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He Played It Left-Hand

20 minutes
First broadcast:
Friday 20 August 2010

After losing his right hand in the First World War the pianist Paul Wittgenstein commissioned several composers to write pieces specifically for the left hand, including Ravel, whose Concerto for the Left Hand is performed in tonight's Prom concert. But why, as 10% of the population is left-handed, should it take such a loss for composers to consider doing this? Why (especially as the incidence of left-handedness is even higher among musicians) are musical instruments designed by right-handers, for right-handers?

The novelist Louise Doughty is left-handed and she feels this has had considerable bearing on her becoming a writer. There is a preconception that left-handers are more creative than most of the population, more likely to develop as artists. Louise enquires into the truth of this, talking to Chris McManus, Professor of Psychology and Medical Education at University College London and an expert on left-handedness and asymmetry.

She meets the pianist Chris Steed, who commissioned a left-handed piano, and tries the instrument herself. She considers how left-handedness is not merely mechanical but an approach to the world - a world which pays scant regard to left-handers. Popular opinion even discriminates against left-handness, it being historically associated with evil, and depicted as such in art. Why should Christ sit 'on the right hand of the Father'?

David Bowie's guitarist alter ego Ziggy Stardust 'played it left hand' and this marked him out as special. And Louise hears from the late Robert Sandall about how the great originality of Jimi Hendrix as an electric guitarist was due to his being left-handed.

Producer: Julian May.


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