The Gift

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Henry Kingsbury


Paul Wittgenstein, Maurice Ravel, one-handed pianists


This paper, invoking Mauss, will describe a series of musical gifts given to and by Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), celebrated one-armed pianist.

In 1915, after losing an arm in the war, Wittgenstein was given a remarkable gift:  His teacher, the blind organist and composer Josef Labor (1842-1924), presented Wittgenstein with three newly-composed works for a one-armed pianist.  Wittgenstein promptly reciprocated Labor’s gift by performing these works near Prague.  Far more significantly: Wittgenstein’s response to Labor’s gift was not limited to playing these works.  A gift “receives its meaning… from the response it triggers” (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 5), and Wittgenstein answered Labor’s gift by devoting the rest of his life to being a one-armed concert artist.  Wittgenstein’s long career can be seen as reciprocation for Labor’s original gift.  But Wittgenstein has given us a gift, as well.  Wittgenstein was “intrigued with how genius would handle this unusual problem” (Flindell, 1971 p. 114), and between 1923 and 1950, he commissioned works from numerous composers (R. Strauss, Britten, Prokofieff, others), the most important of which was by Ravel.

Ravel’s concerto not only demands breath-taking virtuosity from the soloist (most of the Wittgenstein repertoire does this), but also involved structural complexities not found in the standard repertoire (Kingsbury pp. 56-59).  However: Ravel rather intensely disliked Wittgenstein’s manner of playing, and in 1936 Ravel assigned his concerto to a two-handed pianist.  Nowadays, the “Wittgenstein repertoire” is mainstream repertoire.  This repertoire is Wittgenstein’s answer to Labor’s original gift, but it is also Wittgenstein’s gift to us all.

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