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RADAR

Pianist with five fingers

French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard follows in the footsteps of Paul Wittgenstein and will play a concert at BOZAR… using only five fingers.

Paul Wittgenstein made his professional debut as a pianist in 1913. One year later the First World War broke out, a conflict that cost him his right arm. It’s thanks to that incident, and to his family fortune, that Ravel wrote his remarkable piano concerto ‘for the left hand’.

Paul Wittgenstein fought on the German side during World War I.
Paul Wittgenstein fought on the German side during World War I.

Wittgenstein was born into a rich Jewish family in Vienna in 1887. In his parents’ house he was always bumping into famous musicians: Brahms, Mahler and Strauss all dropped by regularly. The young Paul even played duets with Strauss.

Paul began his piano career with good critics, but was called up for military service. In Ukraine he received wounds to the right elbow and was taken prisoner by the Russians. His arm was amputated.

Maurice Ravel was deemed unfit for military duty, but went to the front voluntarily as a driver for the French Army.
Maurice Ravel was deemed unfit for military duty, but went to the front voluntarily as a driver for the French Army.

In the prison camp in Omsk, Siberia, Paul Wittgenstein made a decision: he would continue his piano career. Back at home he began arranging piano pieces for one hand and started performing again. Critics thought he played exceptionally well… for someone with just one hand.

Made to order

With impressive obstinacy Wittgenstein embarks on a mad, ambitious project: the creation of a brand new repertoire for the left hand. 17 composers, including Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Sergei Prokofiev, accepted the commission to write a new piece. The work of Maurice Ravel, Concerto for the left hand for piano and orchestra in D major, was to be by far the most popular.

Wittgenstein was not always happy with the result. He told Prokofiev quite plainly that he understood nothing of the inner logic of his 4th piano concerto, and “I will naturally not play it so long as that is the case.” Hindemith’s Piano music with orchestra Op. 29 disappeared into a drawer of his desk, and would only reappear in 2002, after the death of Hindemith’s widow.

A French soldier with artificial arms. Substantial leaps in medicine were made because of the horror of WWI, notably in the field of plastic surgery.
A French soldier with artificial arms. Substantial leaps in medicine were made because of the horror of WWI, notably in the field of plastic surgery.

Wittgenstein was not always happy with the result. He told Prokofiev quite plainly that he understood nothing of the inner logic of his 4th piano concerto, and “I will naturally not play it so long as that is the case.” Hindemith’s Piano music with orchestra Op. 29 disappeared into a drawer of his desk, and would only reappear in 2002, after the death of Hindemith’s widow.

Wittgenstein’s bank account enabled him to behave in such a way: he paid for the commission and for the exclusive Performing Rights.

Round of arm wrestling

Ravel’s concerto for the left hand is a piece in one movement which lasts little over a quarter of an hour. But an incredible amount of varied and richly contrasting material is packed into this short time. He wrote it between 1929 and 1931, the same period as his concerto in G major that is an entirely different work. Ravel said this about it in 1931:

“It contains numerous jazz effects, and the writing isn’t as light. In a work of this kind, you need to ensure that the texture doesn’t give the impression of being less dense than that of a partition written for both hands. For the same reason, I used a style which is much closer to that of more formal traditional concertos.”

Wittgenstein is – once again – not impressed by the composition:

“[Ravel] was not an outstanding pianist, and I wasn’t overwhelmed by the composition. It always takes me a while to grow into a difficult work. I suppose Ravel was disappointed, and I was sorry, but I had never learned to pretend. Only much later, after I’d studied the concerto for months, did I become fascinated by it and realise what a great work it was.”

Ravel : Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major

Ravel is dan weer niet opgezet wanneer hij een uitvoering van zijn concerto door Wittgenstein bijwoont in Wenen in 1932, en het duidelijk wordt dat de pianist de muziek hier en daar heeft ‘gerearrangeerd’.

Ravel was once again displeased when, in 1932, he attended a performance of his concerto by Wittgenstein in Vienna, and it became clear that the pianist had ‘arranged’ the music here and there.

“But that’s not it at all!” Ravel called out to Wittgenstein after the concert.
To which he answered: “I am an old hand as a pianist and that doesn’t sound right!”
Ravel: “I am an old hand at orchestration and it does sound right!”

The two continued their squabble through  letters. Ravel was so sullen that he threatened to boycott a performance in Paris. “Performers shouldn’t be slaves,” wrote Wittgenstein. Ravel had a different point of view: “Performers are slaves!”

Epilogue

The piano concertos belong to Maurice Ravel’s final masterpieces. As of 1933 a neurological condition brought an end to his creativity and he didn’t write any more music in the final years of his life. He died in a hospital in Paris in 1937 at the age of 62.

A year later, Paul Wittgenstein fled from the Nazis, who forbade him from performing. He spent the rest of his life as an American citizen, and died in New York in 1961.

On 15 and 17 September the French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard will be performing Ravel’s Concerto for the left hand for piano and orchestra in D major with the Belgian National Orchestra conducted by Hugh Wolff in the Henry Le Boeuf Hall.