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  • Graham Abbott

Paul Wittgenstein and Music for the Left Hand

Paul Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in November 1887, and grew up in a stimulating intellectual environment. His father was the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein and his brother, two years his junior, was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. People like Brahms and Mahler were frequent visitors to the house as Paul grew up, and he played piano duets with Richard Strauss. His public debut in 1913 attracted positive reviews but he was called up for military service with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.


Wounded and captured by the Russians during an attack on Poland, his right arm had to be amputated. It speaks volumes for his resolve as a human being as much as a musician that during his recovery he decided to reinvent his career as a pianist using only his left hand.


Paul Wittgenstein

With the end of the war Wittgenstein began to work at his goal, initially arranging pieces for the left hand alone and learning new pieces for the left hand which were composed for him by his former teacher, Josef Labor. Labor also knew about making headway in the world of music with a disability: he was blind. Wittgenstein developed an amazing technique which, according to Grove Online, “enabled him to overcome difficulties formidable even for a two-handed pianist”.


Once Wittgenstein began to give concerts his profile and popularity increased throughout Europe and he felt able to approach major composers with requests for new compositions. The first composer to be asked was Erich Korngold, who was in the mid-20s a major figure in Austrian music, the most frequently-performed composer of the day after Richard Strauss. Korngold responded with a remarkable left-hand piano concerto in C sharp. Wittgenstein gave the premiere in Vienna in September 1924 with the composer conducting. [listen]


Around the same time as Korngold was writing this work, another composer, Paul Hindemith, wrote a left hand piano concerto for Wittgenstein. Hindemith’s Piano Music with Orchestra op 29 was given to Wittgenstein but the pianist didn’t like the work and not only refused to play it but refused to let anybody else play it. It remained completely unknown and was assumed lost until the death of Wittgenstein’s widow in 2001. Hindemith’s concerto was found among the pianist’s archive which she had kept locked away, and it received its first performance in Berlin in 2004. The work has finally been recorded and released on the Naxos label. [listen]


Richard Strauss wrote two works for Wittgenstein in the 20s. The first is the Parergon to the Sinfonia Domestica. The Sinfonia Domestica was written at the turn of the century and premiered in 1904. Now, two decades later, with the Wittgenstein commission as an impetus, Strauss composed this afterthought, or derivative work (as the word “parergon” indicates). It’s primarily a set of variations on the child’s theme from the earlier work. [listen]


Two years later, in 1927, came Strauss’ second work for Wittgenstein, a festive work with the title Panathenäenzug. Inspired by festivals dedicated to the goddess Athene in Ancient Greece, this work has a more formal subtitle of “Symphonic studies in the form of a passacaglia”. The passacaglia is an old dance form which was favoured by composers in the Baroque as a foundation for variation writing, with a constantly recurring bass line. The Panathenäenzug is a single movement lasting nearly half an hour, and it is of phenomenal difficulty for the soloist, tribute if ever any was needed to Wittgenstein’s amazing technique. [listen]


The most famous of the compositions written for Paul Wittgenstein was created a couple of years after this, the Concerto in D by Maurice Ravel. Ravel wrote his two piano concertos almost simultaneously between 1929 and 1931. The G major concerto, written for Marguerite Long, is of course for two hands, but the D major concerto for Wittgenstein is again a phenomenally difficult piece, cast (unlike the other Ravel concerto) in a single movement. [listen]


A rare recording of a live concert performance of Ravel’s left hand concerto exists with Wittgenstein as the soloist. This took place in Amsterdam on 28 February, 1937 with the Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter. It’s far from perfect but it’s still an extraordinary historical document, and we do well to remember that the concerto was still rather new at the time.


It has been uploaded to YouTube in two parts: Part One is here, and Part Two is here.


The day after that performance a newspaper critic wrote, “This time there was not only a standing orchestra: there was a standing audience, which honoured Wittgenstein with ovations and displayed warmth and admiration rarely experienced at matinee concerts”.


