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How Paul Wittgenstein Paved the Way for One-Armed Concert Pianists

In 2012, Nicholas McCarthy became the first one-handed pianist to graduate from London's illustrious Royal College of Music. McCarthy, who was born without a right hand, has since gone on to build a successful career as a classical musician, giving performances all across the world and playing everywhere from the Royal Albert Hall to the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games.

As McCarthy’s success—and astonishing talent—proves, having one hand is not as restrictive a disability for a pianist as it might seem. What’s more, thanks to the life and legacy of Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, there’s a remarkably sizable repertoire of compositions available exclusively for one-handed pianists.

Wittgenstein was born into a family with a long musical heritage in Vienna, Austria, on November 5, 1887. His grandmother, Fanny, had been a friend of Felix Mendelssohn; her adopted son, Joseph Joachim, studied under Mendelssohn in Germany, and became one of the most accomplished violinists of the 19th century. Paul’s father, Karl Wittgenstein, was also a violinist, as well as a close friend of the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, founder of New York City’s Carnegie Hall. But it was as a steel magnate that Karl made a name for himself and ultimately became one of the richest people in Europe at the time. Thanks to the family’s wealth and their longstanding interest in the arts, it was not uncommon for the likes of Gustav Mahler, Clara Schumann, Richard Strauss, or Johannes Brahms to drop by the Wittgenstein family home.

As a result, Paul, along with his older brother Johannes, quickly took a serious interest in music—and both showed an aptitude for it. Tragically, Johannes died under mysterious circumstances while in America in 1902, but Paul—originally dismissed as being less accomplished than his older brother—continued his studies, and was accepted into the Viennese Gymnasium. After working under the Polish composer and piano virtuoso Theodor Leschetizky, Paul gave his first public performance in 1913 to rave reviews and was set to launch his career as a concert pianist.

But the following year, war broke out.

At the start of the First World War in 1914, Wittgenstein was called up for military service in the Austro-Hungarian Army and dispatched to the Russian front. Just weeks after his arrival, however, a stray bullet struck him in his right elbow. The injury was so bad that he passed out, and when he regained consciousness several days later in a Ukrainian hospital, he found out that not only was he a prisoner of war, but his right arm had been amputated.

Once he had recovered from his surgery, Wittgenstein was relocated to an isolated prison camp in Omsk, in southwest Siberia. Despite what seemed to be a bleak future ahead of him, Wittgenstein resolved not to be hindered by what had happened: Etching the layout of a piano keyboard onto an upturned supply crate, Wittgenstein set about retraining and strengthening his left hand, and spent much of his incarceration calculating how it might be possible to play some of his favorite pieces of music with his left hand alone. “It was like climbing a mountain,” he later wrote of his determination to continue playing. “If you can’t get up one way, you try another.”

While still a prisoner in Siberia, Wittgenstein managed to contact one of his former music teachers, the composer Josef Labor, via the Danish consul, to explain what had happened to him and to request that Labor write him a piece to perform using just his left hand. Several weeks later, the reply came: Labor was already working on it and a sympathetic dignitary arranged to transfer Wittgenstein to a camp with a piano.

In 1915, Wittgenstein was repatriated and sent home via Sweden as part of a prisoner of war exchange program between Russian and Austria. With little chance of seeing active service again, he immediately set about launching his musical career for the second time—only this time, under considerably changed circumstances.

Wittgenstein began to study intensely. He arranged his own left-hand-only versions of some of his favorite pieces—including Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata, Bach’s Prelude in C Minor, Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, and Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude. He learned and rehearsed the piece Josef Labor had written for him, all the while continuing to improve the strength, technique, and stamina of his left hand. He gave his first one-handed performance in Vienna, debuting Labor’s Concert Piece in the form of Variations for Pianoforte Left Hand. And that was just the beginning.

Over the next 30 years, Wittgenstein used his family’s enormous fortune to commission dozens of left-hand piano pieces—a total of 17 piano concertos among them—from some of the early 20th century’s most renowned composers, including Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Richard Strauss, and Maurice Ravel. All the while he continued to tour, steadily building his reputation as a remarkable individual performer, determined not to be held back in any way—often, however, at the expense of his collaborators.

As his fame grew, Wittgenstein became increasingly demanding; he had uneasy relationships with many of the composers with whom he worked. When Prokofiev sent him his 4th Piano Concerto (1931), he claimed not to understand it and resolved never to play it until “the inner logic of the work” became clear to him. (Wittgenstein never performed the work, and Prokofiev never heard it played in his lifetime.) Similarly, when Paul Hindemith sent him his Klaviermusik, or Concerto for Piano with Orchestra, Op. 29 (1924), Wittgenstein again claimed not to understand that work either, refused to play it, and kept it hidden in his study. It was not discovered until 2002, and finally received its debut performance in 2004—41 years after Hindemith’s death.

But it was with French composer Maurice Ravel that Wittgenstein had his rockiest—albeit fruitful—relationship. In 1930, Ravel sent Wittgenstein his epic Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. The piece remains not only one of Ravel’s most popular and virtuosic pieces, but is perhaps the most famous piece of left-hand piano music in the entire classical repertoire (and has even become something of a rite of passage for two-handed piano players). Despite its astonishing complexity, however, as soon as he received the score, Wittgenstein set to work editing and revising it, altering not just the piano part that he was expected to play, but also the orchestral accompaniment.

Ravel could not attend his concerto’s debut performance in 1932, but he traveled to Vienna shortly after to attend a dinner and concert hosted by Wittgenstein, at which the work was to be played. Throughout the performance, Ravel reportedly grew steadily more agitated as he realized the alterations Wittgenstein had made. Incensed, Ravel cornered Wittgenstein after the performance about his changes and the pair had a heated argument about the supremacy of composers over musicians. This disagreement would lead to Wittgenstein exclaiming, "Performers must not be slaves," to which Ravel famously replied, “Performers are slaves.” Despite their differences, however, the pair reconciled enough to collaborate on a performance of the concerto in 1933 with Wittgenstein at the piano, and Ravel conducting.

By the late 1930s, war again impacted Wittgenstein’s life: Although his family was Christian, their Jewish heritage was enough to see Wittgenstein forbidden from giving public performances under the Nuremburg Laws that were imposed on Austria following the Nazi annexation in 1938. Wittgenstein relocated to America as a consequence, and there continued his playing and teaching, becoming an American citizen in 1946. He died in New York in 1961 at the age of 73.

Wittgenstein’s life may have been a tumultuous one full of misfortune and disagreements, but he left behind an extraordinary legacy of works for performers of equally extraordinary talent.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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