Ravel: Piano Concerto in D major for the Left Hand

Concerto in D major for the Left Hand for Piano and Orchestra

BORN: March 7, 1875. Ciboure near Saint-Jean-de-Luz, Basses-Pyrénées France
DIED: December 28, 1937. Paris

COMPOSED: Begun at the end of 1929, completed fall 1930. Commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein

WORLD PREMIERE: January 5, 1932. Wittgenstein was soloist, Robert Heger conducted the Vienna Symphony

US PREMIERE: November 9, 1934. Wittgenstein was soloist, Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony

SFS PERFORMANCES: First—February 1943. Maxim Shapiro was soloist, Pierre Monteux conducted. Most Recent—May 2013. Marc-André Hamelin was soloist, David Robertson conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 3 flutes (3rd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 3 clarinets with E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, triangle, snare drum, cymbals, bass drum, wood block, tam-tam, harp, and strings

DURATION: About 19 mins

World War I had changed the face of Europe and erased many of the assumptions of Western civilization. Ravel himself was now near the end of his professional life—only the G major Piano Concerto and Don Quichotte á Dulcinée followed the Left-Hand Concerto—and he too had changed. He no longer cared to write pictorial music, and his sound had become more sharply sculpted.

He still loved challenge and economy. No wonder that, in the fall of 1929, when Paul Wittgenstein asked him for a piano concerto for the left hand alone, Ravel was enchanted—sufficiently so to interrupt work on a concerto he was writing for his own use.

If life had gone well for Wittgenstein, few of us would probably know his name. As it is, he has become a perpetual footnote in the history of twentieth-century piano music. He was the seventh of eight formidably gifted children in the musical and affluent household of a Viennese steel manufacturer. The youngest of the eight was the famous Ludwig, author of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus and the Philosophical Investigations. Paul studied piano with Theodor Leschetizky and made a successful debut in 1913. Serving in the Austrian army on the Russian front, he was wounded and lost his right arm in the first months of the 1914 war, when he was twenty-seven. After spending time as a prisoner of war in Siberia, he was repatriated in 1916 and bravely set about reconstructing his professional life.

Paul Wittgenstein had learned much about courage from Josef Labor, a family friend who was also his theory teacher. Labor, a composer, organist, and pianist, had been blind since childhood. The Wittgenstein fortune enabled Paul to commission more than a dozen works for piano left-hand, either with orchestra or in chamber music combinations. Beginning in 1923 with Labor, Hindemith, Franz Schmidt, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Rudolf Braun (another Labor student and also blind), Wittgenstein over the years successfully approached Richard Strauss, Ravel, Prokofiev, and Britten, as well as such minor figures as Sergei Eduardovich Bortkiewicz, Hans Gil, and Ernest Walker.

Wittgenstein hardly enjoyed the fruits of his efforts and his father’s schillings. He disliked many of the works he got, and not long before he died in 1961, he admitted that of all “his” pieces he had felt truly close only to Schmidt’s. Ravel’s concerto is a masterpiece that quickly entered the central repertory, and Wittgenstein came to regard it as “a great work,” but his first encounter with it was unhappy. “I wasn’t overwhelmed by the composition,” Wittgenstein said many years later. “It always takes me a while to grow into a difficult work. I suppose Ravel was disappointed, and I was sorry, but I had never learned to pretend.”

That was just the beginning. Ravel could not attend the premiere, but three weeks later, he and the pianist Marguerite Long, who had just given the first performance of the G major Piano Concerto, went to Vienna to introduce that work there. Wittgenstein gave a dinner for them and afterwards played the Left-Hand Concerto with a second piano in place of the orchestra. Wittgenstein had made many adjustments of the piano part, and Long recalled how she watched Ravel become visibly angry during the performance, that she failed in her endeavor to keep composer and pianist apart, and that Ravel had slowly marched up to Wittgenstein and said: “But that’s not it at all!” Wittgenstein replied that, as a pianist, he knew what he was doing, to which Ravel rejoined that, as an orchestrator, he knew what he was doing. To calm his nerves, Ravel walked back to his hotel in the bitter cold. He then asked Wittgenstein to sign a formal agreement that he would play the concerto as written, but Wittgenstein refused. Eventually, and with Marguerite Long’s help, enough of a détente was reached that Ravel agreed to conduct the Paris premiere in January 1933 with Wittgenstein.

Reviewing the Left-Hand Concerto in La Revue musicale, Henry Prunières regretted that “the author of Daphnis” had so seldom chosen “to let us observe what he was guarding in his heart instead of encouraging the legend that his brain alone invented these admirable sonorous phantasmagoria. From the opening measures we are plunged into a world into which Ravel has but rarely guided us.” We are probably more inclined today than our counterparts in 1932 to look for that which is dark. At any rate, we are ready to perceive this work—one of the two or three greatest among twentieth-century piano concertos—as a singularly powerful distillation of Ravel’s sinister side.

As Prunières points out, Ravel establishes the climate in the opening seconds. Cellos and basses send up a dissonant thundercloud, against which the contrabassoon plays a solemn theme, followed by low horns with a melody whose metrical dislocations first suggest the “jazz elements” Ravel said he had included in this work. The suspense of waiting for the soloist to begin playing is a traditional component of the concerto experience. Ravel creates that suspense not only with a crescendo cunningly built over thirty-two slow bars, but also by means of the harmony.

In a concerto for left hand we have the additional suspense that grows from the question, “How in the world is this going to work?” Ravel had prepared thoroughly for the task. His biographer Arbie Orenstein lists the music he studied: “the Six Études pour la main gauche by Saint-Saëns, Godowsky’s transcriptions for the left hand of Chopin’s Études, and works by Czerny (École de la main gauche, Opus 399, and 24 Études pour la main gauche, Opus 718), Alkan (Étude, Opus 76, no.1), and Scriabin (Prelude and Nocturne, Opus 9).” So not to worry. The first leap spans five octaves, the piano’s grand entrée is capped by a glissando from the bottom A on the keyboard to the top D. Altogether, it gives Ravel manifest pleasure to write for one hand as though it were three.

To the ideas already presented, Ravel adds an expressive lyric melody for the piano and a crackling scherzo. He deploys his ideas powerfully, simply, and with concentration: This is the shortest concerto in the standard repertory. The color, gray and glare, is distinctive. The scoring is astonishingly inventive, even by Ravel’s standards. A passage in the scherzo for flutes, plucked violins and violas, harp, and piano offers another example of Ravel’s delight in mimicry, for it is the harp that plays the “one-finger” piano tune while the piano plays harp music. Ravel saves for his cadenza his most eye-popping device, a soprano and tenor duet with an accompaniment in brilliant thirty-second-notes sweeping between them. One more fierce orchestral crescendo, then a four-second reminder of the scherzo, bring the music to its brusquely furious end.

—Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and sfsymphony.org/store.

More About the Music
Recordings: Jean-Efflam Bavouzet with Yan Pascal Tortelier and the BBC Symphony Orchestra (Chandos)  |  Krystian Zimerman with Pierre Boulez and the London Symphony (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Jean-Yves Thibaudet with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (Decca) 

Reading: Ravel: Man and Musician, by Arbie Orenstein (Dover)  |  A Ravel Reader, edited by Orenstein (Columbia University Press)  |  Ravel Remembered, by Roger Nichols (Norton)  |  The Cambridge Companion to Ravel, edited by Deborah Mawer (Cambridge)  

(October 2015)