Have you ever wondered if there were any famous left-handed pianists? You don’t hear about them because the piano has always been a two-handed instrument. I found fifteen famous left-handed pianists, some are well-known as composers, and several have no right hand at all.
1. Claudio Arrau 1903-1991
Claudio Arrau was a Chilean pianist and one of the most renowned performers of the 20th century.
Arrau’s father, an eye doctor, died when Arrau was a year old. He was the youngest of three children. After his father’s death, his mother supported the family by giving piano lessons. She must have been proud when Claudio was a prodigy at the piano.
Claudio studied in Santiago for two years and then, at the expense of the Chilean government, traveled to Berlin to study with Martin Krause from 1912 to 1918. Krause had been a student of Franz Liszt.
In 1914 Berlin Arrau’s serious career began with a recital. Then, he toured Europe, South America, and the United States over the next decade. Arrau continued touring past his 80th birthday.
The years from 1924 to 1940 found him teaching at Julius Stern’s Conservatory in Berlin. In 1941 he moved to the United States. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1979 after Augusto Pinochet’s rise in Chile.
In 1935, he played all the piano works of Bach in a series of 12 concerts 1935. In addition, the B.B.C. or British Broadcasting Corporation broadcast his performances of the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven.
Arrau had numerous awards, and his library of recorded works is enormous. He was regarded as one of the least flashy of the century’s virtuoso pianists. His classical approach exhibited extreme concentration on the details of the pieces he played without sacrificing emotion.
2. Carl Philippe Emmanuel Bach 1714 – 1788
Carl Philippe Emmanuel Bach is thought to have been a lefty due to something his father, JS Bach, wrote in a letter that his son needed to work on building up his right hand to match his left.
He was the second surviving son of J.S. and Maria Barbara Bach.
A precocious musician who remained successful, C.P.E. Bach was his father’s true successor, an intelligent, successful musician, and an important figure in his own right. In his autobiography, he wrote: “For composition and keyboard-playing, I have never had any teacher other than my father.” In addition to his musical ambitions, he studied law, receiving his degree in Frankfurt in 1735.
He was appointed harpsichordist to Frederick II of Prussia in 1740. Frederick was an excellent flutist. He was so fond of music that his court orchestra accompanied him in concert every night except Mondays and Fridays because they were opera nights. However, the subservience he required from C.P.E. as his harpsichordist grew irksome. It wasn’t until 1767 that Bach was able to resign his Berlin post and take an appointment as music director in Hamburg.
In 1744 he married. In 1753 he published Versuch über die wahre Art das Klavier zu spielen, and in 1787, his Essay on the True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments. He also acquired an enviable reputation as a composer, performer, and teacher.
C.P.E. Bach successfully assimilated their father’s powerful influence and made the transition into the new style, then evolving. This break with the past has occurred in very few other periods of musical development. The age of baroque music gave way to romanticism. Bach became a leader of that movement but held onto the advantage of solid craftsmanship and assurance, which he gave full credit to his father.
He developed a more adventurous vein in Hamburg and worked to open up future musical styles. His symphonies, concerti, and keyboard sonatas were particularly influential in the evolution of the classical sonata-allegro form.
Bach was famous for precision playing, his touch’s beauty, and his emotion’s intensity. “He grew so animated and possessed,” Charles Burney wrote in Present State of Music in Germany 1773, “that he looked like one inspired. His eyes fixed, his underlip fell, and drops of effervescence distilled from his countenance.”
3. Daniel Barenboim 1942-
Daniel Barenboim was born November 15, 1942 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The Israeli pianist and conductor is known for his bold efforts to promote peace through music in the Middle East.
As a pianist, Barenboim was admired particularly for his artistic interpretations of the works of Mozart and Beethoven. As a conductor, he was recognized primarily for his leadership of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Barenboim’s parents were pianists. His father, Enrique Barenboim, was also a noted music professor. The family moved from Argentina to Salzburg, Austria, when Daniel was nine and then to Israel in 1952.
