Paul Wittgenstein

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Paul Wittgenstein (November 5, 1887 – March 3, 1961) was an Austrian-born concert pianist, who became known for his ability to play with just his left hand, after he lost his right arm during the First World War. He devised novel techniques, including pedal and hand-movement combinations, that allowed him to play chords previously regarded as impossible for a five-fingered pianist.[1] He commissioned several pieces for the left hand from prominent composers.[2]

He was the older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.


Early life

Wittgenstein was born in Vienna to the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein. His brother Ludwig was born two years later. The household was frequently visited by prominent cultural figures, among them the composers Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Josef Labor and Richard Strauss, with whom the young Paul played duets. His grandmother, Fanny Wittgenstein, was a distant cousin of the violinist Joseph Joachim, whom she adopted[3] and took to Leipzig to study with Felix Mendelssohn.

He studied with Malvine Bree and later with a much better known figure, the Polish virtuoso Theodor Leschetizky. He made his public debut in 1913 and some favourable reviews were written about him. The following year, however, World War I broke out, and he was called up for military service. He was shot in the elbow and captured by the Russians during an assault on Poland, and his right arm had to be amputated.

New career as a left-handed pianist

During his recovery in a prisoner-of-war camp in Omsk in Siberia, he resolved to continue his career using only his left hand. Through the Danish Ambassador, he wrote to his old teacher Josef Labor, who was blind, asking for a concerto for the left hand. Labor responded quickly, saying he had already started work on a piece.[4] Following the end of the war, Wittgenstein studied intensely, arranging pieces for the left hand alone and learning the new composition written for him by Labor. Once again he began to give concerts, and became well known and loved. He then approached more famous composers, asking them to write material for him to perform. Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Sergei Prokofiev, Franz Schmidt, Sergei Bortkiewicz, and Richard Strauss all produced pieces for him. Maurice Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which became more famous than any of the other compositions that Wittgenstein inspired.

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