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.

There Could Be Hundreds of Frozen Corpses Buried Beneath Antarctica's Snow and Ice

Prpix.com.au/Getty Images
Prpix.com.au/Getty Images

Scientists and explorers take a number of risks when they travel to Antarctica. One of the more macabre gambles is that they'll perish during their mission, and their bodies will never be recovered. According to the BBC, hundreds of frozen corpses may be trapped beneath layers and layers of Antarctic snow and ice.

“Some are discovered decades or more than a century later,” Martha Henriques writes for the BBC series Frozen Continent. “But many that were lost will never be found, buried so deep in ice sheets or crevasses that they will never emerge—or they are headed out towards the sea within creeping glaciers and calving ice.”

In the world’s most extreme regions, this is not uncommon. For comparison, some estimates suggest that more than 200 bodies remain on Mt. Everest. Antarctica's icy terrain is rugged and dangerous. Massive crevasses—some concealed by snow—measure hundreds of feet deep and pose a particularly serious threat for anyone crossing them on foot or by dogsled. There’s also the extreme weather: Antarctica is the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth, yet scientists recently discovered hundreds of mummified penguins that they believe died centuries ago from unusually heavy snow and rain.

One of the most famous cases of a left-behind body on Antarctica dates back to the British Antarctic Expedition (also known as the Terra Nova Expedition) of 1910 to 1913. British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and his four-man team hoped to be the first ones to reach the South Pole in 1912, but were bitterly disappointed when they arrived and learned that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen had beaten them to it.

On the return trip, Scott and his companions died of exposure and starvation while trapped by a blizzard in their tent, just 11 miles from a food depot. Two of those bodies were never found, but the others (including Scott’s) were located a few months after their deaths. Members of the search party covered their bodies in the tent with snow and left them there. The bodies have since travelled miles from their original location, as the ice grows and shifts around them.

Other evidence suggests people landed on Antarctica decades before Scott’s team did. A 175-year-old human skull and femur found on Antarctica’s Livingston Island were identified as the remains of a young indigenous Chilean woman. No one yet knows how she got there.

Accidents still happen: After coming close to completing the first solo, unaided traverse of Antarctica, British adventurer Henry Worsley died of organ failure following an airlift from the continent in 2016. Most modern-day polar visitors, however, have learned from past missteps.

[h/t BBC]

Dolly Parton, They Might Be Giants, and More Featured on New Album Inspired By the 27 Amendments

Valerie Macon, Getty Images
Valerie Macon, Getty Images

Since 2016, Radiolab's More Perfect podcast has taken what is typically viewed as a dry subject, the Supreme Court, and turned it into an engrossing podcast. Now, fans of the show have a whole new way to learn about the parts of U.S. history which textbooks tend to gloss over. 27, The Most Perfect Album, a new music compilation from Radiolab, features more than two dozen songs inspired by each of the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, from freedom of religion to rules regulating changes to Congressional salaries.

More Perfect assembled an impressive roster of musical talents to compose and perform the tracklist. They Might Be Giants wrote the song for the Third Amendment, which prohibited the forced quartering of soldiers in people's homes. It goes, "But the presence of so many friendly strangers makes me nervous, and it does not mean that I'm not truly thankful for your service."

For the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, Dolly Parton sings, "We carried signs, we cursed the times, marched up and down the street. We had to fight for women's rights with blisters on our feet." Less sexy amendments, like the 12th Amendment, which revised presidential election procedures, and the 20th Amendment, which set commencement terms for congress and the president, are also featured. Torres, Caroline Shaw, Kash Doll, and Cherry Glazerr are just a handful of the other artists who contributed to the album.

The release of the compilation coincides with the premiere of More Perfect's third season, which will focus on the 27 amendments to the U.S. Constitution. You can check out the first episode of the new season today and download the companion album for free through WNYC.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER