Rediscovered score pianist's last legacy
WW I took Paul Wittgenstein's right arm, so he hired the greats of the time to write for him. One concerto, packed away, never played, has resurfaced with documents telling a family's tragic story.
By Howard Reich
Tribune arts critic
August 11, 2002
In 1923, a brilliant Austrian pianist commissioned a revered German composer to pen a most unusual work: a piano concerto that would be played not with two hands but with one, while a symphony orchestra accompanied.
For pianist Paul Wittgenstein, the new left-hand concerto was part of his plan for a dramatic return to the concert stage, after he tragically lost his right arm in battle in World War I and never again could play the great works of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms.
Moreover, his comeback would bring new glory to his family, the Wittgensteins of Vienna, which counted Brahms and Freud among its friends and the celebrated philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Paul's younger brother, among its brightest lights.
But after composer Paul Hindemith finished writing the Concerto for the Left Hand, the score disappeared, never to be performed in public or studied by scholars, who have been searching for it ever since. It stands as the only unknown major work commissioned by Wittgenstein.
Now, four decades after the pianist died at 73, the missing concerto has resurfaced in a Pennsylvania farmhouse and is being stored in a New York warehouse with the rest of Wittgenstein's personal effects, the Tribune has learned.
Wittgenstein's heirs say they were aware of the Hindemith concerto but say they did not announce its discovery because they still were deciding what to do with it. Its eventual re-emergence likely will set off an international race among concert pianists to become the first to premiere and record it.
"Because the repertory for the left hand is so limited, to have a large-scale concerto by Hindemith turn up is extraordinarily important," said Marcia Bosits, professor of piano at Northwestern University School of Music. "We regard Hindemith's sonatas as masterpieces, so a concerto that he composed is going to be a well-written, major work."
The score is among hundreds of documents examined by the Tribune that cast new light on Wittgenstein's steely resolve while his famous family negotiated its fate with the Nazis in the late 1930s.
Though scholars long have assumed that Wittgenstein fled Europe for the United States in 1938 to save himself, correspondence between Wittgenstein and his siblings and attorneys shows that the pianist also tried to convince his partly Jewish family that the Nazis could not be trusted. Unpublished diaries and other personal documents reveal that the Wittgenstein family of Vienna denounced the pianist over his decision to resist the Nazis rather than succumb to them.
The schism between Paul Wittgenstein and his family never healed, with the pianist spending the rest of his life in upstate New York cut off from his siblings and his past, while the others remained in Europe, some steadfastly sympathetic to the Nazis.
The lost score, impeccably written in Hindemith's hand, bears the hallmarks of a major composition, its individual movements flowing without pause. Written in a transparent, neoclassical style, it contains at least one great solo clearly requiring a left hand of considerable virtuosity.
Musicologists will have to determine how complete the score is.
Hindemith had feared that Wittgenstein, who favored 19th Century musical tradition over 20th Century modernism, would not approve of an unabashedly contemporary concerto and simply might shelve it.
"I would be sorry if you are not pleased with the piece--perhaps it might sound a bit strange to you at first," he wrote to Wittgenstein from Frankfurt, Germany, on May 4, 1923, in a letter stored at the Hindemith archives at Yale University.
As Hindemith feared, Wittgenstein simply filed the work among his papers and left it there. After Wittgenstein's death in 1961, his wife, Hilde, moved from their home in Great Neck, N.Y., to a farm in Pennsylvania, placing all of his scores and documents in a single room that she kept under lock and key. She never went inside or allowed anyone else to, nor did she ever say why.
Her children, who declined to be quoted or identified, guess that she kept the room locked because the struggles her late husband endured were too painful to revisit.
Riches come to light
When Hilde Wittgenstein died last year at age 85, her attorneys surveyed the contents of the room, which included the missing Hindemith concerto, autographed manuscripts by Richard Strauss, letters from Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Wagner, and a lock of Brahms' hair.
The family's lawyer allowed the Tribune to view a photocopy of the manuscript of the Hindemith concerto in his New York office.
When the concerto enters the concert repertory, it will represent a last testament to the courage of Paul Wittgenstein, who transcended personal misfortune in World War I and outmaneuvered the Nazis in World War II in order to pursue his art and his life on his own uncompromising terms.
If Paul Wittgenstein enjoyed a single stroke of luck, it was to be born into an extravagantly wealthy, culturally prominent family when Vienna was at its pinnacle.
As the 19th Century gave way to the 20th, the city teemed with innovations in music, art and science, its cultural and intellectual elite regularly converging at the Wittgenstein family's palais at Alleegasse 16.
