There are a lot of questions and considerations when it comes to writing a piano concerto for a single hand. John Banther and Evan Keely explore the origins of this masterpiece and all the ways in which Ravel makes it sound larger than its parts.
Two performances of the concerto with great camera shots of the left hand!
Brigita Vilč with the Zagreb Philharmonic
Hélène Tysman at the piano with the Orchestra of the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar
John: I'm John Banther, and this is classical breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we're your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Keeley, and we are talking about one of the more intriguing concertos from the 20th century, Maurice Ravel's piano concerto, For the Left Hand.
We get into how this concerto for one hand came into existence, tensions between the original pianist and composer, and we dive into several different ways in which Ravel proves he's an orchestration genius. Plus, stay with us to the end as we read your reviews from Apple Podcasts.
This concerto is really one of my favorites, and I'm sure that there's actually some out there listening that have not even heard about this before. They're hearing it now for the first time. I remember hearing it for the first time in I think 2004, and just thinking, well, a concerto for one hand, how did this come about? How does that work? What does it sound like? And as I think we'll see, Evan, at least in my opinion, I think Ravel was the perfect composer for riding this kind of concerto.
Evan: Really have to agree. You have a master orchestrator and such a brilliant innovator in terms of harmony and a musical structure and so forth like Ravel given this very unusual opportunity to create something that's so off the beaten path, and he rises to the occasions so brilliantly.
John: So Ravel composed this between 1929 and 1930. It premiered in 1932 with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and it was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, who was an Austrian pianist who actually lost his right arm, basically right at the beginning of World War I. And he was then a prisoner of war for a while. He gets released, he's out of World War I, but now he has only his left arm and his left hand to play the piano. But he also came from a very wealthy family in Europe. I guess they had visitors over the years of people like Brahms and Mauer and Strauss. And so with connections and with money, he was able to commission many composers to write works for just one hand and works for a piano for one hand had already existed in different ways, and Ravel studied those. But those were always, I think in terms of there was an injury to someone's hand or a neurological disease, something like that. I think this, Evan, is the first instance of a concerto like this being commissioned out of the horrors of war, World War I.
Evan: You and I were agreeing that Ravel was really the perfect composer to do this. Paul Wittgenstein just making his debut in 1913, right before the war, and as you said, John, he was wounded shortly after the war began and shot in the elbow, had to have his arm amputated. He was a prisoner of war. Doesn't seem to have let that end his career as a pianist. So I give him a lot of credit for persevering and not only persevering, but introducing some innovations in piano playing. Playing only with five fingers and how you use the pedal and phrasing and so forth. He was one who introduced some new techniques for piano playing. And you see that influence, I think to some extent in Ravel's concerto.
John: Absolutely. And we've said Ravel might have been the perfect composer for this commission, and there's a few reasons for that. Just looking at the limitations here, there's a single hand, in this case, the left, which is closer to the left side of the piano, the lower side, all those lower notes. And Ravel, we know as a master of color and a genius at orchestration, being able to take something written for piano, Pictures at an Exhibition, for example, by Mussorgsky, and able to write that out for orchestra in a way that's not only authentic but almost sounds like how it might have been to begin with. Here's just a quick example of how he was able to go from piano to orchestra.
He does things like that and he also creates, Evan, whole new sounds in the orchestra. There's a moment in Valero that catches many people off guard. You almost can't tell what exactly is happening, which instruments are even creating this whole new kind of sound.
So those are just a couple of quick ways in how Ravel was really adept at doing something like this. Because of his knowledge of orchestration and color, and also as we'll see musical illusions too, and here's what Ravel said about this concerto. He said, " In the work of this kind, it is essential to give the impression of a texture no thinner than that of a part written for both hands for the same reason. I resorted to a style that is much nearer to that of the more solemn kind of traditional concerto."
So he's already from the beginning saying this is for one hand, but there's going to be an impression that it is two hands. But he's also saying this is going to be a concerto I think like other concertos, he's not seeking to reinvent the form, reinvent the wheel here. He wants us to fit in still with other concertos written in a more traditional way, I think.
Evan: He clearly is not beginning with the assumption that this is a limitation.
