How Paul Wittgenstein Paved the Way for One-Armed Concert Pianists

In 2012, Nicholas McCarthy became the first one-handed pianist to graduate from London's illustrious Royal College of Music. McCarthy, who was born without a right hand, has since gone on to build a successful career as a classical musician, giving performances all across the world and playing everywhere from the Royal Albert Hall to the closing ceremony of the 2012 Paralympic Games.

As McCarthy’s success—and astonishing talent—proves, having one hand is not as restrictive a disability for a pianist as it might seem. What’s more, thanks to the life and legacy of Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, there’s a remarkably sizable repertoire of compositions available exclusively for one-handed pianists.

Wittgenstein was born into a family with a long musical heritage in Vienna, Austria, on November 5, 1887. His grandmother, Fanny, had been a friend of Felix Mendelssohn; her adopted son, Joseph Joachim, studied under Mendelssohn in Germany, and became one of the most accomplished violinists of the 19th century. Paul’s father, Karl Wittgenstein, was also a violinist, as well as a close friend of the industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, founder of New York City’s Carnegie Hall. But it was as a steel magnate that Karl made a name for himself and ultimately became one of the richest people in Europe at the time. Thanks to the family’s wealth and their longstanding interest in the arts, it was not uncommon for the likes of Gustav Mahler, Clara Schumann, Richard Strauss, or Johannes Brahms to drop by the Wittgenstein family home.

As a result, Paul, along with his older brother Johannes, quickly took a serious interest in music—and both showed an aptitude for it. Tragically, Johannes died under mysterious circumstances while in America in 1902, but Paul—originally dismissed as being less accomplished than his older brother—continued his studies, and was accepted into the Viennese Gymnasium. After working under the Polish composer and piano virtuoso Theodor Leschetizky, Paul gave his first public performance in 1913 to rave reviews and was set to launch his career as a concert pianist.

But the following year, war broke out.

At the start of the First World War in 1914, Wittgenstein was called up for military service in the Austro-Hungarian Army and dispatched to the Russian front. Just weeks after his arrival, however, a stray bullet struck him in his right elbow. The injury was so bad that he passed out, and when he regained consciousness several days later in a Ukrainian hospital, he found out that not only was he a prisoner of war, but his right arm had been amputated.

Once he had recovered from his surgery, Wittgenstein was relocated to an isolated prison camp in Omsk, in southwest Siberia. Despite what seemed to be a bleak future ahead of him, Wittgenstein resolved not to be hindered by what had happened: Etching the layout of a piano keyboard onto an upturned supply crate, Wittgenstein set about retraining and strengthening his left hand, and spent much of his incarceration calculating how it might be possible to play some of his favorite pieces of music with his left hand alone. “It was like climbing a mountain,” he later wrote of his determination to continue playing. “If you can’t get up one way, you try another.”

While still a prisoner in Siberia, Wittgenstein managed to contact one of his former music teachers, the composer Josef Labor, via the Danish consul, to explain what had happened to him and to request that Labor write him a piece to perform using just his left hand. Several weeks later, the reply came: Labor was already working on it and a sympathetic dignitary arranged to transfer Wittgenstein to a camp with a piano.

In 1915, Wittgenstein was repatriated and sent home via Sweden as part of a prisoner of war exchange program between Russian and Austria. With little chance of seeing active service again, he immediately set about launching his musical career for the second time—only this time, under considerably changed circumstances.

Wittgenstein began to study intensely. He arranged his own left-hand-only versions of some of his favorite pieces—including Beethoven’s Appassionata piano sonata, Bach’s Prelude in C Minor, Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words, and Chopin’s Revolutionary Étude. He learned and rehearsed the piece Josef Labor had written for him, all the while continuing to improve the strength, technique, and stamina of his left hand. He gave his first one-handed performance in Vienna, debuting Labor’s Concert Piece in the form of Variations for Pianoforte Left Hand. And that was just the beginning.

Over the next 30 years, Wittgenstein used his family’s enormous fortune to commission dozens of left-hand piano pieces—a total of 17 piano concertos among them—from some of the early 20th century’s most renowned composers, including Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Richard Strauss, and Maurice Ravel. All the while he continued to tour, steadily building his reputation as a remarkable individual performer, determined not to be held back in any way—often, however, at the expense of his collaborators.

As his fame grew, Wittgenstein became increasingly demanding; he had uneasy relationships with many of the composers with whom he worked. When Prokofiev sent him his 4th Piano Concerto (1931), he claimed not to understand it and resolved never to play it until “the inner logic of the work” became clear to him. (Wittgenstein never performed the work, and Prokofiev never heard it played in his lifetime.) Similarly, when Paul Hindemith sent him his Klaviermusik, or Concerto for Piano with Orchestra, Op. 29 (1924), Wittgenstein again claimed not to understand that work either, refused to play it, and kept it hidden in his study. It was not discovered until 2002, and finally received its debut performance in 2004—41 years after Hindemith’s death.