The young man grew up hearing Johannes Brahms playing the piano, Pablo Casals performing cello sonatas and Sigmund Freud discussing his revolutionary theories of psychoanalysis. While various members of the Wittgenstein family played chamber music from original manuscripts in the hand of Mozart and Beethoven, the luminaries of Viennese culture listened, among them painter Gustav Klimt, conductor Bruno Walter, and composers Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.
But this artistic and intellectual glory imposed a heavy burden on the Wittgenstein children; three of eight committed suicide. According to family diaries and correspondence, they were driven to this, at least in part, by the demands placed upon them by the patriarch of the family, the self-made millionaire who created this hothouse, Karl Wittgenstein.
Having fled his middle-class family's home in Vienna in 1865 to come to the United States, Karl Wittgenstein, who was partly Jewish, supported himself as an itinerant violinist and immersed himself in the ways of American capitalism. He returned to Vienna intent on becoming a self-made, American-style entrepreneur, and by the 1880s had built so many steel mills that he was dubbed Austria's "Iron King."
His millions enabled him to commission portraits by Klimt, acquire masterpieces by Monet and crowd his mansion with objets d'art from around the world.
Karl Wittgenstein was determined to make his sons into industrialists and forbade the eldest boys from pursuing music as a profession. Denied this option, Hans, a prodigy who was composing at age 4, committed suicide at 26; his brothers Rudolph and Kurt eventually did the same.
Suicides beget blossomings
These disasters persuaded Karl Wittgenstein to give freer rein to his two surviving sons, Paul and Ludwig, and they seized upon it. Paul studied with the greatest piano teacher in Europe, the Russian Theodor Leschetizky, while Ludwig pursued mathematics, engineering and, ultimately, philosophy.
But after Paul Wittgenstein made a critically acclaimed concert debut at the Grosser Musikvereinsaal Vienna in 1913, the year of Karl's death, World War I intervened.
After enlisting, Paul was assigned in August 1914 to the 6th Regiment, 5th Squadron of Dragoons of the Austrian Army.
Before the month was out he took a bullet just below the right shoulder. When he awoke as a prisoner of war in a Russian field hospital at Krasnostov, his right arm was gone, having been amputated on the battlefield, Wittgenstein wrote in personal correspondence.
He was shipped to a prison camp in Siberia, where he pondered the end of his life as a concert pianist.
No one was more despondent over this turn of events than Ludwig, who, while also in the Austrian military, grieved for Paul's future.
"Poor, poor Mama!!!" wrote Ludwig in his diary, on Oct. 28, 1914, while serving as a searchlight operator on a military boat. "Again and again I have to think of poor Paul, who so suddenly got started in his career. How terrible. What kind of a philosophy must it require to get over this."
But Paul did not succumb to the suicidal impulses that had destroyed the elder Wittgenstein brothers. On the contrary, he immediately attempted to reclaim his art, finding in the prison camp an old crate that he used as a makeshift keyboard and spending months practicing on it with his left hand, playing music only he heard.
Eventually, he located a discarded, upright piano and began to practice on it, five fingers working a keyboard designed for 10. By the time Wittgenstein returned to Austria in 1915 as part of a prisoner exchange, he vowed to rebuild his art.
"I immediately determined upon the plan to train myself to become a one-armed pianist, at least to attempt it," he wrote in a letter.
"It was like attempting to scale a mountain."
After the war, Wittgenstein embarked upon the greatest struggle of his life: to create with one hand the illusion of two hands playing the piano.
The challenge was made more arduous by a dearth of piano music written for the left hand. For three years, Wittgenstein scoured libraries searching for music to play, unearthing such arcane works as Charles-Henri Alkan's Three Etudes of 1838, Leopold Godowsky's difficult one-handed transcriptions of Frederic Chopin's etudes, Brahms' left-hand transcription of J.S. Bach's Chaconne, and miniatures by Bela Bartok, Moritz Moszkowski, Max Reger, Camille Saint-Saens and Alexander Scriabin.
By the early 1920s, he felt ready to play in public and began spending some of the fortune his father left him to commission the world's greatest composers to create music for one hand. These were to be no mere sonatas: Wittgenstein demanded full-blown concertos for left hand and orchestra, an idiom that did not exist until he conceived it.
Composers leaped at the opportunity, a torrent of new music coming from the pens of Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Erich Korngold and Maurice Ravel. Though the exact amount Wittgenstein paid is unknown, it apparently was considerable: Hindemith said he used the money to repair and furnish an old watchtower in Frankfurt, which he then used as his private residence.
