Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Paul Wittgenstein and left-handed piano works.

Paul Wittgenstein at the piano
Paul Wittgenstein at the piano, Bernard Fleishcher Moving Images. 
Given the theme of "Disability and music" for this year's UK Disability History month, Paul Wittegenstein is a figure whose life and work calls out to be remembered.

An Austrian by birth, Wittgenstein studied music in Vienna but was conscripted into the army in 1914. The same year, wounded by a Russian bullet, Paul Wittgenstein’s right arm was amputated and he recuperated as a prisoner of war in a Siberian camp. Despite the loss of his arm, Wittgenstein was determined to pursue a career as a concert pianist. Even whilst a prisoner of war, Wittgenstein designed techniques to help him practice and develop as a pianist. Recovering from his amputation in a prison hospital, Wittgenstein practiced on a keyboard drawn in charcoal on a crate. Later he would practice for up to seven hours at a time to develop his virtuoso skills. 

Wittgenstein’s determination to pursue a musical career despite his disability may have reflected his
Geza Zichy, seated, in formal dress
Geza Zichy, photograph from the Budapest Archives.
experience being taught musical theory in Vienna by Josef Labor. Labor was a successful organist, composer and tutor despite his blindness. Wittgenstein may also have drawn inspiration from Count Geza Zichy. Zichy was an aristocratic Hungarian who also lost his right arm, although not as a soldier but in a hunting accident as a teenager. Zichy went on to enjoy a successful career as a concert pianist, as well as variously working as a lawyer, acting as the Intendant of the Royal Hungarian Opera and the president of the Hungarian National Conservatory and producing musical compositions, several operas, an autobiography and two volumes of verse
He studied with the composer Franz Liszt with whom he became close friends and the two later gave concerts together. Zichy’s own compositions are not well-known, but amongst them he produced various piano compositions for the left hand alone, as well as arranging compositions by well-known composers as a piano piece for the left hand.

Zichy offered a model of a successful concert pianist and one who created a repertoire for himself after the loss of his arm. Rather than primarily writing pieces for himself to perform, Wittgenstein not only adapted existing compositions to be played with one hand, but also commissioned works by a range of composers. Like Zichy, Wittgenstein came from a wealthy background and commissioned work from composers including Benjamin Britten, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev and Maurice Ravel, with Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand probably the best known.

Whilst Wittgenstein performed some works widely, he received other commissioned compositions less gladly. Paul Hindemuth wrote a left handed concerto for Wittgenstein in 1923, but Wittgenstein did not understand the composition and filed it away unplayed. It was uncovered decades later in a house that belonged to Wittgenstein’s widow and finally premiered by Leon Fleisher in 2004.

Although Wittgenstein’s commissions and reputation created a new repertoire of work for pianists with only left hand, this did not automatically improve the selection of left handed works available. Wittgenstein retained sole right to perform the compositions he commissioned during his lifetime - even those which he chose not to perform. Like the unplayed work by Hindemuth, a 1931 concerto by Prokofiev remained unperformed by Wittgenstein. The pianist Siegfried Rapp had lost his right arm in the Second World War and in 1950 wrote to Wittgenstein for permission to perform the Prokofiev concerto. Wittgenstein denied him access to the work in no uncertain terms:
  “...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.”

Rapp eventually managed to obtain a score of the concerto from Prokofiev’s widow and premiered the concerto in 1956, to the annoyance of Wittgenstein. Despite his long career as a concert pianist, Paul Wittgenstein made few recordings. Those that exist were made towards the end of his career and are generally agreed to record him past his musical peak. As such Wittgenstein’s most significant musical legacy was to have commissioned and inspired so many works for left hand alone but he was reluctant to share these with those who could benefit most.

Wittgenstein lived a remarkable life. Surviving the loss of his arm and incarceration in a Russian prison camp during the First World War, he nevertheless pursued a career as a concert pianist. His family were of Jewish descent and during the 1930s and 1940s, became targets for Nazi persecution. Wittgenstein’s wife Hilde, herself partially sighted, was not from a Jewish family, leading to accusations of “racial defilement” and prompting Wittgenstein’s departure for the USA, followed later by his wife and children. Of his 4 brothers, 3 committed suicide. His surviving and youngest brother Ludvig followed a career in philosophy, studying with Bertrand Russell, going on to become one of the great thinkers of the 20th century. Wittgenstein’s life is an amazing story of survival and determination.

You can also explore further with related resources in the library, including those listed below:

Spotify Playlist:

Whilst Wittgenstein is the best known of the one handed pianists who performed through the 19th and 20th century, he was by no means the only one. There were and still are numerous composers and performers working in the music industry who have experienced the loss of one or more limbs. Check out our playlist to hear a selection of their work, as well as Rapp’s performance of Prokofiev and Wittgenstein playing the renowned Ravel composition written for him: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7kj4znmMoaQwFoXkXRUo3l

Music scores:

  • Parergon zur Sinfonia domestica: fur Klavier (linke Hand) und Orchester, op. 73 [electronic resource] : For piano (lefthand) and orchestra. LM 14 STRAU/R 55.61 
  • Concerto pour la main gauche : pour piano et orchestre LM 14 RAV 55.61
  • Diversions : for piano (left hand) and orchestra, opus 21 LM 14 BRIT 55.61

Audio CDs:

  • Rattle conducts Britten CD/LM/1770 (features Diversions, opus 21)
  • Orchestral works, Ravel, CD/LM/2810 (features concerto for the left hand)

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