But it was with French composer Maurice Ravel that Wittgenstein had his rockiest—albeit fruitful—relationship. In 1930, Ravel sent Wittgenstein his epic Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. The piece remains not only one of Ravel’s most popular and virtuosic pieces, but is perhaps the most famous piece of left-hand piano music in the entire classical repertoire (and has even become something of a rite of passage for two-handed piano players). Despite its astonishing complexity, however, as soon as he received the score, Wittgenstein set to work editing and revising it, altering not just the piano part that he was expected to play, but also the orchestral accompaniment.

Ravel could not attend his concerto’s debut performance in 1932, but he traveled to Vienna shortly after to attend a dinner and concert hosted by Wittgenstein, at which the work was to be played. Throughout the performance, Ravel reportedly grew steadily more agitated as he realized the alterations Wittgenstein had made. Incensed, Ravel cornered Wittgenstein after the performance about his changes and the pair had a heated argument about the supremacy of composers over musicians. This disagreement would lead to Wittgenstein exclaiming, "Performers must not be slaves," to which Ravel famously replied, “Performers are slaves.” Despite their differences, however, the pair reconciled enough to collaborate on a performance of the concerto in 1933 with Wittgenstein at the piano, and Ravel conducting.

By the late 1930s, war again impacted Wittgenstein’s life: Although his family was Christian, their Jewish heritage was enough to see Wittgenstein forbidden from giving public performances under the Nuremburg Laws that were imposed on Austria following the Nazi annexation in 1938. Wittgenstein relocated to America as a consequence, and there continued his playing and teaching, becoming an American citizen in 1946. He died in New York in 1961 at the age of 73.

Wittgenstein’s life may have been a tumultuous one full of misfortune and disagreements, but he left behind an extraordinary legacy of works for performers of equally extraordinary talent.

This Innovative Cutting Board Takes the Mess Out of Meal Prep

There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
TidyBoard, Kickstarter

Transferring food from the cutting board to the bowl—or scraps to the compost bin—can get a little messy, especially if you’re dealing with something that has a tendency to roll off the board, spill juice everywhere, or both (looking at you, cherry tomatoes).

The TidyBoard, available on Kickstarter, is a cutting board with attached containers that you can sweep your ingredients right into, taking the mess out of meal prep and saving you some counter space in the process. The board itself is 15 inches by 20 inches, and the container that fits in its empty slot is 14 inches long, 5.75 inches wide, and more than 4 inches deep. Two smaller containers fit inside the large one, making it easy to separate your ingredients.

Though the 4-pound board hangs off the edge of your counter, good old-fashioned physics will keep it from tipping off—as long as whatever you’re piling into the containers doesn’t exceed 9 pounds. It also comes with a second set of containers that work as strainers, so you can position the TidyBoard over the edge of your sink and drain excess water or juice from your ingredients as you go.

You can store food in the smaller containers, which have matching lids; and since they’re all made of BPA-free silicone, feel free to pop them in the microwave. (Remove the small stopper on top of the lid first for a built-in steaming hole.)

tidyboard storage containers
They also come in gray, if teal isn't your thing.
TidyBoard

Not only does the bamboo-made TidyBoard repel bacteria, it also won’t dull your knives or let strong odors seep into it. In short, it’s an opportunity to make cutting, cleaning, storing, and eating all easier, neater, and more efficient. Prices start at $79, and it’s expected to ship by October 2020—you can find out more details and order yours on Kickstarter.

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14 Powerful Facts About the Hoover Dam

Ryan Thorpe, Unsplash // Public Domain
Ryan Thorpe, Unsplash // Public Domain

The hulking Hoover Dam has been holding back the Colorado River and generating power since 1936, but you may be surprised to learn just how eventful its construction and naming were.

1. The construction of the Hoover Dam forced Las Vegas to clean up its act.

Once the public caught wind of the plans to build a dam in Nevada’s Black Canyon, surrounding cities appreciated the potential economic windfall such an undertaking would bring. Las Vegas became especially eager to house the project’s headquarters, even going so far as to sacrifice its “party city” reputation to appear worthy of the honor. When Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur, a major player in the project, came to town for a 1929 visit, local authorities in Las Vegas shut down a slew of its speakeasies and brothels for the day in an attempt to seem classier.

2. An entire city sprang up to support construction of the Hoover Dam.

Panorama of Boulder City, Nevada from Water Tank Hill
1932 panorama of Boulder City, Nevada, from Water Tank Hill.
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Sin City’s efforts were ultimately futile, and a planned community went up to house the 5000-person workforce. Miles of paved streets and railroad tracks connected the canyonside village to the project site and neighboring Las Vegas. The community, known as Boulder City, is still standing. However, delays in its development forced a good number of early workers to reside in the nearby Ragtown, which lived up to its name with extremely humble living conditions.