He made his debut in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1956 and in the United States at Carnegie Hall in 1957. As a pianist, he became known for his somewhat colorful interpretations of the works of Mozart, Beethoven, and other Classical and Romantic composers.
He wrote several books, including the autobiography A Life in Music 1991 and Music Quickens Time 2008, a collection of essays. In 2007 he received the Japan Art Association’s Praemium Imperiale prize for music.
4. Ludwig van Beethoven 1770 – 1827
Born in Bonn on December 16, 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven died in Vienna, Austria, on March 26, 1827. His family was musical, and he was a gifted pianist and violist.
Beethoven spent nine years as a court musician in Bonn, then moved to Vienna to study with Joseph Haydn, remaining there for the rest of his life. Soon, he was well known as both a virtuoso and a composer. He became the first composer of renown to earn a living while forsaking employment in the church or court.
He played and wrote in the Classical and Romantic eras. His art, rooted in the traditions of Haydn and Mozart, encompassed the new spirit of altruism found in the works of German Romantic writers and the ideals of the French Revolution.
His Third Symphony in 1804 was the work that set the romantic century. This symphony was the work that became the hallmark of his style.
Unfortunately, in 1795 he began to lose his hearing. By 1819, he was completely deaf.
Nevertheless, for his last 15 years, he was unrivaled as the world’s most famous composer. He was a considerable innovator in musical form, widening the scope of sonatas, symphonies, concertos, and string quartets. However, his most outstanding achievement was to raise instrumental music to a level with singing, which up until then was considered the best way to produce music.
Beethoven created over eighty works in his lifetime.
5. Frédéric Chopin 1810-1849
Frédéric Chopin, who was born Fryderyk Franciszek Szopen, was born March 1, 1810 in Żelazowa Wola near Warsaw. He died October 17, 1849 in Paris, France.
He published his first piece at age seven and started to perform in aristocratic salons at eight. In 1831 he moved to Paris. The first concert he played in Paris lifted him into a celebrity. After that, he spent his time in the highest society as a piano teacher.
In the 1830’s he somehow contracted tuberculosis. In 1937 he began a relationship with the writer George Sand, but she left him in 1847. After that, his health declined rapidly, and he died two years later, in 1849.
Chopin was not only Poland’s greatest composer but as the most significant composer in the history of the piano. He could exploit the piano’s capacity for charm, excitement, variety, and timbral beauty. In addition, his innovative fingering, use of the pedals, and his general keyboard playing were quite influential.
He wrote nearly 190 pieces over his career.
6. Leon Fleisher 1928 – 2020
Leon Fleisher was born in San Francisco, California, on July 23, 1928. He died on August 2, 2020, in Baltimore, Maryland. He was an American pianist and conductor who overcame a debilitating neurological condition to resume playing his entire concert repertoire.
Fleisher began studying the piano at the age of four, gave his first public recital at eight, and by nine, Austrian pianist and teacher Artur Schnabel took him under his wing. Fleisher debuted at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic under Pierre Monteux in 1944. He cemented his place among the top pianists of the day when he won Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth International Piano Competition in 1952. After that, he was in demand by orchestras, concert promoters, and record companies. His most notable series was concerts and recordings featuring the works of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms with George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra.
In 1965 Fleisher suffered from a malfunction in his right hand. His ring and little fingers would curl uncontrollably into his palm. He was diagnosed in 1991 with focal dystonia. Fleisher focused his energies on teaching and conducting.
Fleisher eventually started performing left-hand pieces for piano. Several of these works were written for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. He also commissioned or inspired new works from William Bolcom, Lukas Foss, Gunter Schuller, and several other composers. In the mid-1990s, Fleisher discovered that a combination of Botox and Rolfing massage helped his right hand, and in 1995 he returned to two-handed playing.
In 2004 he played a return recital at Carnegie Hall and made his first solo two-hand recording since the 1960s. In 2007 he was awarded a Kennedy Center Honor for his contributions to music.
I chose Fleisher because he did play left-handed for a while because of problems with his right hand.
7. Glenn Gould 1932-1982
Glenn Herbert Gould was born in Toronto, Canada, on September 25, 1932, and died on October 4, 1982, in Toronto, Canada.
