Paul Wittgenstein

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Pianist Paul Wittgenstein became famous for the way in which he overcame a tragic accident that robbed him of his right arm, turning loss into innovation and creativity, and in the process inspiring a…
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Pianist Paul Wittgenstein became famous for the way in which he overcame a tragic accident that robbed him of his right arm, turning loss into innovation and creativity, and in the process inspiring a repertory of one-handed piano works. Born in Vienna in 1887, Paul was the son of self-made Austrian industrialist Karl Wittgenstein and older brother to the noted philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Raised in a cultured, wealthy environment, Paul had exceptional formative musical experiences due to the stature of his family, including having as frequent guests Brahms, Mahler, and Clara Schumann, and playing duets with none other than Richard Strauss. The young man was thus groomed to support and encourage the arts financially, as did his parents; yet Paul's early precocity for music guaranteed that he would be no mere musical dilettante and philanthropist.

He began to study piano with Malvine Bree; quick progress led him to the studio of the illustrious Polish virtuoso and teacher Theodor Leschetizky, himself a pupil of Czerny. It was in part the influence of Leschetizky and the blind composer Josef Labor, with whom he studied theory, which prompted him to seek a professional career. There is little doubt, however, that another significant influence was the pressure he felt to succeed as part of a tremendously successful family.

Paul made his public debut in Vienna in 1913; interestingly, his left hand technique was favorably commented upon in these early concerts. The outbreak of World War I prevented further progress, however, as he was called up in 1914. Then came the tragedy: in the assault on Russian Poland, Paul was wounded and taken prisoner; the Russian surgeons had to amputate his right arm. It was a year before he was exchanged and repatriated, by which time, he had, as he wrote, "determined upon the plan of training myself to become a one-armed pianist, at least to attempt it." First, however, he returned to the military, serving in Italy until the conclusion of the war.

Upon returning to Vienna, Paul began to practice seven hours a day. Leschetizky having died, he taught himself, evolving a new pedagogical technique (which he would later publish as The School for the Left Hand). His few performances at this time were of works composed for him by his former teacher Labor. After three years of intense practice and research into works written or arranged for the left hand, he began a performing and teaching career that would last the remaining 40 years of his life. His results were such that numerous listeners swore that he had two hands; his efforts were immediately hailed as a new heroism by a battle-scarred Europe.

He began to use his means and influence to commission many new works for the left hand alone. Strauss, impressed with Wittgenstein's success with exercises that he had written for him, composed for him the Paregon and Panathenaezug. Other notable commissions included Britten's Diversions, a chamber suite by Korngold, and concerti from Hindemith and Prokofiev. The work with which Wittgenstein became synonymous was Maurice Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand, performed worldwide. It should be noted that Wittgenstein sometimes did not care for the compositions (Prokofiev); neither did the composers his interpretations at times (Britten, Ravel).

The Wittgenstein family was Christian but was nevertheless subject to Nazi racial laws due to a Jewish grandfather; Paul left Austria for the United States permanently in 1938, settling in New York and becoming an American citizen in 1946. While in the United States he taught privately and at the Ralph Wolf Conservatory and Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart. He passed away in New York at the age of 73; the historical novel The Crown Prince, by John Barchilon, is based on Wittgenstein's remarkable life.