In 1931, very soon after Ravel completed the concerto for Wittgenstein, Sergei Prokofiev wrote a concerto for him. The Prokofiev fourth concerto, though, was destined for the same reception from the pianist as Hindemith’s. Prokofiev’s lean and sparse work is bright, transparent and lively and apparently wasn’t serious enough for Wittgenstein; he never played it. It remained unperformed until 1956, three years after Prokofiev’s death. Prokofiev undertook a revision of the work for two hands but it’s usually played today in the original left hand version, which is sparkling and delightful from beginning to end. [listen]


The American pianist Gary Graffman, himself forced to play left-hand repertoire from 1979 due to an injury to his right hand, has written a fascinating description of the challenges of writing and performing music for the piano when restricted to the left hand:


Composers as well as performers of piano music written for the left hand alone face unique problems. For the composer, the very idea of writing music for five fingers which must sound as if being played by ten can be a daunting challenge. For the pianist, not only must the one active hand do double duty, it must also learn to function quite differently from its accustomed, often subordinate manner. Now the left hand, in coming to the fore, must learn to play (in addition to — and simultaneously with — its normal accompaniment role) the melodic lines traditionally assigned its counterpart. To make matters worse, these often singing, legato (not to mention complicated) melodies, usually played by the right hand’s fourth and fifth fingers, are now undertaken by the left hand’s thumb, which in itself is quite a virtuoso feat. And all this has to be accomplished while the pianist – whose body is contorted and in a most unnatural position when his left hand performs its acrobatics far up in he treble of the keyboard – quickly learns to hang on for dear life with his right hand to the instrument, to the piano bench, or any other available solid matter, to avoid losing balance and being catapulted to the audience.


A once-prominent but now largely forgotten figure is the Austrian composer, conductor, cellist and pianist Franz Schmidt. In the 1920s and 30s Schmidt wrote a number of works for Paul Wittgenstein, including a piano concerto (Schmidt’s second), some chamber works and music for solo piano. The chamber works include a piano quintet and two quintets for the unusual combination of clarinet, piano, violin, viola and cello. As a contrast to the large-scale works I’ve referred to so far, here is Schmidt’s Toccata in D minor for solo piano left hand, written in 1938, the year before his death. [listen]


In the 1930s the Wittgenstein family encountered anti-Jewish discrimination following the annexation of Austria by the Nazis. Despite the family as a whole converting to Christianity generations before, they were racially classed as Jews. Under the Nazis, Wittgenstein was prohibited from performing. He left for the United States in 1938 and became an American citizen in 1946.


It was in 1941 that Benjamin Britten wrote for Wittgenstein the work which Wittgenstein regarded as fulfilling all his requirements more than any other, the Diversions for piano left hand and orchestra. Britten was coming to the end of his time in America and he just managed to hear the premiere of Diversions in Philadelphia in January 1942 just before he returned to Britain. Wittgenstein was of course the soloist; the conductor was Eugene Ormandy. Britten was clearly in awe of Wittgenstein’s abilities and wrote a dazzling work which is a set of eleven variations on a theme. He said, “In no place in the work did I attempt to imitate a two-handed piano technique but concentrated on exploiting and emphasising the single line approach”. [listen]


After the second world war Wittgenstein spent the rest of his life in the United States where as well playing he developed a reputation as a fine teacher. He died in Manhasset, NY in 1961 at the age of 73.


Paul Wittgenstein has inspired a few moments of popular culture. John Barchilon’s 1984 novel, The Crown Prince, is based on the pianist’s life, while in 2012, British singer-songwriter Neil Halstead took inspiration from him in writing the song Wittgenstein’s Arm for his album, Palindrome Hunches. Finally, in an episode of the long-running TV series M*A*S*H (called Morale Victory, first aired 28 January, 1980), Charles Winchester uses the Ravel left hand concerto to inspire an injured pianist not to abandon his musical gifts. You can watch the episode on Facebook here.


We owe to Wittgenstein’s misfortune, determination and sheer talent some fascinating works from some of the 20th century’s most important composers. The music written for him doesn’t for one second suggest token nods in the direction of the disabled, but rather an acknowledgement of the man’s greatness which would have been evident with or without the loss of his right arm.


This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in May, 2007.

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