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.

7 Interesting Facts About The Grieg Piano Concerto

Grieg at the Piano

This May, DU Lamont School of Music’s Heidi Leathwood will join the Parker Symphony in performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. It’s one of the composer’s most popular works and one of the most loved and performed of all piano concerti. Whether you recognize the opening notes or have heard the whole thing numerous times, chances are you don’t know all there is to this to this stunning piece. Here are 7 interesting facts about the Grieg Piano Concerto.

  1. It was Grieg’s only completed concerto. When he was just 25, Grieg wanted to make his mark on the world. This was his first work to employ an orchestra and it was an instant success. Many expected the composer to write a second, but one never came. He began work on a second concerto in B minor, but he never completed it. Several pianists have recorded the sketches and in 1997 the Oslo Grieg Society held a competition in which one contestant elaborated a full concerto from the sketches. Grieg also started work on a violin concerto that also was not completed.

  2. It is often compared to Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Not only did Grieg and Schumann each write only one piano concerto, they both wrote theirs in A minor. Both works also begin on a similar descending flourish on the piano. Schumann wrote his first and Grieg heard Clara Schumann perform it about 10 years before writing his own. It is said that Grieg was greatly influenced by Schumann’s style having been taught piano by Schumann’s friend.

  3. Grieg did not perform it at the premiere. Some sources say that Grieg was the intended soloist but he was unable to attend the premiere due to previous commitments in Christiania (now Oslo). Anton Rubinstein, however, was in attendance and he even provided his own piano for the occasion. Danish composer Niels Gade (who wrote the Hamlet Overture which the PSO is also performing in May) was also in the audience.

  4. It was the first piano concerto ever recorded. German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus recognized the importance of the gramophone. His 1909 recording of the Grieg Piano Concerto was not only the first recording of that work, but the first time any concerto had been recorded. Due to the technology of the time, however, it was a heavily abridged performance that lasted only 6 minutes.

  5. A pianist died while performing it. On April 2, 1951, pianist Simon Barere collapse on stage while playing the first few bars of the Grieg Piano Concerto. The performance was with conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York. Unfortunately he died backstage shortly after collapsing.

  6. Grieg revised the work at least 7 times. Most of the updates were subtle, but they add up to over 300 differences from the original orchestration. The final version was completed only a few weeks before Grieg’s death and this is the version we know today.

  7. The concerto contains Norwegian folk music influences. This isn’t surprising since Edvard Grieg was from Norway and like other composers including Dvorak and Sibelius, he sought to pay tribute to his homeland in much of his music. The opening flourish of the concerto is a motif typical in Norwegian folk music while the last movement contains imitations of the Norwegian folk fiddle and halling (a Norwegian dance).

Don’t miss Heidi Leathwood’s performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor along with other Scandinavian pieces at the Parker Symphony Orchestra concert on May 11 at PACE. Tickets are on sale now.