He was known for his contrapuntal clarity and unorthodox performances.
Gould studied piano at age 3, began composing at 5, and entered the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto at 10, earning its associate degree in 1946. He developed an individual playing style with only a tape recorder in 1952. In 1955 he debuted in New York City and Washington, D.C. This show earned him critical success and a recording contract. In addition, his recording of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, released in 1956) enjoyed widespread success.
Gould’s preferred repertoire consisted of contrapuntal works, primarily those of Bach, late Beethoven, and Arnold Schoenberg. However, in 1964 he gave up his concert career to work in the recording studio as a performer, editor, and producer of his recordings.
Among the numerous awards, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy posthumously in 2013.
8. Gary Graffman 1928 –
Pianist Gary Graffman has been a significant figure in the music world since he won the prestigious Leventritt Award in 1949. He is also another that isn’t naturally left-handed but became so because of an injury.
He toured continuously for thirty years, playing the most demanding works in piano literature, solo, and with the world’s greatest orchestras. He made a series of highly acclaimed recordings for Columbia and R.C.A along the way. These works included concertos by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev, Brahms, Chopin, and Beethoven. In addition, he played with New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and Boston orchestras with conductors like Bernstein, Mehta, Ormandy, and Szell.
In 1979 his performing career was temporarily halted by an injury to his right hand. As a result, he now plays a limited repertoire of concertos written for the left hand alone—most of them Paul Wittgenstein commissioned after he lost his right arm in World War I. These included the Ravel Concerto and works by Prokofiev, Britten, Strauss, Schmidt, and Wolfgang Korngold.
9. Hélène Grimaud 1969 –
Hélène Grimaud was born on November 7, 1969 in Aix-en Provence, France.
She studied with Jacqueline Courtin and also with Pierre Barbizet. The Paris Conservatory accepted her at the age of thirteen, where she won the first prize in piano in 1985. She recorded Sergei Rachmaninov’s Sonata No. 2 and the complete Etudes-Tableaux Op. 33 Grand Prix du Disque in 1986 immediately after graduating. Additionally, she studied with György Sándor and Leon Fleisher. In 1987 her career took a decisive turn with appearances at MIDEM in Cannes and the piano festival La Roque d’Anthéron, her first recital in Tokyo, and Daniel Barenboim’s invitation to perform with the Orchestre de Paris. In addition, Hélène Grimaud has performed with many of the world’s major orchestras and renowned conductors.
10. Vladimir Horowitz 1903-1989
Vladimir Horowitz was born October 1, 1903, in Berdichev, Russia (now Ukraine), and died November 5, 1989, in New York, New York, United States. The Russian-born American was a virtuoso pianist in the Romantic tradition.
There’s a solid case that Vladimir Horowitz should be crowned the most excellent pianist of all time. His debut in 1920 was a solo recital in Kharkiv. In 1925 his fame had grown, and he made his way West. He wished to study with Artur Schnabel in Berlin. Instead, he decided to leave for In the U.S. he debuted in 1928 at Carnegie Hall. Horowitz went on to become an American citizen. He’s known for his performances of Romantic works, including music by Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Schumann.
11. Nicholas McCarthy 1989 –
Born without a right hand, British classical pianist Nicholas McCarthy was the first left-hand-only pianist to graduate from the London Royal College of Music in its 130-year history.
McCarthy began his piano studies at fourteen. By the time he was seventeen, he’d been accepted into the Junior department at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. There he won the annual piano prize on the proviso that he focused on repertoire explicitly written for the left hand. After that, he enrolled in the keyboard department at the Royal College of Music, becoming its first left-hand-only graduate in 2012.
He was an original member of an ensemble founded by conductor Charles Hazlewood called the Paraorchestra in 2011. They performed alongside Coldplay during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London. He left shortly after to pursue several international solo tours.
On September 23, 2013, McCarthy spoke of his experiences at a T.E.D. conference at the Royal Albert Hall. In 2014 he was a guest presenter for the B.B.C. Proms televised broadcast.