John: One way that this isn't so traditional is that we don't have three movements or either we have different sections all contained within one movement. I also think Ravel is doing something with the orchestra here because it's a full orchestra, full winds, full brass, including tuba. And I mentioned that because it's my instrument, because tuba does not play on a lot of concertos. We're not on a lot of concertos, especially anything before the 20th century. But here, Ravel, I think he wanted as much in his pocket or up his sleeve, if you will, musically and creatively to basically create any kind of sound that he wanted to make. And what an opening to this concerto, too, Evan, it seems to rumble out of existence into nothing. In fact, if you are in the middle of the hall or towards the back, you probably won't even hear when it starts exactly. It just rumbles out of the earth almost.
Evan: One of the many remarkable things about this, I agree with what you're saying, John, there's this almost sense like, wait, what's, what's happening? Is this coming from another room? But then you have this solo instrument come in and it's the contrabassoon, which is almost never a solo instrument in any orchestral work. And yet in this particular context with that weird sort of low string rumbling, it's almost like it's exactly the thing that you need to hear and the last thing you were expecting. And it creates this just this incredible mood that just makes you lean forward in your chair. What's happening now? What's going to happen next?
So Ravel saying this is a traditional concerto. There's a kind of irony, I think to that statement because it's true. It's he's not trying to reinvent the concerto as a genre, and yet already from the very beginning we are hearing this very unusual kind of sound and this dotted rhythm that appears throughout the whole piece coming back and then going away when you have the faster section and then it comes back, ( singing). That rhythm that occurs over and over again just gives it this drive.
John: It brings to my mind some kind of primordial ooze. There's all kinds of things and maybe lifeforms trying to come out, instantaneous life or whatever, come out of this primordial ooze that things are swirling around, but it's slowly grows in character. And this happens a lot in this concerto where things develop and grow kind of slowly and you're kind of like that frog and boiling water kind of example. This becomes huge towering and heroic right before the piano comes in. And the piano comes in with its own cadenza. The orchestra brings us to this high point, and then boom, the piano comes in. And this is, it's one of the more extraordinary piano entrances in my opinion. It is so towering and imposing going from the low register all the way to the high. And again, just one hand, it's easy to forget. This is one hand.
Evan: Yes, again, he's not treating it as a limitation.
John: And he has no intentions of letting the sound even approach thin from what he said before. The cadenza is quite long. And this is where he's also getting even more creative because when you think of two hands at a piano, oftentimes on the left there's some kind of accompanying passage. And then on the right, some kind of melody, if you just really break it down. Here with one hand, he's still creating this illusion by having these statements in the left hand, very low on the piano, and then the response, the melodic response in the right. And he also introduces a lot of thematic material here for the entire concerto. And a lot of what he's playing here now will get transformed into the orchestra too once they return.
Evan: And one thing interesting to even just look at the score, you would think a piano, one hand part would be just one staff, which it often is. But given the writing that Ravel gives the soloist to this concerto, very often you need two staves you would have with a traditional two- hand piano part. And it really, like I said, it's not a limitation, it's just a different way of approaching playing the piano and creating this melody and harmony with the five fingers instead of ten, and spanning the entire span of the keyboard. Having different voices sounding simultaneously really requires extraordinary skill on the part of the soloist, but really astounding skill on the part of the composer who created it.
John: The piano is building up in this cadenza, and when the orchestra comes back in, we hear that left hand motif come back in the orchestra, but in a very clever way.
He adds the timpani to I think the low strings and the winds. And this seems pretty boring at first, so the timpani plays along too. Okay. But what I think he's doing here, he's also imitating the piano itself by having an instrument like the timpani, which has a very strong accent with a hard mallet or hard, yeah, mallet especially creates a very strong accent. And then immediate decay that blends into the rest of the sound much in the same way where you get that strong attack on the left hand of the piano when you want. This is, it's very detailed, but you can absolutely hear this. And the only other composer I know that does this with such intention is someone like Sergei Prokofiev.
Evan: Ravel really understands that the piano is, among other things, a percussion instrument.
John: We forget that. It is a percussion instrument. There's strings, but there's little hammers that are hitting these strings.
Evan: Striking the strings.
