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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Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Rosa Parks's Former House in Detroit Will Be Sold at Auction
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's
Fabia Mendoza/Guernsey's

The humble wooden house that Rosa Parks moved into after fleeing to Detroit in the fallout of her historic Montgomery bus protest will be auctioned off by Guernsey’s next month. The house has been taken apart, reassembled, and displayed in different locations over the years—including destinations as far-flung as Berlin, Germany—and the structure could theoretically be rebuilt anywhere.

The sale of the home will be part of Guernsey’s “African American Historic & Cultural Treasures” auction to be held July 25-26 in New York City, and proceeds from the house will benefit the Rosa McCauley Parks Heritage Foundation.

The fact that the home is still standing is testament to the resilient spirit of Rosa Parks, but it wasn’t always in such great shape. The home, formerly owned by Parks’s brother, fell into disrepair over the years and was slated to be demolished by the city of Detroit.

That’s when Parks’s niece, Rhea McCauley, stepped in. She bought the house for $500 and handed it over to Ryan Mendoza, an artist who promised to preserve the structure as a monument. He took it apart, transported it thousands of miles to Berlin, and rebuilt the house in his yard, where it remained on public display.

“A lot of people did think that that house was not worth saving because there’s so many in Detroit that looks just like that house,” Mendoza told the BBC. “It sort of goes without saying that she’s a national icon and what she did was so important for so many millions of people even if they don’t know it.”

Most recently, the home was displayed as part of a symposium with the Rhode Island School of Design.

After Parks was arrested on December 1, 1955, for refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man, she lost her job and received a steady stream of death threats. Two years later she and her family decided to move north, and the Detroit home she shared with 17 other relatives represented “a place of love and of peace,” McCauley told the BBC.

Also heading to the auction block is a handwritten account of Rosa Parks’s first meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., in August 1955, about four months before her bus protest. She wrote of her first impression, “I was amazed and astonished at the youthful appearance and the profound and eloquent speech delivered by Rev. M.L.K. Jr. I knew I would never forget him.”

Other notable items up for sale include a Jackson Five recording contract, signed by Joe Jackson; original score sheets of music from The Supremes and The Temptations; and hundreds of movie posters documenting African Americans’ role in film.

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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
15 Riveting Facts About Alan Turing
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

More than six decades after his death, Alan Turing’s life remains a point of fascination—even for people who have no interest in his groundbreaking work in computer science. He has been the subject of a play and an opera, and referenced in multiple novels and numerous musical albums. The Benedict Cumberbatch film about his life, The Imitation Game, received eight Oscar nominations. But just who was he in real life? Here are 15 facts you should know about Alan Turing, who was born on this day in 1912.

1. HE’S THE FATHER OF MODERN COMPUTER SCIENCE.

Turing essentially pioneered the idea of computer memory. In 1936, Turing published a seminal paper called “On Computable Numbers” [PDF], which The Washington Post has called “the founding document of the computer age.” In the philosophical article, he hypothesized that one day, we could build machines that could compute any problem that a human could, using 0s and 1s. Turing proposed single-task machines called Turing machines that would be capable of solving just one type of math problem, but a “universal computer” would be able to tackle any kind of problem thrown at it by storing instructional code in the computer’s memory. Turing’s ideas about memory storage and using a single machine to carry out all tasks laid the foundation for what would become the digital computer.

In 1945, while working for the UK’s National Physical Laboratory, he came up with the Automatic Computing Machine, the first digital computer with stored programs. Previous computers didn’t have electric memory storage, and had to be manually rewired to switch between different programs.

2. HE PLAYED A HUGE ROLE IN WINNING WORLD WAR II.

Turing began working at Bletchley Park, Britain’s secret headquarters for its codebreakers during World War II, in 1939. By one estimate, his work there may have cut the war short by up to two years. He’s credited with saving millions of lives.

Turing immediately got to work designing a codebreaking machine called the Bombe (an update of a previous Polish machine) with the help of his colleague Gordon Welchman. The Bombe shortened the steps required in decoding, and 200 of them were built for British use over the course of the war. They allowed codebreakers to decipher up to 4000 messages a day.