The composers knew that Wittgenstein, who admired Mozart and Brahms above all, had come to them only because he had no other choice: The masters of an earlier epoch were long gone and never had penned concertos for a single hand.
"You are a musician of the 19th Century, I am of the 20th," Prokofiev wrote to Wittgenstein in 1931, after sending him the manuscript to the Concerto No. 4 in B-flat for Left Hand. "Don't judge the piano part too hastily; if certain moments seem to be indigestible at first, don't press yourself to pronounce judgment, but wait a while."
Prokofiev goes unplayed too
Wittgenstein never performed the work, which was premiered in 1956 by another, more obscure one-armed pianist, Siegfried Rapp.
The Hindemith concerto, meanwhile, was packed away in Wittgenstein's files.
He did not comment publicly on why he never performed the Hindemith, but his explanation for disregarding the Prokofiev is instructive.
"Even a concerto Prokofiev has written for me I have not yet played because the inner logic of the work is not clear to me," he once said, "and, of course I can't play it until it is."
Through sheer force of will, Wittgenstein in the late 1920s emerged as one of the most successful concert pianists in Europe.
By 1931, he was appointed professor at the New Vienna Conservatory and hardly could keep pace with offers to perform his new one-handed repertoire. He won over North America in 1934, playing the Ravel concerto in Montreal, Boston and New York and eliciting superlatives from the press.
"After the first few moments of wondering how the devil he accomplished it, one almost forgot that one was listening to a player whose right sleeve hung empty at his side," wrote the critic for the New York Herald-Tribune.
Wittgenstein's personal life flowered, as well, for in the same year he married a nearly blind piano student of his named Hilde Schania, and within a few years they had two daughters.
At the same time, however, Hitler was ascending in Germany, which in 1935 passed the Nuremberg Laws denying all Jews--and anyone deemed partly Jewish--the right to work, travel and own a business. The Jews of Austria, 200,000 strong, did not imagine that they would be targeted next, and the Wittgenstein family was one of many that had to make crucial decisions about how to deal with the Nazis and whether to trust them.
The correspondence and German-language diaries reviewed by the Tribune provide a window on the drama the family faced in its struggles with the Nazis.
"It was said and believed that the Nuremberg Laws simply could not be executed in Vienna because the entire population of Vienna was too mixed with Jews," Wittgenstein's eldest sister, Hermine, wrote in her wartime diary. "We were so blind that not one of us made the effort to even review the Nuremberg Laws."
On March 11, 1938--the day German tanks crossed the border into Austria--Paul was fired from the New Vienna Conservatory for being partly Jewish.
With the German annexation of Austria, Aryans and Jews alike were required to declare all foreign currency and exchange it into German marks deposited in the Reichsbank. As the German mark inflated to the point of near-worthlessness, the Nazis needed foreign exchange to finance their military buildup.
The Nazis quickly discovered, however, that they could not touch the Wittgenstein fortune, for Karl Wittgenstein and those who survived him--perhaps sensing volatile times ahead--had placed most of the family's wealth in a Swiss trust.
Moreover, the Wittgenstein elders had structured the account so that the children could draw on the interest but could not touch the capital, unless all the siblings unanimously agreed on how it was to be disposed, family documents show.
Nazis want family fortune
So the Nazis began to pressure the Wittgenstein children to deliver their 8.6 million Swiss francs--nearly $2 million in 1938--and found an ingenious way to exert leverage.
Determining that the sisters, Hermine and Helene, yearned to remain in Vienna, the Nazis offered a deal: turn the Swiss francs into German marks at the Reichsbank and receive special mischling (half-breed) status, which would allow them to remain in Vienna exempt from the Nuremberg Laws.
Paul Wittgenstein detested this proposal, family documents show, arguing that his sisters should flee with him.
"Paul compared it with a burning house and said it justified jumping out of the window, i.e. escaping from Austria ... he would share his fortune with us," wrote Hermine, in her diary, now in the possession of Paul Wittgenstein's children.
"I wanted to continue living in the atmosphere I was used to, even if I might have to live in simpler circumstances, anything but emigrate!"
Noting that some members of the Wittgenstein family were eager to deal, the Nazis in 1939 initiated a series of negotiations that stretched for several months, spanned two continents and finally tore apart one of Europe's most storied families.
The negotiations, which until now were considered undocumented and lost to history, began in April 1939 in Berlin, where the representatives of the Reichsbank met with Hermine, Helene and a third sister, Margaret Stonborough, who had become an American citizen by marriage but lived mainly in Vienna.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, who had studied and taught at Cambridge University in England and long since renounced his share of the family wealth, was only peripherally involved in the negotiations.
