Friday, March 9, 2012

The Wittgenstein's

Knowing of my fondness for Vienna and things Viennese, a friend passed on to me a book that she assured me would make interesting reading. For the next couple of days, I sat completely engrossed in The House of Wittgenstein – A Family at War, by Alexander Waugh, himself the grandson of Evelyn Waugh, famous Catholic convert and author.

I have known some dysfunctional families in my time, but the Wittgenstein’s top them all. In fact, when I think of the story of the Wittgenstein family of Vienna, I immediately think of Tolstoy’s famous opening to Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike but an unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion.” According to an article in the New York Times Book Review, “the Wittgensteins of Vienna could give the Oedipuses a run for their money” when it comes to dysfunctional families. To varying degrees, I suppose we are all victims of our upbringing.

Waugh’s book on the Wittgenstein family offers not only fascinating insight into a famous and fabulously wealthy family, but a glimpse of the political and artistic climate of Vienna in the early part of the 20th century. I agree with the opinion of the Literary Review that “It is hard to imagine another account showing such fluency, wit and attention to detail.”

Of the nine children of Karl Wittgenstein and Leopoldine Kalmus, two committed suicide, and one simply “went missing.” The surviving children all share a passion for art and for music, but there was no love loss between any of the siblings.

Even if you know nothing about the Wittgenstein family, you would have at least heard of two of the family members. Ludwig Wittgenstein is considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s great philosophers. And many musicians and music lovers would have heard of Paul Wittgenstein, who was a student of the legendary Theodore Leschetizky, and a pianist of promise, but lost his right arm during World War I.

While a prisoner in the Russian war camp, Paul became determined to continue his career as a pianist. When he was later returned to his family in Vienna, he devoted himself to becoming a left-handed pianist. Family members reported him, with grim determination, practicing eight or nine hours every day. Initially, he rearranged many of the pieces from the standard repertoire, as well as the few pieces that had already been written for the left hand alone. This included an arrangement by Leopold Godowsky for left hand of Chopin’s famous Revolutionary Etude! Later on, he commissioned composers to write works for the left handed pianist.

Probably the most well-known of the left-handed piano repertoire would have to be the Concerto pour la main gauche by Maurice Ravel. This is an absolute masterpiece, much darker in colour and turbulent than the composer’s jazzy and breezy Concerto in G. Listening to the piece with one’s eyes closed, one would be hard pressed to tell that this is played by someone with only one arm. Unfortunately, relationship between pianist and composer did not remain cordial. Wittgenstein insisted that Ravel’s orchestration was too thick, and the composer accused Paul of distorting his music, and that “he was an old hand at orchestration and it does sound right.” In the end, Paul Wittgenstein capitulated, and played the concerto the way Ravel wanted it. The premiere in Paris on January 17th, 1933, with the composer conducting, was a great success, but the incident left both soloist and composer with bad tastes in their mouths.

Other than the Ravel, there is also Sergei Prokofiev’s 4th Piano Concerto, written in 1931 for Paul Wittgenstein but never performed by him. According to some sources, the pianist claimed that he did not understand a single note of the music. The world premiere of the concerto, incredibly enough, did not take place until September of 1956! The pianist who played the premiere, Siegfried Rapp, had lost his right arm during a battle in World War II.

Another composer Paul Wittgenstein commissioned was the then young Benjamin Britten, who wrote his Diversions for Left Hand and Orchestra. Paul Hindemith wrote Piano Music with Orchestra, and Richard Strauss Parergon zur Sinfonia Domestica, with themes from Strauss’ great symphonic work of the same name. Viennese composer Franz Schmidt wrote a set of Beethoven Variations, based on a theme from the composer’s Spring Sonata. Lesser known composers like Josef Labor (a close family friend of the Wittgenstein family), Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Sergei Bortkiewicz, all wrote numerous works for the left-handed pianist, thanks to commissions by Paul Wittgenstein. Paul continued to concertize and teach until his death on March 6th, 1961.

Reading this book, it hit home that composers like Ravel, Britten, Prokofiev, and Strauss, names we read in music history books, were actually contemporaries of Paul Wittgenstein.

Granted that Paul Wittgenstein’s family wealth allowed him to promote his own concert career and to commission works by famous composers, one has to admire his perseverance and courage for not just continuing to play but performing, in the face of this very significant handicap.

In our own time, pianists like Gary Graffman and Leon Fleisher, who both lost the use of their right hands, benefitted from this relatively large body of piano works for the left hand alone. Posterity has Paul Wittgenstein to thank for giving the world a large body of piano literature that would otherwise not have existed.

And what a family the Wittgenstein’s was! Perhaps not people you’d like to be friends or share a meal with, but it sure was fun reading about them.

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