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.