This Day in Jewish History

1961: A Truly Dedicated Pianist Who Had Only One Arm Dies

He had grit, resolve, soul - and also, Paul Wittgenstein was rich enough to get major composers to write music for amputee pianists.

The pianist Paul Wittgenstein playing, famously, with only one arm.
Screen capture from YouTube

On March 3, 1961, Paul Wittgenstein, scion of the fabulously wealthy Wittgenstein family of Vienna, who persisted in a career as pianist after losing an arm in World War I, died, at age 73. Though his reviews as a performer were mixed, Wittgenstein gained international fame for continuing to play under nearly impossible conditions, and because he commissioned so many distinguished composers to write pieces for a one-armed pianist.

Paul was born in Vienna on May 11, 1887,  the seventh of the eight children born to Karl Wittgenstein and the former Leopoldine Maria Josefa Kalmus. His brother Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was to become one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, would be born two years later.

Prison camp in Siberia

The father Karl had made his fortune from the monopoly he held on iron and steel processing in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The family’s Vienna palace was equipped with seven grand pianos, which were employed during regular visits from such musicians as Gustav Mahler, Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann.

For all its wealth and power, the Wittgenstein family was singularly dysfunctional: All three of Paul’s older brothers were suicides.

Paul he did not dare to declare his aspiration to play the piano professionally until after his father’s death, in January 1913. By the time he had his public debut, that December, he was already 26. He rented both the auditorium and the orchestra for the occasion, though there is no evidence he paid for the positive reviews he received.

But his performance career was soon interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. He was called up as an officer, and in the first month of the conflict, August 1914, his right elbow was shattered when he was shot while in transit to the Russian front.

His arm was amputated at an Austrian field hospital. But by the time he woke up from the surgery, the hospital had been captured by Russian forces, and he and his fellow Austrian soldiers were shipped off to a prison camp in Omsk, Siberia.

In place of despair, Wittgenstein decided not only that he was going to survive, but also that he would return to playing the piano. He drew the outline of a piano keyboard on a crate, and began “practicing” on it, eventually up to seven hours a day.

Give the man a piano

When a Danish diplomat who visited the camp learned what he was doing, he convinced the Russian authorities to transfer Paul to a camp with a piano. There, Wittgenstein began rearranging all the piano pieces he knew by heart to be played with the left hand alone.

He began with Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, a piece “that captures the human spirit rising above extreme tribulation if ever there was one,” wrote Melissa Lesnie, in an article in Limelight magazine in 2014.  Wittgenstein also wrote to composer Joseph Labor, a family friend, who was himself blind, asking him to begin work on a piano concerto for one hand.

After Wittgenstein’s return home, he began to commission pieces from many of the world’s most distinguished composers, including, over the years, Ravel, Prokofiev, Britten, Erich Korngold, Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith.

Wittgenstein plays Ravel's piano concerto for the left hand. YouTube

Not all of the compositions were to Wittgenstein’s liking, and, since he was paying, he felt free to relegate a piece to the drawer, meaning that it never got played. That’s what happened with Hindemith’s “Piano Music with Orchestra,” whose score was only discovered in 2002, after the death of Paul’s widow, Hilde. Only then did it receive a premiere, by Leon Fleisher.

Most of Wittgenstein’s ancestors were converted Jews, and he and his siblings were baptized as Catholics, but in Nazi Germany, they were considered full Jews. Only when the surviving siblings signed over the family gold, stored in Switzerland, to the Reichsbank did Hitler consent to have them reclassified as “half-breeds.” Paul, in the meantime, had escaped to the U.S., and Ludwig was already living in the United Kingdom, while the three sisters survived the war in Vienna.

Paul and his family settled in New York, and he taught music at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, and also had private piano students, until his death, on this day in 1961.