Who is Paul Wittgenstein?

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On the 1st of december in 1913 Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) makes his debut as a concert pianist in the Golden Hall of the Vienna Musikverein, gaining much attention and acclaim. Nine months later war breaks out. Wittgenstein takes up the arms and shows great bravery at the eastern front as an Austrian officer. After a bullet shatters his right elbow, his arm is amputated slapdash and he is taken prisoner by the Russians. Yet he is determined to stick with his piano career. Confined to the invalid ward of a Siberian Prisoner Of War camp in Omsk at 60 degrees below zero, Paul sets about solving a puzzle: how can I save my concert career with only my left hand? How can a single hand play both melody and accompaniment? With a piece of charcoal he draws a piano keyboard on a wooden crate and starts to practise. Obsessively tapping out the most complex Chopin pieces on his dumb piano, pieces he knows by heart, he begins to develop an ingenious bag of tricks that would fool even the sharpest ear. He develops a combined pedaling and hand-movement technique that allowes him to make chords sound in a way that even a ten-fingered pianist would find hard to archieve.


Coming back in Vienna due to a POW exchange program he locks himself up in the Wittgenstein family palace and practises seven hours a day perfecting his piano technique. With the pieces written for him by his old piano teacher Josef Labor and his own ‘Omsk-arrangements’ of highlights from the virtuoso piano literature he thrills concert audiences. Especially women – he is something of a lady-killer – are delighted to meet this one-arm wonder pounding out fortissimos. 

Franz Schmidt and Paul Wittgenstein performing Schmidt’s concerto

Backed by the vast Wittgenstein family fortune, Paul sets about commissioning piano concertos for the left hand from the leading composers of the day. His dealings with them prove comically tempestuous. He rejects Hindemith’s composition as unplayable and writes to Prokofiev, “Thank you for your concerto, but I do not understand a single note and I shall not play it.” He accuses Benjamin Britten and Richard Strauss of over-orchestrating — “How can I with my one poor hand hope to compete with a quadruple orchestra?” — and even driving the always correct and amiable Maurice Ravel mad by altering the composer’s Concerto for the Left Hand to suit his own taste.

Paul’s quarrels with his own family are equally fierce. He leaves Austria just after the Anschluss in 1938, ending up in New York. His three sisters, who remain in Vienna, are astonished to discover that, despite having grown up Catholics, they are deemed Jews under the Nuremberg laws, having three Jewish grandparents. The only thing standing between them and the camps is the hoard of gold the Wittgenstein family has stashed away in Switzerland, which the Nazis are eager to get their hands on. The legal wrangling over the fortune among Paul, his sisters and the Reichsbank lawyers, and the arrest and imprisonment of the sisters for passport fraud, culminate in dramatic fashion with Hitler himself granting a humiliating but life-sparing change in status to the family — from Volljuden (“full Jews”) to Mischling (“half breed”).

Paul Wittgenstein spends the rest of his life in the United States, with his wife Hilde Schania and their three children. After his death in 1961 Hilde guards his heritage on a remote estate in Pennsylvania and only after her death in 2001 Wittgenstein’s library is auctioned for musicological research and brings to light a vast collection of manuscripts and playing scores. Apart from the piano concertos that were written for him, there is a hidden treasure of chamber music; many scores have never been played again after their premiere by Wittgenstein himself.

© Michiel Weidner 2019