Selections From Live Concerts" features selections for the left hand alone. Mr. Iturrioz also plans to record "Rhapsody for the Left Hand Alone" by Kirk Whipple which will be available in an upcoming release. Stay tuned for details.

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Updated: January 25, 2001 (KB)

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