Friday, April 18, 2008

Paul Wittgenstein - A Study in Courage

Paul Wittgenstein was born in Vienna in 1887, and was already considered a pianist of promise when the First World War resulted in his being severely wounded in a campaign against Russian troops. His right arm was amputated, and all seemed at an end for Wittgenstein; however, this young man prevailed by writing pieces for the left hand, establishing a reputation for his prowess, let alone the substance of his determination and will.
He soon asked composers to write specific music for one hand. Some of the composers who wrote music for Wittgenstein were Paul Hindemith, Erik Korngold, Benjamin Britten and others; however, the most famous piece was written by Maurice Ravel, in his wonderful Concerto for Left Hand. Ravel and Prokofiev were the two most powerful composers writing for the young pianist. Unfortunately, Wittgenstein stated that he never understood the concerto written for him by Prokofiev, and never did perform it. I remember, as a teen-ager, having a recording of the Prokofiev concerto, played (surprisingly) by Rudolf Serkin, revered as one of the great performers of Beethoven and Schubert.
Wittgenstein became established as one of the world's leading pianists. I remember seeing him, as a student, on PBS in a live recital in the days of black-and white TV. He was elderly, of course, but still demonstrated the remarkable results of his personal victory - an artist whose limitless force of will, like Beethoven, prevailed in spite of the monstrous forces pitted against him.

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