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Experiencing the Centenary
Discovering the Centenary
Understanding the Centenary
Around the Great War > Works for the left hand, by Maxime Zecchini

Works for the left hand, by Maxime Zecchini

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Paul Wittgenstein
© Collection Joan Ripley

The idea of exploring this repertoire came to the pianist Maxime Zecchini a few years ago when he was studying for the first time the Concerto for the Left hand  by Ravel, which was dedicated to the crippled war pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) who had commissioned it from the composer.

Tribute to the repertoire of a war invalid

Paul Wittgenstein was born into a family of very wealthy industrialists living in Vienna. He was brought up in a music-loving environment, was destined to play the piano and his first steps at the Vienna musical association (Wiener Musikverein) in 1913 attracted particular attention. However the war was to interrupt his promising career. Whilst serving as a reserve lieutenant in the dragoons of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wittgenstein was wounded in the right arm in the first week of August 1914 during an attack in Poland and he was taken prisoner by Russian soldiers. Two days afterwards, with his wound now threatening his life, a Russian surgeon decided to amputate it. On his return to Vienna at Christmas 1915 thanks to the Red-Cross, he chose nevertheless to return to the war, but this time on the Italian front as a military staff officer and field assistant to a General until 1918.

It was in the middle of the war, during his convalescence, that he took the decision to carry on with his career as a pianist despite his amputation. Whilst still a prisoner of the Russians, in the Siberian camp of Omsk, he started to play the piano again and as of 1916, he resumed his activity as a concert artist and was from now onwards known as “the left handed pianist”.

After 1918, and very much affected by the war, he continued to play many works (forty or so in total) which were commissioned from highly renowned musicians, including the likes of Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten.

Three composers who were affected by the First World War

When he composed the Concerto for the Left Hand, Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) was more than ever to coin a phrase by Debussy, “a man who’ll always take the harder way down the hill” , despite the  success of Boléro.
He took advantage of the commission from Paul Wittgenstein to revive his own memories as a nurse on the front during the Great War. It was the most violent music that Ravel was ever to write, where ghosts from the trenches who were to be buried roamed about.

The great pianist Marguerite Long said of this concerto :  “Everything here is grandiose, monumental, as big as shining horizons, monstrous burnt offerings where bodies are consumed and the spirit is swallowed up, endless herds of humans grimacing as they suffered and anguished . And this colossal fresco, the size of a charred universe, they are the five fingers of the sinistral hand, queen of bad omens, brushing away the lumpy hills”.

As for Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), he was always very sensitive to the horrors of the Great War. That’s the reason why several of his works are dedicated to it. One thinks for example of one his most famous plays War Requiem : which was inspired by the ambition for reconciliation and the common duty of all peoples to avoid such a conflict ever being repeated but it was also an attempt to come to terms with the losses, sometime extremely painful, suffered during the fighting..

Then finally there was Serge Prokofiev (1891-1953), a pianist-composer who chose exile and the journey from Europe to the United States to escape the call-up during the First World War. During this period, he composed the Scythe Suite and his famous Classic Symphony. The Concerto no.4 opus 53 reflects the feelings of storm, and ardour but also of tension and disarray ;  “creaking sounds” can be heard in this original work composed every bit as much of lyrical melodies as of gruelling discord. The way it is orchestrated in an appeal to aerial beauty and its attractive formal fantasy give it a personality which is both strong and gratifying.

Works which demonstrate the immense capabilities of the left hand

The impression that one is hearing two hands playing when in fact there are only five fingers doing all the work seems quite incredible . What’s more, a composition for the right hand alone would have come up against a major obstacle: the strong fingers would have played the accompaniment and the weak fingers the melody.

To play the works of the left hand the pianist would have had to move his stool slightly to the right of the keys so that he could reach the high pitched notes of the piano without straining his body.

It’s also essential to be able to use the pedal subtly to make the basses resonate thereby creating the illusion that the piano is being played with two hands covering the whole of the keyboard.

Furthermore it’s very important for each finger to be independent because these musical pieces require the notes of the melody to have a certain tone whilst the other accompanying notes are played very softly. So special attention needs to be given to individualising the force of each finger when playing the piece.

Finally, one must not forget to play in a relaxed and free fashion, because one feels tired more quickly when it’s just one arm which has to contend with all the energy and intensity of a musical piece.

Besides the search for technical progress in controlling the left hand or the concern that pianists have that they should be able to impress their audience with unique performances, the essential role of this repertoire is to appeal to a more dramatic motivation because it was the First World War which allowed them to come to be.

An anthological project in four volumes

This first Anthology in four volumes will be published under the Advitam Records label and will be distributed worldwide by Harmonia Mundi. This box set will include the most representative piano solo works from this repertoire as well as the three most famous orchestra concertos dedicated to Paul Wittgenstein. The record will also be available separately.


AUDOUIN-ROUZEAU Stéphane, BUSCH Esteban, CHIMENES Myriam and  DUROSOIR Georgie, La Grande Guerre des musiciens (The Great War of the musicians), Lyon, published by. Symétrie, 2009.

REDOTA Georg, JANIK Allan and SUCHY Irene (dir.), Empty Sleeve: Der Musiker und Mäzen Paul Wittgenstein, Innsbruck, published by. Studienverlag, 2006.

SINGER Lea, Konzert für die Linke Hand, Hamburg, published by. Hoffmann und Campe, 2008.