Poise and perseverance: The story of Paul Wittgenstein, the one-armed pianist (Video)

It is just 50 years since the death of Paul Wittgenstein, one of the best-known pianists of the 20th century and a man who helped develop the repertoire for left-hand piano works.

“To meet adverse conditions gracefully is more than simple endurance; it is…a positive triumph.” — Thomas Mann

PARIS, December 4, 2011—It is just 50 years since the death of Paul Wittgenstein, one of the best-known pianists of the 20th century and a man who helped develop the repertoire for left-hand piano works.

Well-known, yes, but great? There is little evidence that the one-armed musician was talented enough to deserve such a description.

Sergei Prokofiev was characteristically merciless. “I don’t see any special talent in his left hand,” he wrote. Wittgenstein’s disability may have been a “stroke of good luck”, for maybe with both hands he “would not have stood out from a crowd of mediocre pianists”.


This anniversary provides a timely pretext for recalling this controversial man who faced adversity and left his mark on music history. In fact, it would be difficult to find another pianist whose life involved such traumatic twists.

A rising Austrian pianist wounded in World War I, Wittgenstein was born into one of the most prominent families in Vienna. The best of everything was at his fingertips. While still a child, his parents invited the most famous musicians in the city, including Brahms, Strauss, and Mahler, to come play for them in their home.

Although all eight Wittgenstein children were musical and they all idolized these distinguished musical visitors, it was Paul who had a burning desire to become a celebrated musician.

Ambition ran in the family: his younger brother Ludwig succeeded in becoming one of the most influential philosophers of his time. While Paul gave his concert debut in 1913 at Vienna’s prestigious Grosser Musikvereinsaal, his brother Ludwig sought out Bertrand Russell in the halls of the University of Cambridge and became a Russell protégé.

But when Austria-Hungary declared war against Serbia on July 28, 1914, Paul volunteered for duty, in keeping with his family’s patriotism and sense of honor. Less than a month later, he was shot and seriously wounded by the Russians, his right elbow shattered. He woke up in a hospital bed, only to discover that he was a Russian prisoner of war. His right arm was missing.

Astonishingly, he made the decision early on to continue his career as a pianist, despite his tremendous new handicap. Perhaps he shrewdly saw an opportunity to distinguish himself, as Prokofiev was to remark almost twenty years later. It is true that his career had not been especially brilliant early on — but what could he play with only one hand?

Paul must have been aware that there was a small but growing repertoire, over an hour’s worth, in fact, of pieces for the left hand by Leopold Godowsky. Godowsky was well known in Vienna as director of piano studies at the Imperial Academy of Music.

Paul was living in Vienna during the period when these pieces were written, from 1904 to 1914, and was very well plugged into the music scene. Godowsky was making quite a splash with works such as his version of Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude for the left hand. It is likely that Paul was aware of Godowsky’s transcriptions.

During his convalescence in Russia, he tried to figure out how Godowsky managed to play most of the piece with one hand. He gained access to an old upright in Russia and began to practice again, convinced that he could make a triumphant return to the piano after the war.

To his credit, he was savvy enough to come up with the perfect publicity to launch his new career. He would commission the most celebrated composers in Europe to write concerti specifically for him. The first composer he contacted was Joseph Labor, a prominent young Viennese composer who was a good friend of his brother Ludwig. Labor was delighted and began immediately.

Over the next several decades, Paul would use his substantial inheritance and family connections to commission works from the most famous composers of the age: Prokofiev, Strauss, Hindemith, Britten, Korngold and, of course, Ravel. It was an impressive A-list of collaborators.

However, there were complications. Paul was conservative in his musical tastes and didn’t like most of the pieces he had commissioned. He had told the composers to write however they wished as long as the resulting piano concerto put him in the spotlight. But harmonically and formally, few of the works were in his beloved 19th century mold. This perplexed and annoyed him, and he wasn’t very diplomatic about it.

Paul also insisted on exclusive performing rights. He went so far as to reject outright a work by Paul Hindemith, and yet insisted that no one else be allowed to play it. He succeeded in effectively killing the work: it remained lost in a drawer until 2003.

Paul had a particularly bad falling out with Ravel, whom he had paid the equivalent of $68,000 in today’s money for the composer’s 20-minute Concerto in D for the Left Hand. He made substantial changes to the work before the premiere, to Ravel’s horror, and the two never reconciled their differences.

To me, it seems particularly disrespectful for Paul to have made revisions without consulting Ravel. Looking at the score, it is clear that Ravel took great pains to make sure that the solo pianist is heard clearly throughout the work. He was obviously concerned that one hand would have difficulty projecting the sound of the piano above an orchestra, and came up with several pragmatic solutions. Perhaps Ravel was aware that Paul had had arguments with two other composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Franz Schmidt, regarding this very topic just a few years earlier.

For more than half of Ravel’s concerto, the soloist and orchestra play separately. This structure makes the most of the pianist’s contribution during two substantial cadenzas, at the beginning and the end of the work. He also lightened the orchestration whenever the piano is present, producing thinned-out, translucent textures that any experienced concerto soloist would appreciate.

In addition, Ravel put a good deal of the melodic material in registers that naturally ring out above the orchestra. And he used the piano’s percussive capabilities to great effect, from a xylophone-like melody at the top of the keyboard, to timpani-like arpeggios below (accompanied and magnified by real timpani rolls).

But the real problem was an esthetic one. Ravel’s new piano concerto was entirely consistent with everything he had written up to that point. If Wittgenstein had been more familiar with Ravel’s compositional style there is no way that he would have been surprised with the result.

One can only conclude that he selected composers according to their prestige, not due to a real love for, or even knowledge of, their works. If that hypothesis is true, it is certainly not surprising that the projects ended in conflict.

But despite the arguments that accompanied the birth of these works, Paul Wittgenstein does deserve some credit. Without him, these unusual, dazzling works would simply not exist. In the end, when he died in 1961 at age 73, he had made his mark, and his persistence and initiative were rewarded by a place in music history.


Ivan Ilić’s interest in left hand repertoire has led him to prepare the Ravel and Prokofiev left-hand concerti for future engagements with orchestra.

The video below is of Ilić performing the cadenza from the Ravel Concerto for the left hand (1930). The concerto was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein.

Ivan Ilić is a Serbian-American pianist. His new CD for Paraty Records features 22 Chopin Etudes, transcribed by Leopold Godowsky for the left hand alone. Learn more about Ivan Ilić at his website.

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