On November 4, 2015, he appeared on B.B.C. Radio 4’s Front Row program, during which he discussed recording his debut album Solo, which reached Number 4 on classical music charts.
12. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756 -1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart born Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart was born Jan. 27, 1756, in Salzburg and died Dec. 5, 1791, in Vienna.
He was the son of the violinist and composer Leopold Mozart. Wolfgang was born the same year his father’s best-selling treatise on violin playing was published. He and his older sister, Maria Anna, were both prodigies. Mozart began to compose and gave his first public performance at the age of five.
Leopold toured throughout Europe starting in 1763 with his children, showing off their unique talents. The first touring took them as far as France and England, where Wolfgang met Johann Christian Bach. He also wrote his first symphonies. Tours of Italy followed, where Wolfgang first saw the string quartets of Joseph Haydn and wrote his first Italian opera. From 1775–77 he composed his violin concertos and his first piano sonatas. His mother died in 1778, and he returned to Salzburg to work as a cathedral organist. In 1781 Wolfgang wrote his opera seria Idomeneo. However, he found working under the archbishop’s rule difficult, and he was released from his position. He moved in with his friends, the Weber family, and began his solo career in Vienna.
He married Constanze Weber, gave piano lessons, and wrote The Abduction from the Seraglio along with many of his grand piano concertos. The late 1780s were the height of his success. He wrote the string quartets dedicated to Haydn. He wrote the three great operas on Lorenzo Da Ponte’s librettos, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan Tutte, and his superb late symphonies. In the last year of his life, he composed the opera The Magic Flute and his great Requiem that was left unfinished.
Despite his success, he always lacked money. He may have had gambling debts, or perhaps he was fond of fine clothes, but he had to borrow heavily from friends. His death at age 35 may have resulted from several illnesses, including miliary fever, rheumatic fever, and Schönlein-Henoch syndrome. Nevertheless, no other composer left such an extraordinary legacy in so short a lifetime
13. Sergei Rachmaninov 1873-1943
Sergei Rachmaninov was born on April 1, 1873, in Novgorod, Russia, and died on March 28, 1943, in Beverly Hills, California, U.S.A. He was quite a large man at six foot six inches tall.
He was born Sergei Vasilyevich Rachmaninov on his family’s estate near Novgorod, Russia. From the age of four, Sergei studied music with his mother, he continued his education at St. Petersburg Conservatory, and then moved onto the Moscow Conservatory with professors Arensky, Taneyev and Tchaikovsky. He graduated in 1892, after winning the Great Gold Medal for his new opera Aleko.
Sergei was a legendary Russian-American composer and pianist. He fled Russia after the Communist revolution of 1917, was one of the highest-paid concert stars of his time, and was the most influential pianist of the 20th century.
Tchaikovsky praised him highly and promoted Rachmaninov’s opera to the Bolshoi Theater in 1893. However, his first Symphony was poorly conducted by A. Glazunov, and with his distress over the Russian Orthodox Church’s pressure against his marriage, made him suffer from depression. These factors interrupted his career for three years until he sought medical help in 1900. He was treated for three months by the hypnotherapist, Dr. Dahl. His treatment was aimed at overcoming his writer’s block. Upon his recovery, he composed his second Piano Concerto, and made a comeback with many performances of that piece. He was a conductor at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater from 1904 to 1906. Rachmaninoff lived in Dresden, Germany from1906 to 1909, where he composed his 2nd Symphony.
His first tour of the United States was in 1909 after composing his 3rd Piano Concerto, which he used as a calling card. He made his debut there as a soloist with Gustav Mahler conducting the New York Philharmonic. He worked on merging Russian music with English literature, which culminated in his adaptation of a poem by Edgar Allan Poe into a choral symphony, titles The Bells. Rachmaninov considered it among the best of his works. In 1915 he wrote All-Night Vigil, also known as the Vespres, fifteen anthems expressing a plea for peace at a time of war. He emigrated during the Russian Revolution that destroyed his estate. He left Russia on December 23, 1917, on an open sled carrying only a few sheet music books.