John: There's times in this concerto where I hear glimpses of some of his other music, like a string quartet for example. It's almost like he's able to have the orchestra behave in a way like a giant paintbrush, instruments, different sections, whatever, painting together. And then with winds and brass and more, we're building up again. And it's so bright. The sound is so bright, you almost can't even look at it.
Then, Evan, the piano comes back in totally new character. It's so contemplative, almost content and delicate.
Building out of this contemplative section, Evan, we get to what I think is actually one of the more virtuosic points in the concerto, but one that probably doesn't sound like it. Almost robotically the piano is playing, I think 32nd notes across a pretty decent range of the instrument, especially for the tempo. This is so challenging because one, the hand is moving around and each note has to sound with the same tone, the same style, the same articulation, and the ones that need to have a little bit of variation, those have to come out. But if we went down to the piano, each note would sound totally different. But with this pianist and performance, this is really a virtuosic moment.
Now, what about the premiere? Ravel wasn't at the premiere actually, was he when it was first played by Wittgenstein?
Evan: No, he wasn't able to be at the premiere, but he did hear a performance a few weeks later, and at that point was very distressed to discover that Wittgenstein had a very different set of ideas on how to handle this score. My understanding is that that first performance that Ravel heard was one in which Wittgenstein was at one piano, and then instead of the orchestra, there was Margarite Long playing a orchestra reduction on another piano. And in this performance, Wittgenstein took quite a few liberties with Ravel's score to, so to the extent that Ravel was actually quite incensed at how Wittgenstein changed, what had Ravel had written, apparently Wittgenstein had felt that this was too modern, too jazzy or whatever. He also complained at some point that there were so many solo passages. I think he may have said something like, " If I wanted a Sonata, I would've asked for one instead of a concerto." So a lot of tension between composer and performer. And I find this is one of the most fascinating aspects of the history of this whole piece, John.
John: I do too. I guess even Ravel tried to get Wittgenstein to sign a contract, like a legal agreement, saying he would not play it differently going forward. That was just quite interesting.
Evan: You have these two very brilliant men who are, to put it politely, rather sure of themselves coming to a very distinct disagreement about something. There's bound to be some fireworks. There's so much about this that I find really fascinating, and I know more about Ravel than I know about Paul Wittgenstein, so my perspective, and like you John, you know, and I both love Ravel so much. As a composer, it's easy to sort of take his side in all of this.
And I try to take a step back and think about Wittgenstein's experience. Like I said, he had his debut as a pianist in 1913, right before the war. He's a young man. He goes off to war this terrible, terrible war. The world has never seen something as horrific as World War I. He gets wounded, he loses his arm. He doesn't give up his career as a pianist, which I give him a lot of credit for that. He commissions all these composers to create works that he can play with five fingers instead of ten. And I give him a lot of credit for that. Obviously, a very brilliant man and a very determined man, and he deserves a lot of respect for that.
Why did he not respect Ravel's score? Or at least ask Ravel like, " Hey, I noticed that you did this, that and the other thing. What if we changed this? How would you feel?" I wish that he had gone about that in a different way if he had concerns about the score.
But I also think about this in a larger context of the whole question of inclusion in the arts. And in our time, this is something that more and more people are thinking about and talking about, and it raises some very uncomfortable questions. Here's someone who is disabled. Here's someone who has suffered a life altering injury to his body. He perseveres despite that. He refuses, I think he's refusing to be treated as a kind of charity case. He doesn't want pity. He wants to be respected as an artist.
And I think that Ravel, again, I don't know the inner processes of these men's minds, but it strikes me from what we see in this brilliant concerto, Ravel is not looking down at Wittgenstein with pity. He's not saying, " Oh, you poor thing. You were wounded in the war. Let me condescend to write this for you." He sees this as a challenge for himself as a composer, as an orchestrator. He creates a great work of art, which really respects the artistry of the person who commissioned it. And so I don't blame Ravel for being very angry that Wittgenstein went about this in a way that, as I said, I wish he had gone about it in a different way. But it's also an opportunity for us in our time to think about how are we creating spaces in arts organizations, whether it's an orchestra or in any artistic form of expression that's creating the possibility of different kinds of people being able to participate, even though some others who are more narrow- minded might want to exclude those kinds of people.
