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Unraveling ravel's Piano concerto for the left hand

Who says you have to play the piano with two hands? For many different reasons, there are a handful of pianists who play with just one hand. Paul Wittgenstein was one of those pianists. He could play with his left hand only because he had lost his right arm during the First World War. Nevertheless, he wanted to continue playing the piano. So, Wittgenstein asked French composer Maurice Ravel to write a piano concerto for him for left hand.

Maurice Ravel (his full name is Joseph-Maurice Ravel) was a French composer, conductor, and pianist. He was born in Ciboure, a village near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, on 7 March 1875 to one of the most interesting families of the famous composers: his father was Swiss, and his mother was Basque. He came from an artistic family who encouraged young Maurice to learn about music.

At the age of 14, Ravel entered the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied music until 1905. During this time he composed some of his best-known works, including the orchestral work Pavane for a Dead Princess and his famous String Quartet.

Ravel is loved today for his popular orchestral works, especially Bolero, Rapsodie espagnole, and his orchestral arrangement of Modeste Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. He even came to the United States and met George Gershwin with whom he became good friends. Ravel's trip to the United States helped him to become very famous during his lifetime.

It was Ravel's fame that led Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein to commission the composer to write the Piano Concerto for Left Hand. Ravel eagerly accepted the challenging of writing a concerto in which the piano solo sounded like it was being played by two hands, when, in fact, it was played with only one hand. (At one time Ravel, who was an excellent pianist, demonstrated the concerto with two hands because he did not feel he could perform it as well with just one hand.) In January 5, 1932, Wittgenstein premiered the concerto in Vienna with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and one year later he performed it in Paris with Ravel conducting. Both performances were very successful, and critic Henry Prunières even wrote that "from the opening measures, we are plunged into a world in which Ravel has but rarely introduced us."

The structure of the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand is unusual. Not everybody agrees about how many sections there are. At one time, Ravel stated that there is only one movement, but at another time he said there are two movements that are linked together. Other people like Marie-Noëlle Masson argue that the concerto has three sections in a slow–fast–slow tempo sequence instead of the usual fast–slow–fast. However we look at the structure of this amazing concerto of 18-19 minutes, there are several sections in a variety of tempos and keys. Near the end of the piece, some of the music of the early slow sections combines with the faster music, so that two tempos take place at the same time.

This concerto is scored for a very large orchestra consisting of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, piccolo clarinet, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, wood block, tam-tam, harp, strings, and solo piano.

Click here for a recording of this concerto. For a recording of Wittgenstein himself playing an excerpt from this concerto in 1937, click here.

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