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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, including Richard Strauss, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel and, later, Benjamin Britten.[2]

He was the older brother of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.



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 pieces composed 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 works for him to perform. Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Josef Labor, 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.

However, he did not play every piece he had commissioned. He told Prokofiev that that he could not yet understand the 4th Piano Concerto but would play it when he did; however, he never reached that point.[4] He rejected outright Hindemith's Piano Music with Orchestra Op. 29, he hid the score in his study, and it was not discovered until after his widow's death in 2002.[5]

Many of the pieces Wittgenstein commissioned are still frequently performed today by two-armed pianists; in particular, the Austrian pianist Friedrich Wührer, claiming the composer's sanction but apparently over Wittgenstein's objections, created two-hand arrangements of Franz Schmidt's Wittgenstein-inspired left-hand works. Pianists born after Wittgenstein who for one reason or another have lost the use of their right hands, such as Leon Fleisher and João Carlos Martins, have also played works composed for him.

The Wittgenstein family had converted to Christianity three generations before his birth on the paternal side and two generations before on the maternal side; nonetheless they were of mainly Jewish descent, and under the Nuremberg laws they were classed as Jews. Following the rise of the Nazi Party and the annexation of Austria, Paul tried to persuade his sisters Helene and Hermine to leave Vienna, but they demurred: they were attached to their homes there, and could not believe such a distinguished family as theirs was in real danger. Ludwig had already been living in England for some years, and Margaret (Gretl) was married to an American. Paul himself, who was no longer permitted to perform in public concerts under the Nazis, departed for the United States in 1938. From there he and Gretl, with some assistance from Ludwig (who acquired British nationality in 1939), managed to use family finances (mostly held abroad) and legal connections to attain non-Jewish status for their sisters.

The family finances supposedly consisted of the voluntary surrender of all properties and assets in Germany and occupied lands with a total value of about US$6 billion at the time, which may have been the largest private fortune in Europe. Essentially all family assets were surrendered to the Nazis in return for protection afforded the two sisters under exceptional interpretations of racial law, allowing them to continue to live in their family palace in Vienna.

Paul became an American citizen in 1946, and spent the rest of his life in the United States, where he did a good deal of teaching as well as playing. He died in New York City in 1961.


John Barchilon wrote a novel based on Wittgenstein's life called The Crown Prince.

An episode of the long-running television series M*A*S*H, "Morale Victory," featured James Stephens as a drafted concert pianist who suffers debilitating nerve damange in his right hand after being wounded in combat. Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) provides him with the sheet music for Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand, tells him Wittgenstein's story, and encourages him not to abandon his musical gift.

Paul Wittgenstein appears as a main character in Derek Jarman's 1993 film Wittgenstein, about his brother Ludwig Wittgenstein. [6]


  1. ^ Holt, Jim. "Suicide Squad," a review of Alexander Waugh's The House of Wittgenstein, The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2009.
  2. ^ Malcolm, Noel. Review of The House of Wittgenstein by Alexander Waugh, The Daily Telegraph, September 11, 2008.
  3. ^ Grant Chu Covell, Wittgenstein's music, Music's Wittgenstein, and Josef Labor
  4. ^ a b Hans Brofeldt: Piano Music for the Left Hand Alone
  5. ^ See Paul Hindemith's Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, Rejected by Its Dedicatee, Gets Its Belated US Premiere
  6. ^ film


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