John: I agree, Evan, and very well put. It is interesting to see how it all went down. And I have seen that Wittgenstein did express regret. He lived much longer. He did express regret over how things went down, but he also said, " I cannot disguise my true feelings." But all fantastic points, and we are going to get into the next section of the concerto right after this.
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Now, Evan, we get to a march, a rather different sounding kind of march, and he's making musical illusions here. And you think about, well, if you have a piano with one hand, how do you make that sound bigger, meaning louder, bigger than it is? Part of doing that is by using sudden dynamic contrast. Having the piano jump out at fortissimo, for example, very loud, creates quite an impact musically and orally that takes up that space.
Evan: And again, using these combinations of solo instruments that are sort of in dialogue with the piano, there's a harp that jumps in with these glissandos. They have a kind of pianistic sound. I think the woodwinds have these little moments where they're sort of echoing the piano or responding to it in a kind of call and response kind of way.
John: In those little moments. Some of them are just, they pop out and they're gone forever, and that that's also kind of fun about it. Things happen, but not everything always comes back.
A really fantastic point that really brings it home to me of Ravel's genius with all of this is how he transitions from, in one point in the music, things are moving along. He wants to go from a lower point to a higher point in the harmony, and he does this by using a trill, which is two notes going back and forth very fast. In fact, it's usually not written out. There's a little symbol to trill, and it's up to the musician to correctly and accurately control that in context with everything that's happening around them.
So he's using this trill and he passes it around through all these different instruments in the orchestra so fast, it whips around, and then the transition's over. What he's doing is it all matches up in terms of the tamper and the color. He has to know how one instrument sounds in this register and what other instrument sounds similarly in a much different register of another instrument. So with all those things together, he creates a seamless transition, which to me is just, it gets me every single time.
Evan: And as you said, John, a trill of course is two pitches sounding simultaneously together very quickly, and there's a kind of thickness that creates a kind of drive. And with the rhythmic elements of this ( singing) really pushing the US forward into this realm of experience with these different similarities. It's really exciting.
John: And then we get to another point, which I think is just showing off Ravel's genius. If you think of the limitations of using one hand, the left, so that's on the left side, it's on the lower side, we're going to hear those lower notes easier. You think about the ergonomics of this. If you just have your keyboard, for example, in front of you, if you move it two feet to the left and you try to type a sentence with your left hand, you'll be able to do it and peck out the words and get it done. Now take it back to the center and move it two feet to the right and try to type that same sentence with your left hand now stretched over to the right. It's much more difficult.
So I think Ravel, understanding this, knows that when he puts the musician in this register, it can't be for nothing. There has to be a reason. There has to be some kind of longer lasting impact. If it's just a bunch of swirling notes underneath a line in the orchestra, that's kind of a waste. So he brings out this absolutely characteristic moment on the high side of the piano. It's dreamy. It's so powerful. I almost wonder how he's actually even putting it together. But that's just one of those things I think again, Ravel is understanding and not seeing as a limitation, but more as a creative opportunity.
Evan: Really a full body experience for the soloist playing this part, really having had to stretch the body all the way from one side to the other. I think the spinal column is definitely getting more of a workout in this concerto than in a lot of others.
The thing about this march, it's kind of similar to what you and I were talking about a few weeks ago, John, where we talked about the Sixth Symphony of Tchaikovsky in the third movement, which has this sort of march- like quality. There's this whimsical quality, and yet the driving rhythm also has this seriousness and solemnity to it. And I couldn't help but think of Tchaikovsky and the Sixth Symphony when I think about this piece. Even though the style is so different, there's that same sense of there's a simultaneity of playfulness, but also earnestness that's almost menacing in its rhythmic drive.
John: Not only that, Evan, because I think you're onto something with that. Even the beginning of the concerto almost sounds like Tchaikovsky Six. Low, dark.
Evan: Sure. Low bassoon and low strings. Yes.
John: What I also love about this march is well, when you think of a march, yeah, you're marching kind of moving forward. Forward motion is kind of easy, and there's so much happening here. There's so much energy. It sounds like there's things swirling around. Everything is happening, but it also feels like we're actually not going anywhere. It's like these sounds and images are swirling around a cloud. Almost feels like a NyQuil fever dream at this point.
