Greatness does not come from victimhood, self-absorption, preoccupation with what might have been – but from what “is,” squeezing everything from it. Sounds simple, but modern America, so easily offended, competing for victim status, has traded contentment for resentment. Time to swap back.
One hundred and thirty-four years ago next week, a boy was born – who would one day be an American. When hope went dark across pre-war Austria, persecution muting life’s music, he fled for freedom.
He arrived in New York in 1938, 1887, his birthdate – but it is what happened between those two years that bears knowing, thinking about, and drawing inspiration from.
Young Paul was lucky. He knew it. He loved piano, and by accidents of family, fate, and date, his home was visited by well-known pianists, with whom he was allowed to play. Friends of his grandmother included Brahms, Mahler, and Richard Strauss.
But what luck and life give, they can take away – and the peace of his early youth was replaced by war. All his talent at the keyboard was set to one side when he was drafted to fight in World War I.
Like his brother Ludwig, who would later compose on a metaphysical keyboard, Paul won honors fighting. However, in a tragedy that would reshape his life, he was wounded. More than wounded, surgeons had to take his right arm.
To some, this would have been the end of life, seawalls of self-confidence, accomplishment, and life’s love of the piano washed out by the overpowering, destructive, uncaring tide of fate. Young Paul would have been within his rights to blame the ugliness and caprice of war for lost hope, a life of bitterness.
That, however, is not what he did. When the war ended, reducing him to one hand, he picked himself up and decided his life mission had changed. He was apparently intended to compose for his left hand.
Composing and playing just for the left hand had never been done, as pianists play with two hands. Never mind, he would compose and commission left-hand-only pieces, begin publicly playing them.
Possessed of one hand and two feet, he developed ways of using foot pedals and one hand in combination to permit chords; a concept previously thought impossible – with just five fingers.
Nor did he stop there. His inspiration led others to a higher level. He asked his former piano teacher – then blind – to help him compose a left-handed piece, which his teacher did. He asked composers from Richard Strauss and Sergei Prokofiev to Maurice Ravel to compose one-handed pieces, which they did.
Almost unbelievably, the pieces composed, commissioned, and played by Paul – with one hand – are so popular that even today, they are widely and regularly played by two-handed pianists.
The piece Paul commissioned of Ravel, a piano concerto for the left hand, premiered in 1932, Paul at the keys, age 45, solo with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. Today, the piece is regularly featured. To hear it, with and without orchestra, see, Paul Wittgenstein performs Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.
So, in 1938, he arrived in America, becoming a US citizen in 1946, spending the rest of his life playing and teaching music to young Americans, undeterred by a wartime mishap – inspired to write and commission music of a kind that had not previously existed, and which is still universally enjoyed.
And who was Paul? He was Paul Wittgenstein, whose life – and love of it – inspired songs, books, and movies about what you can do with what “is,” if you are willing not to wallow, but to do. While his brother Ludwig wrote philosophy, he became a philosopher of notes, instilling peace through the piano.
Point: Greatness does not come from victimhood, self-absorption, preoccupation with what might have been – but from what “is,” squeezing everything from it. Sounds simple, but modern America, so easily offended, competing for victim status, has traded contentment for resentment. Time to swap back. Life is truly what you choose to make of it, and that is the real beauty of America, our long-held high note.