Today in Music History
A Daily Look at Music History For Violin Students
A Look at What Happened on Today's Date
Long, Long Ago . . . Or Maybe Just Last Year
TODAY IS
November 17
Can You Guess?
Heitor Villa-Lobos died on this date in 1959.  He was Brazilian.  Can You Guess what language people speak in Brazil?

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1816 - Austrian musicologist August W. Ambros was born. Wrote History of Music.

1876
- Debut of P. Tchaikovsky's Marche Slav in Moscow.

1877 - Gilbert and Sullivan's first collaboration with D'Oyly Carte. Premiere of The Sorcerer. (CD Available here.)

1888 - Premier of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony in St. Petersburg.

1959 - Death of Brazilian composer, pianist and conductor Heitor Villa-Lobos.

1968- Zorba opened in New York City.  It played 305 performances.

1979 - ABBA had their fifth UK No.1 album when their Greatest Hits vol. 2 started a five week run at the top.

1980 - John Lennon released his Double Fantasy album.

1994 - Sunset Boulevard opened at Minskoff Theater New York City.  It played 977 performances.

1998 - U.S. retailers were hit with a wave of superstar releases on what the industry dubs "Super Tuesday." Among the releases are Garth Brooks's Garth Brooks: Double Live, Whitney Houston's My Love is Your Love, Mariah Carey's #1's, Jewel's Spirit, and three soundtracks associated with the animated film The Prince of Egypt.
November 17, 1934, Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein made his New York City debut playing Ravel's Concerto for Left Hand with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

What's a pianist doing on a violin site?  It's a good question and it deserves a good story as an answer.  Read on and you'll discover why I think he belongs here.

Paul Wittgenstein
1887-1961
Paul Wittgenstein was born in Vienna, May 11, 1887.  His father was the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein (and his younger brother Ludwig became a famous philosopher).  His great uncle was violinist Josef Joachim.  His home was frequently visited by prominent musicians such as Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss.  Paul played duets with Strauss, and was generally recognized as very talented.

Paul studied with Malvine Bree and later with the Polish virtuoso Theodor Leschetizky. He made his public debut in 1913 and received favorable reviews for his playing.  The following year, however, World War I broke out.  Paul was called up for military service.

During an assault on Poland Paul was wounded.  He was captured by the Russians and taken prisoner.  Doctors who examined him decided that his right arm was too badly injured to save, and it had to be amputated.

The amputation would have been tragic for almost anyone, but Paul was a pianist.  What good is a pianist with only one hand?  During his recovery, Paul vowed to continue his piano playing career using only his left hand.

Paul was released in a prisoner exchange in 1915, and returned to Vienna.  He began to work to make that vow come true.  He studied and practiced intensely.  He looked at piano works already existing for one hand.  He looked at works written for two hands that he could arrange to be played single-handedly.  He also had his old teacher, Josef Labor (who was also disabled--blind) compose some works for the left hand.

Experts agree that playing with just the left hand is extremely difficult.  Paul said, "It is easier to play with the left hand alone than with the right hand alone. The thumb on the left hand, its strongest finger, is on top. My left thumb does the work of my lost right hand."  He also learned to use the piano's pedals to his advantage.  He could not play entire chords with just one hand but, "By holding the chord with the pedal, I give the impression of playing the whole chord simultaneously."

After a while Paul started concertizing again, and the public was very pleased with what they heard.  Paul began to approach famous composers and have new pieces composed for him.  Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith and Richard Strauss all wrote pieces for him, and Maurice Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto in d for the Left Hand (below), for which Wittgenstein became particularly famous. The concerto was heavily influenced by the music of George Gershwin, whom Ravel had met during his American tour. Ravel said, "The listener must never feel that more could have been accomplished with two hands. The piano part must be complete, beautiful and transparent."

Sergei Prokofiev also wrote a concerto for him, Prokofiev's fourth, but Wittgenstein did not like the piece, and (like the Hindemith concerto) never played it in public.

Although his family had converted to Christianity three generations earlier, when the Nazis came to power before World War II, the Wittgensteins were classified as Jews.  Paul was not allowed to perform in public.  In 1938 Paul left Austria and moved to the United States.  He became an American citizen in 1946.

Paul became an American citizen in 1946. He spent the rest of his life there, mainly teaching at Ralph Wolfe Conservatory in New Rochelle, New York, and in his studio in New York City. Among his pupils were several pianists with one arm.

Just after his 70th birthday, he recorded the Bach-Brahms "Chaconne" and Ravelís "Concerto for the Left Hand Alone."

Wittgenstein died in in New York City, March 3, 1961.  He never retired, and was active until shortly before his death.

John Barchilon wrote a novel based on Wittgenstein's life called The Crown Prince.

An episode of the television series M.A.S.H., entitled Moral Victory, featured James Stephens as a drafted concert pianist who lost the use of his right hand in combat. Charles Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) gave him the sheet music for Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand, told him Wittgenstein's story, and encouraged him not to abandon his musical gift.
A Great Christmas Gift
Strings Magazine is a very good resource for Intermediate to Advanced Violinists, Fiddlers, Cellists and Bassists.
Wittgenstein plays Ravel
Paul Wittgenstein
Plays Ravel
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Wittgenstein plays Ravel
Composed and Conducted
by Villa-Lobos
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In Brazil people speak Portugese.
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