Evan: One of the many ways in which Ravel is a master of orchestration. We think about the colors, the sonorities he's able to create with combinations of instruments. Certainly he was brilliant in that way, but he also understands balance. He understands the dynamic ranges of the instruments and how well they sound playing together, and the combinations of instruments that are going to sound simultaneously in a way that one instrument or group of instruments don't overwhelm the sounds of other instruments at the same time. And this concerto was, I think one of the most exquisite examples of that in all of Ravel's masterful orchestral output.
John: Oh, I think so too. Because we get to another point where the pianos playing by itself. Another extended section that Wittgenstein maybe wasn't so happy with at first, more like a Sonata maybe. But each of these sections where the piano is alone, it's a different character, it's a different atmosphere. Now it shows off how Ravel is also writing for one hand in that there's accompanying lines on the low side that are kind of swirling around. And then on the upper side, he has a melody, a theme that is longer. And that's another way of dealing with writing with one hand, having themes that are longer in length, that is, so if you have longer sustained notes, while that note is sustaining, you can jump over to the lower side of the piano and fill in with the accompaniment part of that. I just love this section, and it's always building back up to something, isn't it? We're always building back up.
Evan: Fascinating challenge for the soloist in this performance where you really have to bring out only certain pitches as a melodic line, and then the other pitches have a more of an accompanimental figure. Really requires a incredible technical control.
John: The dexterity for that, it has to be, I mean, for me, it would be insurmountable to be able to play something like that.
Evan: Yeah, I mean, just the artistry not only just so you can actually hear the melody as a melody, but to also make it this rich legato line and so forth, and really make it sound like beautiful music, Ravel's imagination to be able to create this. But then it places enormous demands upon the soloist.
John: And with this, the piano starts building the music back up to get towards the end and the march creeps back in. But it's very brief. It's just for a few moments before the concerto comes to a heroic end, much in the same way it was heroic building in the very, very opening of it.
Evan: And those dotted rhythms we were talking about, that with which the piece begins are also heard at the very end. And again, in that very, as you said, John, that very heroic way, it starts off with that primordial kind of ooze as you were talking about earlier. And then we heard the exact same rhythms at the very end in this burst of sun kind of triumphal mood that's so satisfying with which to conclude the piece.
John: Burst of sun. I like that it matches the sound too, the bright tamper of this. Listen to this concerto. We'll have some performances on this show notes page at classicalbreakdown.org, but listen to more. I almost, this almost sounds a little crazy. Find recordings that actually you don't like. I mean, listen to enough where you find examples of, you know what? I don't quite like the way the pianist does this with this line here. Or I don't like how this conductor is taking some of these tempos. By finding almost what you don't like, you can find what you actually are searching for and recording that maybe fits you just right.
Evan: This is a work that really lends itself to lots of different technical approaches and different interpretive styles. So you're definitely going to find, as you listen to different performances of it, very different ways of approaching it. And I agree with you, John. Finding ways that maybe feel a little uncomfortable or less satisfying to listen to could still help us to appreciate the genius of this piece. Performance of this piece is typically 15 to 20 minutes. The whole entire piece is not a long piece lot happening in that 15 to 20 minutes, and definitely a piece worth exploring and listening to over and over again.
John: And now it's time to read your reviews from Apple Podcasts. Less is More gave us five stars after listening to the episode on Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony, and they said, " Excellent analysis of this symphony. I especially enjoyed hearing the letters he wrote to friends and family members, which deepened my appreciation of this wonderful piece." Well, thank you so much, Less is More, and I think that's what we were aiming for, Evan, right, including these letters to provide that extra context and understanding of the music.
Evan: Every time I hear that piece now, John, I'll remember you finding that letter Tchaikovsky wrote to his, I think it was to his brother, about his cow being stolen.
Evan: And how that really humanizes this ingenious composer and helps us to appreciate the humanity of what he had to share with us.
John: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at classicalbreakdown. org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to classicalbreakdown@ wta. org. And if you enjoyed this episode, leave a review in your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.