One-handed pianist Nicholas McCarthy to play Remembrance Day concerts

Pianist to explore left-handed music written after WW1

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A one-handed concert pianist is to perform a special First World War Remembrance Day concert at the Royal Albert Hall paying tribute to an extraordinary legacy of music produced during the conflict for musicians who lost limbs.

Nicholas McCarthy, an award-winning pianist who was born without his right hand, will perform a poignant repertoire of the one-handed piano music which was written in the wake of the First World War.

Alongside works by composers including Liszt, Nicholas, the first left hand-only pianist to graduate from the Royal College of Music in London, will also perform pieces such as Roses of Picardy and Elgar’s Nimrod, which he has transcribed specially for the left hand.

Compositions for the left hand alone began in the 19th century, but the horrific injuries caused by World War One generated a boom.

The programme pays tribute to Paul Wittgenstein, the Austrian pianist whose right arm was shot to pieces in the trenches but who responded by commissioning some of the greatest composers of the age, such as Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten, to write piano pieces for his left hand.

McCarthy, 25, who performed alongside Coldplay at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games, said: “I began to research the history of left-handed music and I was inspired by the bravery of these people who lost limbs but were determined to produce something positive out of their loss.”

McCarthy’s programme includes Scriabin’s Nocturne for the Left Hand and Wittgenstein’s own arrangement of Ave Maria. He will play Three Improvisations, composed for left hand only by Frank Bridge for Douglas Fox, a talented young pianist who lost his right arm in the conflict.

He will also play his transcription of the War anthem Roses of Picardy, which shell-shocked soldiers were encouraged to sing to help them regain their powers of speech. “Music from this period was used as an early form of therapy for injured soldiers,” the pianist said.

The concert will be attended by members of the Royal British Legion. McCarthy said: “Coming so close to Armistice Day, this is going to be the most difficult concert I have played emotionally. The concert is a tribute to all of those that have suffered and continue to suffer through War whether at home or overseas.”

McCarthy, a patron of Create, a charity which stages concerts for disabled children and their families, faced prejudice when he first set his heart on becoming a concert pianist at the age of 14 after watching a friend play a Beethoven sonata.

“I tried to get an audition at one piano school and a very old-school headmistress told me I could never play and just hung up the phone. I thought I would never get a chance.”

Determined to be judged by his musical potential rather than his disability, McCarthy auditioned at the Junior Guildhall School of Music and won a place. Instead of trying to adapt a traditional repertoire to one-handed playing, he began to investigate the history of left-handed music.

“I didn’t want to play only left-handed pieces but there was a much greater repertoire than I imagined: 28 piano concertos including Ravel’s concerto for left hand,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy’s audiences should not expect a traditional classical concert experience. “I don’t go for that stuffy approach. I talk throughout and tell funny anecdotes. It’s a way of getting more young people involved.”

Nicholas McCarthy performs Music In Remembrance at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral 7 November, Royal Albert Hall Elgar Room 9 November, The Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 11 November.