His greatest achievement was cracking the Enigma, a mechanical device used by the German army to encode secure messages. It proved nearly impossible to decrypt without the correct cipher, which the German forces changed every day. Turing worked to decipher German naval communications at a point when German U-boats were sinking ships carrying vital supplies across the Atlantic between Allied nations. In 1941, Turing and his team managed to decode the German Enigma messages, helping to steer Allied ships away from the German submarine attacks. In 1942, he traveled to the U.S. to help the Americans with their own codebreaking work.

3. HE BROKE THE RULES TO WRITE TO CHURCHILL.

Early on, Bletchley Park’s operations were hampered by a lack of resources, but pleas for better staffing were ignored by government officials. So, Alan Turing and several other codebreakers at Bletchley Park went over their heads to write directly to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. One of the codebreakers from Bletchley Park delivered the letter by hand in October 1941.

“Our reason for writing to you direct is that for months we have done everything that we possibly can through the normal channels, and that we despair of any early improvement without your intervention,” they wrote to Churchill [PDF]. “No doubt in the long run these particular requirements will be met, but meanwhile still more precious months will have been wasted, and as our needs are continually expanding we see little hope of ever being adequately staffed.”

In response, Churchill immediately fired off a missive to his chief of staff: “Make sure they have all they want on extreme priority and report to me that this had been done.”

4. HE HAD SOME ODD HABITS.

Like many geniuses, Turing was not without his eccentricities. He wore a gas mask while riding his bike to combat his allergies. Instead of fixing his bike’s faulty chain, he learned exactly when to dismount to secure it in place before it slipped off. He was known around Bletchley Park for chaining his tea mug to a radiator to prevent it from being taken by other staffers.

5. HE RODE HIS BIKE 60 MILES TO GET TO THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL.

Though he was considered an average student, Turing was dedicated enough to his schooling that when a general strike prevented him from taking the train to his first day at his new elite boarding school, the 14-year-old rode his bike the 62 miles instead.

6. HE TRIED OUT FOR THE OLYMPICS.

Turing started running as a schoolboy and continued throughout his life, regularly running the 31 miles between Cambridge and Ely while he was a fellow at King’s College. During World War II, he occasionally ran the 40 miles between London and Bletchley Park for meetings.

He almost became an Olympic athlete, too. He came in fifth place at a qualifying marathon for the 1948 Olympics with a 2-hour, 46-minute finish (11 minutes slower than the 1948 Olympic marathon winner). However, a leg injury held back his athletic ambitions that year.

Afterward, he continued running for the Walton Athletic Club, though, and served as its vice president. ”I have such a stressful job that the only way I can get it out of my mind is by running hard,” he once told the club’s secretary. “It's the only way I can get some release."

7. HE WAS PROSECUTED FOR BEING GAY.

In 1952, Turing was arrested after reporting a burglary in his home. In the course of the investigation, the police discovered Turing’s relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Homosexual relationships were illegal in the UK at the time, and he was charged with “gross indecency.” He pled guilty on the advice of his lawyer, and opted to undergo chemical castration instead of serving time in jail.

8. THE GOVERNMENT ONLY RECENTLY APOLOGIZED FOR HIS CONVICTION …

In 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a public apology to Turing on behalf of the British government. “Alan and the many thousands of other gay men who were convicted as he was convicted under homophobic laws were treated terribly,” Brown said. "This recognition of Alan's status as one of Britain's most famous victims of homophobia is another step towards equality and long overdue." Acknowledging Britain’s debt to Turing for his vital contributions to the war effort, he announced, “on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better."

His conviction was not actually pardoned, though, until 2013, when he received a rare royal pardon from the Queen of England.

9. … AND NAMED A LAW AFTER HIM.

