Why don't you come out of the pantry? Is left-handed piano music anything more than just a historical curiosity?
Raymond Lewenthal provides a hilarious depiction of the almost Cinderella-like role of the left hand at the piano. In his compilation entitled Piano Music for One Hand, he describes the left hand as the one responsible for all the household chores. Chief among them is "supplying accompaniments or oom-pah-pahs."1 When suddenly the left hand is called upon to play a more virtuosic passage it is as if it got "called out of the pantry and (was) expected to appear as the belle of the ball."2 Comical as this image may be, there is a lot of truth in it. Here is the first point: working on left-handed repertoire may provide a chance for microscopic scrutiny as you never allowed yourself when dealing with standard, two-handed repertoire. Side effect? Your left hand will be out of the pantry for good, executing its passages on a par with the right hand.
Now, let us pause for a moment to consider briefly how composers expanded pianistic textures throughout the centuries. The chief trend was to adapt orchestral or other instrumental techniques for the keyboard, or rather adapt the hand and condition it to executing these on the piano. This is how wide-reaching, violinistic figurations and orchestral tremolos found their way into piano repertoire.
Here is where the whole pianistic paradigm shifts. The horizontal, multi-layered thinking gives way to somewhat of a more vertical approach. Playing with two hands, the activity can be visually described as two parallel strains:
Similar musical effect with left hand only would be visually summarized as follows:
To understand the latter example in real life, please compare measures 3-6 of Chopin's Prelude in G Major, Op. 28, No. 3, in its original version (Excerpt 1a) with its left-handed arrangement (Excerpt 1b). The
need for quick register changes will be immediately apparent.
It is a well-documented fact that a favorite pastime of Johannes Brahms was to play J.S. Bach's compositions for solo violin, as well as those for unaccompanied violoncello.
Brahms played these at the piano with his left hand alone. It provided a great sightreading practice and an opportunity to commune with some of the most logical and eloquent music ever written. It simultaneously engaged many facets of Brahms's personality: the pianist, the composer, the analytical thinker, and the romantic.
Let us follow Brahms's lead for a moment. Is there anything unusual to learn from Bach regarding the polyphony of a single line? Why should pianists care? Isn't there enough of great polyphony written originally for the keyboard anyway? Of course there is. However, being faced with an intricate single line is a fantastic learning experience in its own right. All of a sudden, the means are limited; there is no accompaniment to fall back on. Such
an environment increases our alertness and enhances the incisive and sharp tool from our brain's toolkit required for tackling keyboard polyphony. In the Excerpt 2a you see measures 35-44
from Bach's Corrente (Violin Partita in B Minor). Reimagine the same music as multiple voices overlapping and unfolding simultaneously. Now study each voice as a separate entity. Afterward, learn to sing each line against the other; you can sing one voice and play other(s) (Excerpt 2b).
Working this way, you learn to investigate the music under the microscope and Bach's genius unfolds right there in front of your eyes and ears. When you come back to playing the music as one line, your understanding of the music and its underlying structure will never be the same. I teach a lot of students, many of whom are non-pianists, and we direct music this way. Curiously, after such a session, without having spoken a word about instrumental technique per se, their playing changes dramatically. Issues that seemed to have originated as technical shortcomings suddenly dissolve.
Of course, one has to admit that we are dealing with the medium of one-handed playing, which obviously has its limitations. Because of these limitations, at times important musical threads have to be altered to maintain the integrity of the composition as a whole. Consider, for example, the opening of the Fugue in G Minor, BWV 1001 (Excerpt 3a). Measures 1-6 are perfectly playable by the left hand alone. However, the pianist will encounter many awkward jumps on the way, unless he is equipped with a giant left hand. If you consider the nature of this fugue and its subject, more military than sensual in its content, thriving better in the faster metronomic realms, this music becomes very awkward to render with one hand. So are we ready then to compromise the text or the tempo and therefore the spirit of the piece? In Excerpt 3b, the arrangement ties some of the subject notes over and thus avoids awkward jumps (Excerpt 3b). It is up to your sense of musical taste and blasphemy quotient "(how dare you tamper with Bach's notes)" to decide what is acceptable. Having experimented with both approaches, I lean towards Excerpt 3b and its apparent text violation.
On the other side of the spectrum, Franz Liszt famously advocated, "demand the impossible in order to find out all that is possible." Along the same lines, in order to test the limits of human resilience, Leopold Godowsky, known as the Buddha of the piano, arranged many of Chopin's études for left hand alone. Shortly after finishing that project he wrote, "if it is possible to assign to the left hand alone the work done usually by two
hands simultaneously, what vistas are opened to future composers, were this attainment extended to both hands!." We know what happened after. Fortunately (or not) for us mortals, Godowsky's approach proved to be the
apex of virtuosity, elevated on the eternal pedestal, revered, but heir-less.
When executing wide chords with the left hand we actually run into the aesthetics of interpretation. Even if we simply try to make a passage playable, the way in which we choose to break the chord or whether to place the melody or the bass on the strong part of the beat is an act of interpreting the music. By adapting the work to the physical limits of a single hand, we highlight certain voices and hide others. In order to do this we need to have a complete understanding of the work in question, so that our choices are musically valid and supported by the text itself.
Instead of a summary of the proposed arguments in favor of the left-handed repertoire, let me leave you with an arrangement of Bach's Sarabande. (Example 4). It is a short, beautifully emotional, almost romantically expressive work, full of wide-spanning chords made up of polyphonic lines underneath. The arrangement imposes some hierarchy as far as voices are concerned but leaves you complete freedom regarding dynamic shadings of the phrases. In my effort not to over interpret Bach's work I leave as much as possible in its original, unedited form.
1 Lewenthal, R. (1986). Piano Music for One Hand: A Collection of Studies, Exercises and Pieces. New York: G. Schirmer.