Paul Wittgenstein – Left-Handed Pianist & WWI POW

Paul Wittgenstein Pianist
Paul Wittgenstein 3 BFMI.jpg Created by Unknown
August 13 is International Lefthanders Day and we’re approaching the 100th anniversary of the WWI armistice. So it’s a good time to highlight a left-handed pianist who also served (and was captured) in the war – Paul Wittgenstein. For any die-hard M*A*S*H fans, this name might sound familiar. In an episode titled “Morale Victory”, Winchester tells a wounded drafted concert pianist the story of Paul Wittgenstein and provides him sheet music for Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand commissioned by Wittgenstein himself.

Paul Wittgenstein was born in Vienna to a wealthy family. He is the older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Growing up, his household was visited by prominent composers including Brahms, Mahler, Josef Labor, and Richard Strauss. Paul would often play duets with these figures. He would go on to study piano and made his public debut in 1913. However, World War I broke out a year later and he was called up for service.

While serving in WWI, Paul was shot in the elbow and captured by the Russians during an assault on Ukraine. His right arm was amputated and he was held as a prisoner of war in Siberia. It was during this time that he resolved to continue his career using only his left hand. He wrote to Josef Labor to request a concerto for left hand. After the end of the war, he studied intensely, learned Labor’s composition, and began to give concerts again. Despite receiving reviews qualified with comments that he played well for a one-armed pianist, he persevered. He didn’t want to be regarded as an oddity or congratulated for not being one. He wanted to be taken seriously as a musician with an artistry all his own. He commissioned additional works from other composers, most notably Ravel. Unfortunately, he made changes to the score for the premiere and Ravel was so angry, the two were never friends again.

Two other commissioned pieces worth mentioning were written by Prokofiev and Hindemith. Paul never performed Prokofiev’s 4th Piano Concerto. He stated about the work, “I do not understand a single note in it, and I will not play it.” It was not performed until 1956 when Siegfried Rapp, who also lost his right arm in war, requested the score from Prokofiev’s widow. As for Hindemith’s Piano Music with Orchestra, Paul rejected it outright not only not performing it, but also refusing to let anyone else play it either. In fact, it was hidden and only discovered in 2002 after his widow’s death.

In 1938, Paul and his wife fled to the US and lived in New York. He spent the rest of his life there, teaching gifted students without charge and playing. He became a US citizen in 1946. In 1942, Britten wrote his Diversions for the left hand and it became one of the last pieces Paul commissioned.

Many of the pieces Paul Wittgenstein had commissioned are still performed today, although most often by two-armed pianists. Two more recent pianists who lost the use of their right hands have also performed these works: Leon Fleisher and João Carlos Martins.

His posthumous reputation as a performer is mixed. Some regard him as a world-class pianist while at the same time noting his harsher playing in later years. His tendency to rewrite and alter without authorization make him a controversial figure in the music world. He often complained about the pieces he commissioned, including the final work by Britten. Still, when you consider all he went through, how he persevered in spite of it, and the contributions he made to new music, he is a remarkable artist and musician.