Paul, too, at first was removed from the discussions, for he was in the U.S. on a temporary visa.
The Wittgenstein sisters immediately agreed to deposit in the Reichsbank most of the Swiss money. In return, the Nazis offered a permit for Paul to enter and leave greater Germany at will, as well as mischling status.
But Paul balked, informing his sisters through his attorneys that he would not acquiesce to the Nazis' demands.
Paul instructed his New York lawyers to yield as little of the Swiss fortune to the Reichsbank as possible, his correspondence shows. He believed that once the Nazis had the money, they easily could change their minds about giving his sisters special exemption from the Nuremberg Laws.
"The Germans are extortioners, and if one shows an extortionist one's weak side--it's all over," wrote Paul in a letter to Ludwig, in explaining his position. "There is only one thing to do, namely, one must tell the Germans: you get so much and not a penny more, and that they will comply with!"
Even so, Paul stipulated that if it were necessary, all sacrifices should be made to obtain for his sisters the mischling status they needed to survive in Nazi-controlled Vienna.
"On this point I take your word of honour," Paul wrote in a letter to his attorney. "You know also that not only my honour is at stake . . . but also my own conscience & peace of mind."
In July 1939, the negotiations moved to New York's Hotel Gladstone, and there the first of several battles erupted between Paul and his sisters. The Reichsbank, represented by Alfred Indra and Hans Schoene, argued that the fortune should be turned over to "Germany's interest."
Margaret Stonborough, and her son, John, told Paul--in front of the Nazi representatives--that they agreed, and that Paul should cooperate with the Nazis.
"John Stonborough yelled across the table, `I don't give a damn about your money,'" Paul wrote in his letter to Ludwig.
As far as Paul was concerned, John and Margaret Stonborough, who were representing the sisters, did not care whether he survived or died, only that he please the Nazis. He was dumbfounded by this position.
Letter tells pianist's fears
"One must consider what that means: life or starvation was at stake for me," wrote Paul in his letter to Ludwig. "My German passport was practically expired....
"Since I came to America much too late, all available paid positions at conservatories had long been made off with. I cannot take a position other than that of piano teacher, for I am of no use for all others--what idiot would employ an impractical one-armed man, when the best qualified men with both arms in the hundreds are wandering about jobless?
"And even if a well-paid position were available, as a visitor, I would not be able to take it, since, as a visitor, I am under the obligation to earn no money....
"I was sold down the river."
Paul's New York attorney, Samuel R. Wachtell, who donated his services to Austrian refugees trying to start over in the U.S., broke off negotiations.
Reasoning that the Nazis would not have traveled across the ocean if they didn't intend to make concessions, Wachtell refused to go along with the Stonboroughs' plan to coax Paul into agreeing to surrender the Wittgenstein funds to the Reichsbank.
When negotiations resumed in August in Zurich, Paul's attorney would not come to a final agreement until the Reichsbank agreed first to provide mischling status in writing for Paul's sisters Hermine and Helene and to allow Paul to take the equivalent of approximately $500,000 of his inheritance from the Swiss account.
The Germans agreed, and the sisters promptly deposited the rest of the money with Reichsbank--the Nazi war effort newly primed with sorely needed foreign currency. As part of the agreement, Paul was required to give up all real estate and art he owned in greater Germany.
After the deal was signed, on Aug. 20, 1939, Paul's sisters reviled him for having been uncooperative with the Nazis. Margaret criticized him publicly, while Hermine seemed oblivious to the anti-Semitism that had torn her family apart.
Anti-Semitism in the family
"His consultants in this matter were Jews without exception to whom it must have been unbearable to see such a large fortune fall into the hands of their worst enemy," wrote Hermine, in her diary.
"Bitter words were spoken between Paul and myself back then."
Paul and his siblings never communicated again. As the war dragged on, Hermine saw the Nazis confiscate a building in which she had run a boys school, but otherwise she and her sisters were not harassed by the Germans. They lived peaceably in retirement, dying in old age in the 1950s.
Shorn of his family, Paul Wittgenstein started over once more, seeking permanent resident status in the United States in 1941. While awaiting the arrival of his wife and children from Cuba, where many potential U.S. emigres went before obtaining visas to enter the U.S., Paul taught piano at Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart Convent in New York.
By 1946, he was an American citizen and back on the international concert stage.
He consistently declined to discuss with his children the ordeals he had endured in two world wars or to share with interviewers the secrets of his family's split over the Nazi-era negotiations.
Instead, he focused on playing his left-hand repertory around the world.
To Paul Wittgenstein, the only means of communication that mattered was music, expressed by a lone hand restlessly moving across the keyboard.
Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune
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