Paul Wittgenstein has one of the most unique stories in music. It’s a story similar to Beethoven’s deafness, in that the adverse circumstance that was overcome by Wittgenstein would be considered by most to be insurmountable.
His father, Karl Wittgenstein, was the ‘Andrew Carnegie’ of Europe (in fact, the two were friends), for he essentially had a monopoly on the European steel market. By the end of the 19th century Karl had one of the largest fortunes in the world. Paul Wittgenstein was born into this extreme wealth in Vienna in 1887. Paul’s younger brother, the philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, was born two years later and his book, Philosophical Investigations, is considered by many philosophers to be one of the most important works of philosophy of the 20th century.
The Wittgenstein palace was the meeting place for all of the great artists and musicians of the day, from Johannes Brahms to Richard Strauss. Paul showed early talent on the piano and made his public debut at age 26 in 1913 to good reviews.
World events intervened, however, and Paul was called into military service for WWI in 1914. In one of the first substantial losses for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Battle of Galicia/Lemberg, Paul was shot in his right elbow and in what must’ve been an enormous shock, his right arm had to be amputated.
While recuperating in a POW camp in Siberia, however, Paul determined to continue his career as a pianist but only using his left hand. He wrote an old teacher, the pianist and composer, Josef Labor, who was blind, and asked him to write a concerto for the left hand. Surprisingly, his teacher wrote back to tell him he had had the same idea and was already writing one!
Eventually, he would commission many prominent composers of the first half of the 20th century, including:
Two by Richard Strauss
But, by far, the most famous concerto written for Wittgenstein was by Maurice Ravel. Here’s a short clip of Wittgenstein playing a few moments from the Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand in 1933, with Ravel conducting.
There are many great recordings of the Ravel, but here’s a fantastic live performance on YouTube with Yuja Wang.