April 17, 2013

Paul Wittgenstein Didn't Let His Disability Stop his Dream

With Spring Break, an Eagle Project and a trip to see family, I have neglected to highlight heroes for a few weeks.  I'm back, with several new heroes in my pocket, ready to share.  As the tragedy at the Boston Marathon highlights, heroes are everywhere.  I'm happy to continue sharing their stories.  

I was surprised to hear on my local classical station the story of Paul Wittgenstein as an introduction to a lovely concerto.  Had I not been exposed to this little intro, I would have had a hard time believing that the piano portion of the composition was performed entirely with the left hand.  For Paul had the work composed for him, a one-armed concert pianist.

Paul was born in Vienna to a prosperous family.  They mingled with other musicians during a particularly active compositional phase in the history of music.  Showing early promise at the piano, Paul performed duets with Strauss, while just visiting with other famous composers like Labor, Brahms and Mahler when they visited his family.  After years of practice perfecting his technique, Paul debuted in Vienna as a Concert Pianist at the age of 25 in 1913.  Reviewers raved about his performances.  He had achieved his goal!  

Unfortunately, war broke out the next year.  Paul enlisted in the army and shipped off to the Eastern Front of World War 1.  He soon was shot and captured by the Russian army.  Awakening from surgery, he was stunned to see that his right arm was gone.  The bullet had pierced near the elbow; there was no other course than amputation due to the limited medical capabilities of the era.  

For a year, Paul recovered in a POW camp in Russia.  It was not just any POW camp; it was the infamous cold and dreary Omsk prison.  He must have had abundant time to consider his future as he lay in his cell healing.  What would he do?  He certainly couldn't ties his shoes, dress himself  or cut his own food by himself anymore.  

The bigger question may have been, 'Could he continue as a concert pianist?'  Fortunately it had been done before.  A man named Leopold Godowski had successfully rewritten compositions for play with just the left hand.  With determination, Paul found crates in the camp.  Stacking them to the height of a piano, he marked piano keys on the top crate with chalk and began practicing.  Hours and hours a day he used to practice the music he still heard clearly in his head.  At least he practiced the left hand of these complicated compositions.  And he tried to use his left hand to capture some of the right hand's notes.  

Trying to use one arm in place of two must have frustrated him.  Besides the pain of his injury, phantom pains in his missing arm, and the trauma of war and an uncertain future, he couldn't see how he could perform the current music he was accustomed to playing.  He wrote to his old friend Josef Labor begging him to write him some music that could be played solely with the left hand.  Blind and obliging, Labor wrote back that after hearing of Paul's' injury, he had already begun a composition for his friend.  While Paul recovered and practiced, Labor composed.  

Biographer Alexander Waugh wrote,  "Day after day and for hour upon hour, he addressed himself to this arduous and improbable task, tapping his freezing fingers on the wooden box, listening intently to the imagined music sounding in his head and creating, in the corner of a crowded festering invalids' ward, a tragicomic spectacle that aroused the sympathy and curiosity of his fellow prisoners and all the hospital staff."

After a visitor witnessed  Paul 'play' the crates in silence with his one arm, Paul was released to a hotel with a piano, then later released back to Austria as part of a prisoner exchange.  Amazingly, he reenlisted to serve in the war until it ended in 1918.  

In the meantime, Paul enlisted more composers to write music for him.  Dozens of pieces were composed for him, the most famous by Maurice Ravel titled "Piano Concerto for the Left Hand."  I think this is the one I heard on the radio the other day—a lovely piece that could hardly be noticeably different than the others utilizing two hands.  Perhaps that's because Paul had by now altered these compositions as creatively as possible to replicate normal play.  

Biographer Blake Howe explained, "Wittgenstein was keenly interested in training his left hand to manage the work of two hands, designing a repertoire of novel techniques to accommodate the many instances where such a conversion would otherwise appear to be physically impossible."

Paul wasn't going to come back to the music world as a one-armed but average performer.  He wanted to be excellent and on par with all musicians, two armed included.  He practiced and perfected his techniques, becoming once again the renown performer that he was before the war.  It must be noted that some of his renown was due to his status as the 'one armed pianist.'  Paul spent his life rejecting the pity often found even in the headlines of his performances.  The headline 'One Armed Pianist Performs' must have really irritated him.  

Howe wrote that "contemporary reviews of Wittgenstein's live performances were almost universally positive – gushingly and enthusiastically so, with frequent reports of standing ovations and multiple encores. Such critical praise, however, was tempered by condescension, as reviewers struggled to make sense of the incongruity posed by Wittgenstein's physical disability."

Paul Wittgenstein rose above his injury, persevered in his quest to become a world-class concert pianist.  Not even the loss of an arm stopped him.  Today his example is an inspiration to all who suffer from accidents and illnesses that threaten their way of life.  For me, he shows that with determination, one can do more with one hand than many do with two! My two hands included!

90.1 FM Broadcast (from memory) 4/15/2013
Wikipedia:  Paul Wittgenstein.  Updated 1 April 2013; accessed 17 April 2013. 
See the YouTube Video of Paul performing Ravel's piece in 1933.  

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.  


No comments:

Post a Comment