Nicholas McCarthy left his dreams of becoming a chef on the chopping block when he heard Beethoven’s Waldstein piano sonata. Now, the 23-year-old Briton, who was born without his right arm, is crafting a growing career as an international concert pianist. J BROOKS SPECTOR remembers to offer his left hand, the one that has the more difficult tasks in most piano works, in greeting.
The First World War destroyed four empires, led to millions of casualties, ended a way of life for many millions more – and seemed virtually certain to end the career of rising young piano virtuoso, Paul Wittgenstein, almost before it had fairly begun. One more small tragedy in a continental catastrophe. Wittgenstein belonged to that smart set of bright, witty, talented folks like composers Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Sigmund Freud, and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (Paul’s brother) that had made Vienna an intellectual and cultural hothouse at the beginning of the 20th centuries.
Just before the war broke out, Wittgenstein had begun to make his presence felt as a classical pianist after a well-received debut concert in 1913. But when war started the following year, Wittgenstein was drafted into the Austrian army, sent to the Eastern Front, had his right arm amputated after a battlefield injury, and he ended up being held by the Russians as a prisoner of war in Omsk, in Siberia. None of this seemed likely to make his return to the concert stage seem plausible.
Astonishingly, while he was still a POW, Wittgenstein had managed to contact his old piano teacher, Josef Labor, via the good offices of the Danish ambassador to Russia. He wrote to Labor to ask for a concerto for the left hand and Labor responded quickly, saying he had already started to work on just such a piece.
Wittgenstein put in serious time at the keyboard, arranging pieces for the left hand alone, himself, as well as learning Labor’s new composition. Despite his ostensible physical limitation, he began to give concerts again and soon approached other composers – Maurice Ravel, Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Erich Korngold, Sergei Prokofiev, Franz Schmidt, Sergei Bortkiewicz, and Richard Strauss. All of them eventually produced works for Wittgenstein. And Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand has become a particular concert favourite worldwide – even performed by two-handed pianists (playing with just one hand of course).
In mastering this left hand repertoire, Wittgenstein devised novel techniques, including non-standard pedal and hand-movement combinations that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-finger-only pianist. (It did help somewhat that his family was extremely wealthy and could support his quest to establish a concert-worthy repertoire for the solo left hand, Wittgenstein ultimately ended up in America, just ahead of the Nazi-imposed Holocaust – he and his family were classified as Jewish under the Nuremberg race laws, despite the fact they had converted to Christianity generations before.)
And now, almost exactly a hundred years later, along comes another astonishing left-hand-only pianist. This time it is a young British pianist, born without his right hand. Nicholas McCarthy is just 23 years old, but he is already making an international name in his chosen discipline. Like another differently abled young man now in the news (but for much sadder reasons), McCarthy was also a star at the 2012 London Paralympics, although McCarthy’s moment of fame came as a musical performer when he played in the closing ceremony with the British Paraorchestra.
During his concert tour to South Africa, we meet in a quiet sitting room in the gracious old Sunnyside Park Hotel – I’ve practiced extending my left hand to greet, rather than the right, until the gesture seems almost natural; this in an effort not to call attention to the obvious. McCarthy is used to taking the stumbles in his stride but he smiles at my effort to be obviously unobvious. Then the room is suddenly overwhelmed by the noise of a manic espresso maker that has begun to imitate a 19th-century steam locomotive. “What note is that?” I ask him and, without missing a beat, he replies, “A-flat below middle C.” We clearly have a man with a sense of humour, despite being in the midst of a long, tiring concert tour. And perfect pitch it seems.
Watch: Nicholas McCarthy Left handed pianist plays Franz Liszt Il Trovatore Paraphrase Op.16
As we talk, he explains that as he was growing up, he was just desperate to be a professional chef. He says he still cooks for the enjoyment and pleasure of it when he has a chance, although a growing international touring career can make mincemeat of that particular avocation. Music was probably the furthest thing in his thoughts as a reasonable career path when he was still a child. Then, miraculously, he heard a friend perform Beethoven’s Waldstein piano sonata, live, with its marvelous and unexpected mood changes, and McCarthy says he was transfixed by it. And he knew what he was meant to be – a professional pianist, despite his obvious physical difference from virtually every other professional pianist.
