Biography of One-Armed Pianist Paul Wittgenstein Part 1

About the famous musician Paul Wittgenstein, biography and history of the one-armed pianist.


Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961)

On Nov. 27, 1931, a new concerto by composer Maurice Ravel was premiered in Vienna. The work, a blending of traditional musical forms and modern jazz, was performed by pianist Paul Wittgenstein, whose virtuosity held the audience spellbound. Wittgenstein had personally commissioned the concerto, less to conform to his tastes than to fit his physique. This world-renowned concert pianist had only one arm.

Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand was intended to express the tragedy of wartime sacrifices, something Wittgenstein knew well. In August, 1914, less than a year after he had made his debut on the concert stage, Wittgenstein was leading a patrol near Zamosc, Poland, when a sniper's bullet shattered his right arm. The 26-year-old Austrian officer was taken prisoner by the Russians, and in a primitive field hospital his wounded arm was amputated. He was eventually sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Omsk, Siberia, where he remained until a Red Cross prisoner-exchange program brought about his early release. He was back home in Vienna by Christmas, 1915. Despite his disability, he served as a general's aide on the Italian front until the end of W.W. I and thus displayed the courage and tenacity that would help resurrect his career as a musician.

Wittgenstein grew up in a large, wealthy Viennese household. His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was a successful industrialist known as the "Iron King" of Austria. Paul's father was also a collector of fine paintings, china, and music manuscripts; his mother, Leopoldine, was an accomplished pianist and organist. The Wittgenstein home was a gathering place for noted artists, musicians, and intellectuals of the 19th century. Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, and Clara Schumann were frequent guests, and famed violinist Joseph Joachim was Paul's great-uncle. As a boy, Paul would sometimes accompany Uncle Joseph on the piano, but at that early stage the boy was not particularly accomplished. He had a tendency to pound too hard on the keys.

Karl Wittgenstein pursued the arts as an avocation, but he believed that a man should earn a living in the business world. So he goaded a reluctant Paul into taking a job in a bank. However, Paul soon discovered that he was far better suited to the keyboard than to the balance sheet, and he quit the bank job to devote all his time to music. He studied with both Josef Labor, the blind organ virtuoso, and Theodor Leschetizky, the most respected piano teacher of the day, and his playing improved quickly. It became apparent to all that he did indeed have a gift. In 1913 he faced his first audience in Vienna. Reviews were favorable; an illustrious career was predicted for the young pianist. However, within six months he was drafted.

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