The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

About the Work

Photo for Maurice Ravel Composer: Maurice Ravel
© Thomas May

Piano Concerto for the Left Hand
Maurice Ravel
Born March 7, 1875, Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées
Died December 28, 1937, Paris

The unusual concept of a one-handed piano concerto came about from the personal misfortune (turned into an asset) of the man who commissioned it, Paul Wittgenstein (brother of the famous philosopher, Ludwig). Wittgenstein lost his right arm while fighting in the First World War but decided to resume his career as a concert pianist by commissioning works scored for the left hand alone.

Ravel (1875-1937) himself had enlisted in the First World War (on the opposite side, of course), in which he ended up serving as a truck driver. Le Tombeau de Couperin served as his memorial to a number of friends he had lost in the war. The darker aspects of the Concerto for the Left Hand may similarly channel something of Ravel's reaction to the war's indiscriminate destruction. Yet his score is hardly unequivocal in its emotions. This is a work capable of absorbing a healthy variety of interpretations—whether they emphasize its more disturbing qualities or its playful examination of virtuosity and jazz elements.

The Concerto unfolds as a single continuous movement in two parts. The first is a lengthy slow introduction, which opens with an arresting dramatization of process: Ravel traces a musical idea solemnly emerging into existence from the lower depths of the orchestra (a sly metaphor for the left—i.e., bass—side of the keyboard?). Ravel builds a slow, steady crescendo, filled with tremendous suspense, for the full orchestra. When this finally peaks, the soloist makes a monumental, keyboard-spanning first appearance. The sonic illusion of two-handed virtuosity that Ravel conjures ironically belies the piece's title. Of particular brilliance is the variety of ways in which Ravel has the soloist match the lyrical wanderings of the "right hand" rich, full-bodied accompaniment. The music peaks once again and then subsides in a saucy, crisp, march-like theme for the second part, a scherzo section. Here the soloist suddenly strikes a mechanistic pose. Ravel employs the full resources of his orchestral wizardry for this episode-rich music, with hints of Parisian jazz joining the mix. The Concerto's opening theme returns, and then the keyboard again takes the spotlight for an extended cadenza; enhancing its dazzling beauty is our awareness of Ravel's technical sleight of hand (so to speak). The orchestra subtly reenters the frame to participate in the piano's reveries. Echoing the vast crescendo from the piece's opening, soloist and ensemble build an overwhelming pressure. It bursts into the spasmodic final measures, where the scherzo music briefly flashes for what the composer called "a brutal conclusion."