a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

Bleeding for your art

Sometimes artists bleed for their art. I was watching a video the other day of exactly that.

The piece was the Piano Concerto in D Major by Maurice Ravel, the guy who brought you the Bolero. It’s more popularly known as the “Concerto for the Left Hand.” It’s for the left hand because the soloist for whom it was written didn’t have a right hand.

He lost it in World War I. So he in a sense bled for his art. He was Paul Wittgenstein, the brother of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. And after the war ended he wanted to continue his concert career, except that that’s pretty difficult when you only have five digits and everything is written for ten.

So he asked various composers to write him a concerto for one hand. Most said forget it. A few took him on. Ravel’s effort is the most famous and most successful.

Hélène TysmanAfter a few moments you forget you’re hearing a piece of music written for a “disabled person,” and you just think of this 20-minute tour-de-force as a piano concerto. Certainly I would not have given much attention to the fact that it lacks a right-handed line were I not watching the video of student pianist Hélène Tysman performing the work as her graduation exam with the Symphony Orchestra of the Liszt School Of Music.

(By the way, Ms. Tysman, as far as I know, has a perfectly-functioning right hand, but she probably took this work on, as many pianists have since it was written in 1930, simply because it’s thrilling and difficult.)

Watching her rip through this work you get a much better idea of how incredibly difficult it is than when listening to a recording. I don’t mean difficult necessarily in terms of interpretation. I means difficult the way the Olympics are. Grueling. Finger-busting. The left hand has to do the work of two, and it goes flying across the keyboard, landing as precisely as a figure skater executing a triple-axel, only you have to jump all the way across the skating rink. Her hand leaps up the keyboard, thunders chords, and jumps back down in a split second. It’s so fast that to the ear it sounds like two hands playing instead of one darting back and forth faster than the eye literally can see, and that’s what it’s supposed to sound like. Ravel spared the pianist nothing when he wrote this concerto.

And as I watched her playing the last section, where things finally slow down, I noticed it: red on her fingers, where the skin meets her nails. After many deep digs into the keys, glissandos flying up and down the board ay high speed, she was bleeding. One frame-grab caught it in especially good detail:

Fingers 1

As with the Olympians at Sochi, it must have hurt. As with the Olympians at Sochi, she soldiered on.

Fingers 2

Maybe it doesn’t look like that much. But it runs contrary to the image we always get of immaculately coiffured artists so clean they never even seem to sweat. The way they’re portrayed in publicity, they don’t even seem to have pours. (PBS is particularly guilty of this.) When you’re digging your fingers into keys trying to play webs of notes with precision, this has gotta hurt. It’s a testament to what performers go through, whether it’s the “tennis elbow” that many violinists get, the lip and mouth muscle issues for brass players, or the beating the fingers of keyboardists take, to bring a pleasant evening to you as you sit in your plush velvet seat watching.

Plus as writers, we’re fortunate in that we don’t bleed much, except when we bang our heads against our keyboards.

Watch the entire video of this exciting performance here.

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