As a teenager seeking a place at a school for young pianists, Nicholas McCarthy was refused an audition and told he would never succeed. With just the one hand, the head teacher told him it would always hold him back. It was better not to waste his and other people’s time with this fantasy. Now some people might have given up at this point, but McCarthy went on to become the first one-handed pianist known to have graduated from the Royal College of Music. Thinking back to that first early audition, however, he has said: “It was soul crushing because that’s all I wanted to do. ‘How is this possible?’ I could feel it would be an uphill struggle, but it made me more determined, I’m quite a stubborn character.” Clearly. Before gaining entry to formal training, he had taught himself to play an electric keyboard as a young boy, but did not actually begin his lessons until he was 14.
Age 14, remember, is years beyond the time when most serious students have begun their piano studies. Child prodigies are even known to have given widely lauded recitals and launched their international performing careers at half the age McCarthy was when he had decided he wanted to begin in his new, all-consuming passion.
Then at 17, he gained a spot in the junior department of London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, eventually winning the annual piano prize. Not for left-handed, one-handed pianists, but for all piano students. Then he entered the prestigious Royal College of Music in London, graduating last year. The school’s head of keyboard studies, Professor Vanessa Latarche, has said that McCarthy had been “incredibly enterprising” in overcoming the challenges inherent in developing the stamina to present a 50-minute recital – with one arm. “He has been a great inspiration to many of his fellow students in showing what it is possible to achieve with a disability.”
All of this could not have been easy. No, wait, that’s way too trite. To anyone else, McCarthy’s ambition might have seemed almost delusional. But he is clearly made of stern stuff. This is a man who practically had to lay siege to the prestigious Royal College of Music to gain admission, and to be taken seriously as a potential concert pianist. And yet he seems almost jovial about his chosen path.
Already McCarthy has tackled the limited but technically demanding repertoire originally composed for the left hand and he has had other works transcribed for solo left hand for his performances. Gradually, too, he has begun to tackle transcriptions of compositions originally composed for both hands into works for just the left hand. “When I first joined the orchestra [the Paraorchestra] a couple of the musicians who are partially sighted and blind didn’t believe I was playing with one hand, that was a big compliment to me,” McCarthy has said. “The music is all written for the left hand alone, I’m not changing anything, I’m playing the music as it was written. It’s written very cleverly, but you’ve got to be very quick and good with the pedalling to sustain the bass notes while playing the top notes.” Ah, so that’s how it’s done.
McCarthy says that he thinks that a lot of people came to see him perform “for curiosity and they say to themselves, ‘How is this possible?’ For many, the first reaction is astonishment, that wow factor. I’ve had some people who thought I’d played with a backing track, but it is just me and my left hand.” McCarthy says that his spirit came from his profoundly non-musical parents. His father is an advertising salesman and he has told the British media that he always let his son do things people said he could not do. For example, his son was one of the first among his friends to ride a bicycle after he adapted it to put both the brakes on the left-hand side. “You can allow to be defined by society, by colour, race, creed or disability, but if you decide you’re not going to, the world’s your oyster,” he has said. For some reason I assume McCarthy doesn’t drive a car. Wrong. He loves to drive he tells me.
After my conversation with Nicolas MacCarthy, I spoke to a piano instructor and music educator who reminded me that, technically, the left hand actually has the more difficult task in many piano works. And many of the world’s most extraordinary pianists, such as Vladimir Horowitz, have been left-handed as well. All of that leads one to wonder how right-hand-only pianists might fare in the concert and recital hall. Would that be as much of a heroic feat as that of Wittgenstein or McCarthy’s?
As we are winding up our conversation, I finally get up the courage to ask the question I have been pondering all morning long. Given the accelerating pace of biomechanical discoveries, and especially the rapid development of neurological control of prostheses, would McCarthy ever consider being fitted with such a device – if it gave him motor control equivalent to his natural biological use of his left hand? One can see him pausing to consider the possibilities – and maybe no one has actually ever asked him this before. Ten, 20 years ago, perhaps no one would have. But McCarthy pauses for a moment and then responds that he thinks not, this is who, and how he is, and who he will be. In that sense, he is in the company of extraordinary talents like Stevie Wonder or Evelyn Glennie – the virtuoso but profoundly deaf percussionist. They are differently abled, not handicapped.
And then, just like that, suddenly, it is off to the gym for a workout before some practice time before his next concert. DM
Photo: Nicholas McCarthy
While we have your attention...
An increasingly rare commodity, quality independent journalism costs money - though not nearly as much as its absence.
Every article, every day, is our contribution to Defending Truth in South Africa. If you would like to join us on this mission, you could do much worse than support Daily Maverick's quest by becoming a Maverick Insider.
Click here to become a Maverick Insider and get a closer look at the Truth.
Dave Grohl once tried to quit Nirvana after overhearing Kurt Cobain call him a "shitty drummer". Their manager convinced him to stay.