Turing was only one of the many men who suffered after being prosecuted for their homosexuality under 19th-century British indecency laws. Homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK in 1967, but the previous convictions were never overturned. Turing’s Law, which went into effect in 2017, posthumously pardoned men who had been convicted for having consensual gay sex before the repeal. According to one of the activists who campaigned for the mass pardons, around 15,000 of the 65,000 gay men convicted under the outdated law are still alive.

10. HE POISONED HIMSELF … MAYBE.

There is still a bit of mystery surrounding Turing’s death at the age of 41. Turing died of cyanide poisoning, in what is widely believed to have been a suicide. Turing’s life had been turned upside down by his arrest. He lost his job and his security clearance. By order of the court, he had to take hormones intended to “cure” his homosexuality, which caused him to grow breasts and made him impotent. But not everyone is convinced that he died by suicide.

In 2012, Jack Copeland, a Turing scholar, argued that the evidence used to declare Turing’s death a suicide in 1954 would not be sufficient to close the case today. The half-eaten apple by his bedside, thought to be the source of his poisoning, was never tested for cyanide. There was still a to-do list on his desk, and his friends told the coroner at the time that he had seemed in good spirits. Turing’s mother, in fact, maintained that he probably accidentally poisoned himself while experimenting with the chemical in his home laboratory. (He was known to taste chemicals while identifying them, and could be careless with safety precautions.)

That line of inquiry is far more tame than some others, including one author’s theory that he was murdered by the FBI to cover up information that would have been damaging to the U.S.

11. HIS FULL GENIUS WASN’T KNOWN IN HIS LIFETIME.

Alan Turing was a well-respected mathematician in his time, but his contemporaries didn’t know the full extent of his contributions to the world. Turing’s work breaking the Enigma machine remained classified long after his death, meaning that his contributions to the war effort and to mathematics were only partially known to the public during his lifetime. It wasn’t until the 1970s that his instrumental role in the Allies' World War II victory became public with the declassification of the Enigma story. The actual techniques Turing used to decrypt the messages weren’t declassified until 2013, when two of his papers from Bletchley Park were released to the British National Archives.

12. THE TURING TEST IS STILL USED TO MEASURE ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE …

Can a machine fool a human into thinking they are chatting with another person? That’s the crux of the Turing test, an idea developed by Turing in 1950 regarding how to measure artificial intelligence. Turing argued in his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [PDF] that the idea of machines “thinking” is not a useful way to evaluate artificial intelligence. Instead, Turing suggests “the imitation game,” a way to assess how successfully a machine can imitate human behavior. The best measure of artificial intelligence, then, is whether or not a computer can convince a person that it is human.

13. … BUT SOME CONSIDER IT TO BE AN OUTDATED IDEA.

As technology has progressed, some feel the Turing test is no longer a useful way to measure artificial intelligence. It’s cool to think about computers being able to talk just like a person, but new technology is opening up avenues for computers to express intelligence in other, more useful ways. A robot’s intelligence isn’t necessarily defined by whether it can fake being human—self-driving cars or programs that can mimic sounds based on images might not pass the Turing test, but they certainly have intelligence.

14. HE CREATED THE FIRST COMPUTER CHESS PROGRAM.

Inspired by the chess champions he worked with at Bletchley Park, Alan Turing created an algorithm for an early version of computer chess—although at that time, there was no computer to try it out on. Created with paper and pencil, the Turochamp program was designed to think two moves ahead, picking out the best moves possible. In 2012, Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov played against Turing’s algorithm, beating it in 16 moves. “I would compare it to an early caryou might laugh at them but it is still an incredible achievement," Kasparov said in a statement after the match-up.

15. THERE IS ALAN TURING MONOPOLY.

In 2012, Monopoly came out with an Alan Turing edition to celebrate the centennial of his birth. Turing had enjoyed playing Monopoly during his life, and the Turing-themed Monopoly edition was designed based on a hand-drawn board created in 1950 by his friend William Newman. Instead of hotels and houses, it featured huts and blocks inspired by Bletchley Park, and included never-before-published photos of Turing. (It’s hard to find, but there are still a few copies of the game on Amazon.)

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