Refusing to forsake the piano, Paul Wittgenstein taught
himself to play left-handed and became world famous after his amputation.
Celebrated composers wrote music especially for him.
“Wittgenstein’s initial investment in this
repertoire has paid off for subsequent generations of disabled pianists: before
Wittgenstein, one-hand piano music consisted mostly of etudes and pedagogical
exercises; today, there are hundreds of quality one-hand compositions available
for performance,” wrote Blake Howe in “Paul Wittgenstein and the
Performance of Disability,” a scholarly article published in the spring
2010 volume of The Journal of Musicology.
The older brother of the philosopher Ludwig
Wittgenstein, Paul was born in Vienna, Austria’s capital, in 1887. Their
father was a wealthy industrialist.
|Image: © iStockphoto.com/Lane
Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and
other celebrated composers visited the family mansion. As a child, Paul enjoyed
playing duets with Strauss.
While the Wittgensteins lived in splendor, “bad
temper and nervous tension were endemic in the family,” Anthony Gottlieb
wrote in The New Yorker in April, 2009. “One day, when Paul
was practicing at one of the seven grand pianos in their winter home, the
Palais Wittgenstein, he leaped up and shouted at his brother Ludwig in the room
next door, ‘I cannot play when you are in the house, as I feel your
skepticism seeping towards me from under the door!”
Wittgenstein studied music before the war and made his
public debut in Vienna. Critics lauded his performance.
Soon after the war started in August, 1914, Wittgenstein
rode off to the Eastern Front in an elite dragoon regiment. Lieutenant
Wittgenstein was an early casualty. A Russian sniper shot him in the right arm,
which had to be amputated.
Wittgenstein ended up a Russian captive. He was held for
a time at the infamous Siberian fortress at Omsk, the citadel “where
[Russian novelist Fyodor] Dostoyevsky had set his novel ‘The House of the
Dead,’” Gottlieb wrote.
Wittgenstein’s musical career seemed dead. Even so,
he became grimly determined to stay with the piano.
After the amputation, he suffered “physical and
psychological traumas” that were difficult to dispel and were
“amplified by the practical difficulties that he had to face in adapting
his disability to everyday life,” wrote Alexander Waugh in “The House
of Wittgenstein: A Family at War.” “Suddenly he was unable to tie his
shoelaces, to cut his food or dress himself in the morning.”
Phantom limb pain also plagued Wittgenstein.
“Looking to see that the arm is no longer there
does not relieve the victim, for the pain will persist even when his eyes will
confirm that it cannot possibly be,” Waugh wrote.
Ludwig found inspiration, if not pain relief, by
thinking of Leopold Godowski, an acclaimed Lithuanian pianist who had rewritten
famous compositions by Richard Strauss and Frederick Chopin for the left hand
alone. Wittgenstein may have seen him play them one-handed in Vienna, the
Recuperating in the prison hospital, Wittgenstein began
his comeback. He used charcoal to mark a piano keyboard on a crate. Then, he
tried to figure out how Godowski created his unique arrangements.
“Day after day and for hour upon hour, he addressed
himself to this arduous and improbable task, tapping his freezing fingers on
the wooden box, listening intently to the imagined music sounding in his head
and creating, in the corner of a crowded festering invalids’ ward, a
tragicomic spectacle that aroused the sympathy and curiosity of his fellow
prisoners and all the hospital staff,” Waugh wrote.
Howe explained, “Wittgenstein was keenly interested
in training his left hand to manage the work of two hands, designing a
repertoire of novel techniques to accommodate the many instances where such a
conversion would otherwise appear to be physically impossible.”
A visiting diplomat from neutral Denmark witnessed
Wittgenstein’s “performance.” As a result, he arranged for
Wittgenstein to be transferred in early 1915 to a hotel with a piano, Waugh
Later that year, a prisoner of war exchange sent
Wittgenstein back to Austria and his family. But he volunteered to return to
active duty and he stayed in the army almost to the war’s end in 1918,
according to the author.
Before the war, Wittgenstein had studied the piano under
composer Joseph Labor, who was blind. He agreed to write a special one-handed
concerto for his pupil.
Wittgenstein played the concerto in Vienna to rave
reviews from critics. Soon, his fame spread. Benjamin Britten, Sergei
Prokofiev, Strauss and other celebrity composers agreed to write music for him.
Maurice Ravel wrote “Piano Concerto for the Left
Hand.” It became one of the most popular pieces Wittgenstein played.
Wittgenstein packed concert halls. He dazzled audiences
and critics alike.
Waugh quoted a Viennese critic: “Paul Wittgenstein,
having been robbed of his right arm – one might even say robbed of more
than his life – by an idiotic shot during the war, but overcoming fate by
sheer artistic heroism, has become a virtuoso of the remaining left hand and
has raised his one-sidedness to a state of completion, indeed of
Howe wrote that “contemporary reviews of
Wittgenstein’s live performances were almost universally positive –
gushingly and enthusiastically so, with frequent reports of standing ovations
and multiple encores. Such critical praise, however, was tempered by
condescension, as reviewers struggled to make sense of the incongruity posed by
Wittgenstein’s physical disability.”
Wittgenstein made headlines wherever he played. Howe
quoted some of them: “One-Armed Pianist Undaunted by Lot,”
“One-Armed Pianist Plays Ravel Solo” and “Wittgenstein a
One-Armed Piano Marvel.”
“There is an insidious synecdoche employed in this
litany of headlines; disability here a missing limb, is used to signify the
whole body – indeed, the whole performer and whole person – so that
Paul Wittgenstein the pianist becomes defined primarily by his
one-handedness,” Howe wrote.
A dangerous situation
Despite his fame, Wittgenstein found himself in great
danger when Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938. Though the Wittgensteins had
converted to Christianity, the family’s roots were Jewish. The Nazis
considered them Jewish under the notorious anti-Semitic Nuremburg Laws.
Nazi authorities banned Wittgenstein from playing in
public. As a result, the family migrated to America.
Two of his sisters stayed in Vienna. Paul and two of
their siblings, who also lived abroad, were determined to save them.
They struck a deal with the Nazis. They would hand over
the family fortune to the Nazis in exchange for the two sisters being
reclassified as non-Jewish and allowed to stay in the family mansion without
fear of persecution.
Wittgenstein spent World War II in the United States,
where he gained citizenship in 1946. He died in 1961.
Waugh quoted from Wittgenstein’s Gramophone obituary written by
Trevor Harvey: “As a personal friend Paul Wittgenstein will never be
forgotten while those who knew him are alive; but long after his friends are no
more, music lovers will have reason to remember him with gratitude for the
music he caused to be written.”