Concerto pour la main gauche en ré majeur

Ravel began work on the Concerto for the left hand (in D) in 1929, after receiving a commission from the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm in the Great War. (Britten, Prokofiev and Richard Strauss also wrote works for Wittgenstein [1887-1961], who was the brother of Ludwig Wittgenstein.) Ravel had already begun work on his (2-handed) Concerto en sol, but interrupted that to execute this commission, which was in the event finished in 1930 after nine months intensive work. The first performance was given in Vienna on 5 January 1932, by Wittgenstein and the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Heger (but in the absence of the composer: it was just 9 days before the première of his Concerto en sol in Paris). (The Catalogue Durand, followed by other sources, e.g. Long [1971], gives the date of the first performance as 27 November 1931.)

The Concerto is in a single movement lasting a little over 15 minutes, during which it encompasses a remarkable variety of musical ideas and contrasts of style. (On one of his manuscript versions, Ravel wrote "mixtatiae musae", presumably a classically erroneous reference to the mixture of sources of inspiration he had used.) The mood of this concerto is powerfully dramatic - at least at the beginning and end - and the orchestration is significantly heavier that that of the Concerto en sol. The pianist's single hand often has to work hard enough for two.

In an interview with Calvocoressi in 1931, Ravel described the differences in this concerto compared with the Concerto en sol: "Il contient bon nombre d' effets de jazz, et l'écriture n'en est pas aussi légère. Dans une œuvre de cette nature, il est indispensable que la texture ne donne pas l'impression d'être plus mince qu celle d'une partie écrite pour les deux mains. Pour la même raison, j'ai recouru à un style qui est bien plus proche de celui des concertos traditionnels plus solennels. L'une des caractéristiques de l'œuvre est qu'après la première partie écrite dans ce style traditionnel, il se produit un changement soudain et la musique de jazz commence. Par la suite, seulement, il apparaît à l'évidence que cette musique de jazz est en fait bâtie sur le même thème que la partie initiale". (Quoted in Orenstein, [1989] p.364).

Ravel was not pleased with Wittgenstein's performance of the work when he heard it in Vienna later in 1932, and took particular exception to some "arrangements" which the pianist had made to the music. After the performance, he said to Wittgenstein: "Mais ce n'est pas cela du tout"; to which W. responded: "Je suis un vieux pianiste et cela ne sonne!". R.: "Je suis un vieil orchestrateur et cela sonne!" Ravel's anger led him oppose Wittgenstein's performance of the concerto in Paris, provoking a further written exchange between them. W.: "Les interprètes ne doivent pas être des esclaves". R.: "Les interprètes sont des esclaves!" (Long, [1971]).

In a letter of 7 March 1932, Ravel sought an assurance that Wittgenstein would respect the score, asking for "un engagement formel de jouer désormais son œuvre rigoureusement telle qu'elle est écrite" (quoted in Orenstein, [1989] p.466). Wittgenstein bluntly refused (Orenstein, [1989] p.596), and declined to play in Paris under those conditions. However, by the following year an accommodation had been reached, and Ravel conducted Wittgenstein in a performance in Paris on 17 January 1933.

It was only in 1937 (19 March) that the first "authentic" performance was given in Paris, with Jacques Février conducted by Charles Munch.

Wittgenstein later described his reactions when Ravel had first played the concerto through to him at Le Belvédère: "He was not an outstanding pianist, and I wasn't overwhelmed by the composition. 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. Only much later, after I'd studied the concerto for months, did I become fascinated by it and realise what a great work it was". (Quoted by Dubbiosi, [1967], p.132).

Although Ravel did not acknowledge any specific programme for the concerto, its dramatic quality has lent itself to various extreme interpretations. Marcel Marnat describes it with expressions such as "le tourbillon militaire", "mise à mort", and "l'immolation" (Marnat, [1986] pp.655-656); and the pianist Margeurite Long wrote: "Tout ici est grandiose, monumental, à l'échelle des horizons flamboyants, des monstrueux holocaustes où se consument les corps et s'engloutit l'esprit, des vastes troupeaux humains grimaçants de souffrance et d'angoisse." (Long, [1971]). Some of these responses may be coloured by after-knowledge of the following decade. But Ravel himself would have been aware that his concerto was in some sense a legacy of a conflict which had cost his pianist an arm and in which he himself had fought on the opposite side.