ESR 2 Blog January/February 2023: Piu-Wai Chan

When I mentioned to one of the Profs that I had been looking into early Wittgenstein, he mentioned that his life was fascinating and I should grab a copy of his biography. That is how I found myself flipping through House of Wittgenstein (2008) by Alexander Waugh. Waugh explores the history and legacy of one of the most prominent families of intellectuals in the 20th century. The Wittgenstein family was known for its exceptional intellectual achievements, as well as its colourful personalities and complicated relationships. Therefore, I was rather ‘distracted’ by the life of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother Paul, the remarkable one-arm concert pianist who commissioned Ravel, Scriabin and Hindemith to compose for him (more on that later). Obviously, I felt slightly embarrassed by the fact that I had not been acquainted with his work previously, despite the fact that I was supposed to be a trained pianist myself (Such lack of enthusiasm probably explains why I dropped out after all).


Anyway, back to Paul Wittgenstein, it was indeed impressive to watch footage of his performance. He is most well-known for ‘Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major’ (by Maurice Ravel)[1], ‘Piano Sonata No. 2 in D Minor for the Left Hand Alone’ (by Alexander Scriabin) and ‘Piano Concerto No. 4 in C Major for the Left Hand’ (by Sergei Prokofiev). He is also equally well-known for his habit of taking liberties with the score (thus, he was rarely booked twice). Apart from commissioning pieces that are designed for a one-armed pianist, Paul Wittgenstein also developed a number of unique techniques that allowed him to play with a high level of skill and technical proficiency, such as finger substitution (involved substituting one finger for another in order to play complex chords or intervals. This technique allowed him to play with a high level of accuracy and speed) and pedal techniques (extensive use of the piano pedal, using it to sustain notes and create a legato effect).


However, there has been criticism that his ‘techniques’ fails to compensate for his disability. Some even suggest his popularity was due to his heroic story of overcoming his injuries from WWI rather than the actual performance and musicianship. As a dropout pianist myself, I am probably not in the best place to comment. However, what made me empathize with Paul Wittgenstein was the story in which he allegedly shouted at Ludwig: ‘I cannot play when you are in the house, as I feel your scepticism seeping towards me from under the door!’


Boy, don’t I know this feeling.










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