“There are an enormous number of general empirical propositions that count as certain for us. One such is that if someone’s arm is cut off it will not grow again”. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty)
Ludwig Wittgenstein has always been one of my favourite philosophers, so naturally I was intrigued, on reading the wonderful biography by Ray Monk, to learn about his older brother, Paul. The Wittgenstein family were Austrian and extremely rich, and their home was visited by many famous composers and cultural figures – Brahms, Mahler, Strauss etc.
All the children were musical and ambitious. However, their father Karl wanted them to go into the family manufacturing business, rather than taking an artistic path. But grandmother Fanny was a patron of musicians, and so she encouraged Paul when he showed particular signs of musical talent.
In 1913, after his father’s death, he gave a successful debut concert, albeit after renting the hall and paying for the orchestra himself.
At the outbreak of war, however, he joined up with the Austrian army, and served on the Russian front. During fighting in Ukraine he was shot in the arm and captured by the Russians. His right arm had to be amputated, which must have felt like the end of his career. Hearing the news, Ludwig wrote in his diary: “I keep having to think of poor Paul, who has so suddenly lost his career! How terrible. What philosophy is needed to get over it! If only this can be achieved in any other way than suicide!” (Three of their siblings did indeed kill themselves).
However, recovering in a prison-of-war camp in Omsk, Paul was undaunted, writing to his former teacher to ask him to compose a piano concerto for just the left hand. He drew the outline of a piano keyboard on a wooden crate, and practiced playing it seven hours a day, to the bemusement of other prisoners. “It was like climbing a mountain. If you can’t get up one way, you try another” he later said. He was probably inspired by another Austrian, Leopold Godowsky, who taught piano at the Imperial Academy of Music, and who had both transcribed and commissioned pieces for the left hand in order to improve students’ technique. He would have known also of Count Géza Zichy, one of Liszt’s students, who became the world’s first professional one-armed pianist after a hunting accident.
After the war, Wittgenstein continued as a pianist, arranging pieces for the left hand and playing pieces that he had commissioned. He did not want to be known simply as a freak or receive sympathy. By commissioning work by famous composers, he would generate respect and become a famous performer.
Here the Wittgenstein wealth came in handy. He commissioned work from leading composers including Prokofiev, Strauss, Hindemith, Korngold and many others, and always insisted on exclusive performing rights. Unfortunately, his tastes were for nineteenth century style Romantic music, not the avant garde compositions favoured by people like Hindemith. Those pieces he did not like, he did not play, and some were not discovered and performed until after his death, for example the work by Hindemith finally premiered in 2004. In 1931 he wrote to Prokofiev:
“Thank you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note in it, and I will not play it.”
Another pianist who had lost his arm in the War was to play that piece for the first time in 1956. Wittgenstein also fell out badly with Ravel, because he made his own changes to the new Concerto in D for the Left Hand, without any consultation.
The musician Ivan Ilic has suggested that Wittgenstein may not have been familiar with the actual work of the composers whom he commissioned, being guided instead by their prestige, saying:
“If Wittgenstein had been more familiar with Ravel’s compositional style there is no way that he would have been surprised with the result.”
Prokofiev said of him:
“I don’t see any special talent in his left hand.”
It may be that Paul Wittgenstein would never have become a famous piano player if it had not been for his unusual circumstances. His family certainly felt embarrassed by him, feeling he brought shame to the Wittgenstein name and wishing he would give up performing.
Paul emigrated from Austria to the United States in 1938. The Wittgenstein family were originally Jewish, although they had been Christians for three generations on the paternal side and two on the maternal side. To the Nazis, they were still of course Jews. The sisters of Paul and Ludwig insisted on staying in Vienna, believing that no one would dare to disturb their privileged existence. In practice, Paul had to bribe the Nazi regime to leave his sisters alone. The Wittgensteins were one of the most wealthy private families in Europe, with assets of $6 billion, and this all went to protecting the two sisters in their Vienna palace.
Paul Wittgenstein died in New York City in 1961, after becoming an American citizen and continuing his career of playing and teaching music. While in America, he commissioned a piece from Benjamin Britten in 1942, but, predictably, did not like it. Whatever Wittgenstein’s own tastes and talent, disabled pianists have good reason to thank him for his determination and contribution to expanding the repertoire. Other pianists lacking the use of two hands, like Leon Fleisher, have since followed his lead and played his commissions.