Sergei Rachmaninov made over a hundred recordings from 1918 and 1943 and gave over one thousand concerts as a pianist during the same time frame in America. His performances were legendary, and he was highly regarded as a virtuoso pianist with unmatched power and expressiveness. In addition, Rachmaninoff’s technical perfection was legendary.
14. Arthur Rubinstein 1887-1982
Artur Rubinstein was born on January 28, 1887, in Lodz, Poland, and died in Geneva, Switzerland, on December 20, 1982. He was a Polish-American virtuoso pianist considered by many to be the 20th century’s foremost interpreter of the repertoire.
Rubinstein began to learn at the age of three, and by the time he was eight, he went to the Warsaw Conservatory for further study. The next year he became a pupil of Heinrich Barth in Berlin. Rubinstein was seven years old when he made his first public appearance. At thirteen, he made his European debut in Berlin. He made his American debut in 1906 with the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall but received less than enthusiastic reception because of his young age. Fluent in eight languages, Rubinstein served as a military interpreter in London during World War I. He also performed with the violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. He visited Spain and South America from 1916 to 1918, introducing works by Manuel de Falla, Isaac Albéniz, and Enrique Granados with which he created a sensation. However, a second trip to the United States in 1919 proved lackluster.
During the 1920s, Rubinstein gained a reputation as a cosmopolitan socialite. He married Aniela Młynarski in 1932 and began to analyze his artistry seriously. Rubinstein renewed his dedication to music and practiced 12 to 16 hours a day. This new regimen brought a new discipline to his already brilliant technique. Returning to the United States in 1937, performing at Carnegie Hall, they hailed him a great talent.
Through the rest of his career, Rubinstein retained a high reputation and had a vast repertoire that included works by landmark 18th and 19th-century composers Mozart, Beethoven, and Chopin, as well as 20th-century masters such as Albéniz, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky. During World War II, he moved to the United States where he gained citizenship in 1946. Known as a witty extrovert and an irrepressible raconteur, he was still a severe musician whose stage presence enhanced his playing. Over his career, he made more than 200 recordings. In 1976, Rubinstein was awarded the United States Medal of Freedom.
He wrote a two-volume autobiography, My Young Years (1973) and My Many Years (1980).
15. Paul Wittgenstein 1887 -1962
Paul Wittgenstein was born in Vienna, Austria, on May 11, 1887, and died on March 3, 1961, in Manhasset, New York.
Paul Wittgenstein’s father was the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein. Their home had frequent visits from prominent cultural figures including the composers Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss were among them. A young Paul played duets with these men. He studied with Malvine Bree and later the Polish virtuoso Theodor Leschetizky. In 1913 he made his public debut with many favorable reviews.
World War I broke out a year later, and he was called into military service. Unfortunately, Paul was wounded and captured by Russia during an assault on Poland. His right arm had to be amputated, but this didn’t stop his resolve to continue playing the piano using his left hand.
After the war’s end, Paul studied intensely, arranging pieces for his left hand alone and learning new works composed by his old teacher Josef Labor (who was blind). As a result, he could give concerts and became well known and loved.
He asked several well-known composers such as Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schmidt, and Richard Strauss to write works for him. As a result, Maurice Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, becoming more famous than any other compositions inspired by Paul.
Sergei Prokofiev also wrote a left-handed concerto, but Paul said he didn’t understand the piece, so he never played it publicly. However, many works that he commissioned are still performed today.
Paul Wittgenstein appeared in the major European musical centers and toured America in 1934. In 1938, he settled in New York and became an American citizen in 1946. He spent the rest of his life in the United States, where he taught and played. He taught privately from 1938 to 1960 in New York, at the Ralph Wolfe Conservatory in New Rochelle from 1938 to 1943, and at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart from 1940 to 1945. John Barchilon’s novel The Crown Prince, published in1984, is based on his career.
Well, there is our list of famous left-handed pianists. What did you think? Did we do a good job? Are there any left-handed pianists we may have missed? Are there any you wouldn’t have put on this list, and why if not? Please leave your comments below. We’d love to hear from you.