Wittgenstein’s One Armed Gambit

Paul WittgensteinPaul Wittgenstein was one of the many talented Wittgenstein children, the best known being his brother Ludwig. He was a concern pianist. According to Wittgenstein in 90 Minutes, he wasn’t even the best pianist in the family. That sounds to me like family mythos; perhaps he was not the best in his teens. Regardless, he made his public debut at 26 to good reviews.

That was in 1913. The following year, World War II began. He was drafted. And in combat, he was shot in the elbow requiring his right arm to be amputated. But even while still in a Russian prison camp in Siberia, he began making plans to continue his career. At first, he had his old teacher, Romantic composer Josef Labor create piano pieces for the left hand only. After the war, he began performing again. He got “polite” reviews. People admitted that as left-handed pianists went, he was great. But that was as far as it went.

So Wittgenstein started approaching other composers to write for his special limitations. These include some of the best composers of the 20th century. The best known of these is Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. It is kind of strange, because I’m not that fond it. Benjamin Britten’s Diversions for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra is a lot more compelling. So is Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 4, which Wittgenstein never even performed. Even Richard Strauss wrote a special version of Sinfonia Domestica for him.

Paul Wittgenstein went on to have a very successful career. But he was still a Wittgenstein, by which I mean he seems to have been something of a jerk. In 1956, Siegfried Rapp wanted to premiere the Prokofiev concerto. Wittgenstein had had the piece for 25 years without performing it. But still he would not let Rapp perform it, writing to him:

I commissioned and paid for the works, the whole idea was mine… But those works to which I still have the exclusive performance rights are to remain mine as long as I still perform in public; that’s only right and fair. Once I am dead or no longer give concerts, then the works will be available to everyone because I have no wish for them to gather dust in libraries to the detriment of the composer.

That’s all very fine as the statement of a corporate CEO or a libertarian philosopher, but coming from an artist, it strikes me as pretty small minded. Similarly, the great composer Paul Hindemith wrote a piece for Wittgenstein in 1923. It was never performed and wasn’t even found until 2002, almost four decades after Hidemith had died.

Still I have great admiration for Paul Wittgenstein. He built a career despite what would have seemed to be an impossible disability. And the music world is richer for it. He was also quite a great and inventive player. If you want, you can hear him perform the Ravel concerto. But I think the performance of the great young pianist Helene Tysman is better:

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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