3. The Hoover Dam contains enough concrete to stretch across the United States.

The Bureau of Reclamation—the department subsidizing the project—supplied a whopping 3.25 million cubic yards of concrete for the dam itself, plus another 1.11 million cubic yards for the power plant and additional facilities. This quantity of concrete would be enough to build 3000 miles of road—a full-sized highway from one end of the United States to the other. Additionally, the dam required about 5 million barrels of cement, nearly equaling the total quantity of cement the Bureau used in its previous 27 years of existence.

4. The world’s largest refrigerator cooled all the concrete used for the Hoover Dam.

As you may guess, all this concrete posed some challenges. Without engineers’ intervention, it would have taken the massive blocks of poured concrete 125 years to cool, and this gradual drying would have left the pieces susceptible to breaking. To speed up the process, an engineering team designed a mammoth refrigeration machine. The supersized fridge dispensed upwards of 1000 tons of ice every day, speeding up the cooling and lopping decades off the project’s timeline.

5. The first summer of construction on the Hoover Dam had record-breaking heat.

The giant fridge had its work cut out for it. Work on the Hoover Dam kicked off in April 1931, not long before Nevada’s Clark County weathered some of its hottest temperatures on record. The month of June delivered an average daily high of 119°F, prompting a wave of heatstroke among workers.

6. The Hoover Dam’s laborers were terrific showmen.

Native Americans employed on the construction of Hoover Dam as high-scalers.
A group of Native Americans who worked on the Hoover Dam as high scalers, 1932.
National Archives and Records Administration, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Despite the punishing temperatures, construction attracted curious and enthralled spectators from across the country. Even more entertaining than the technological feats of the project were the death-defying antics of the “high scalers,” who rappelled down the Black Canyon to remove loose rock from the gorge’s walls. While one might expect such a job to be handled with extreme caution, the high scalers became famous for their playful, albeit ill-conceived, stunts.

Spectators were particularly fond of the antics of daredevil Louis Fagan, nicknamed “The Human Pendulum” and “One-Rope Fagan.” When teams worked on outcroppings in the canyon walls, they would move from one area to another by locking their arms and legs around Fagan and having him swing them to their next spot.

7. One heroic high scaler saved his boss’s life during construction on the Hoover Dam.

Fagan was impressive, but Oliver Cowan trumped his fellow high scalers when he snatched his falling supervisor right out of the sky. When Bureau of Reclamation engineer Burl R. Rutledge lost his hold on a safety line at the top of the canyon, he would have plummeted to his demise had Cowan, who was working 25 feet blow, not grabbed his leg as he fell. Shortly after the episode, the city of Las Vegas lobbied for a Carnegie Medal in recognition of the local man’s bravery.

8. The Hoover Dam’s chief engineer badmouthed his workers to the local press.

Not everyone was as impressed with the workforce. The hazards of the construction site and poor conditions in Ragtown contributed to the labor force’s decision to strike in 1931. A committee formed to express the workers’ demands, to which the project’s chief engineer and superintendent, Francis Trenholm Crowe, was defiantly unsympathetic. In fact, Crowe contested each of the team’s qualms with the suggestion of eagerness to have the workforce replaced. Print interviews in local news publications quoted Crowe as calling his men “malcontents” who he “would be glad to get rid of.” The hard line gambit worked, and eventually the laborers returned to work.

9. Nobody really wanted to name the dam after Herbert Hoover.

In retrospect, it seems strange that one of the country’s most impressive feats is named after one of its least beloved presidents. In fact, Hoover is understood to have only earned the honor through a political publicity stunt. In 1930, Secretary of the Interior Wilbur traveled to the site to mark the dam project’s official opening. He took advantage of the pageantry to declare, “I have the honor and privilege of giving a name to this new structure. In Black Canyon, under the Boulder Canyon Project Act, it shall be called the Hoover Dam.”

In other words, Wilbur named the dam after his boss. As Hoover was already widely maligned for his part in kicking off the Great Depression, the name was hotly contested. Wilbur’s successor, Harold L. Ickes, was a particularly vocal critic, and in 1933 he switched the in-progress structure’s name to “Boulder Dam.”

10. Herbert Hoover wasn’t even invited to the dam’s dedication.

Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes delivers his talk at the dedication of Hoover Dam
Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes delivers his talk at the dedication of Hoover Dam.
Bureau of Reclamation, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Ickes was hardly alone in his low opinion of Hoover. His own boss, Franklin D. Roosevelt, didn’t think much of Hoover’s presidential acumen, either. When FDR oversaw the dedication of the still nebulously named dam in 1935, he declined to invite his predecessor and even refused to give Hoover the expected nod in his ceremonial speech.

11. The Hoover Dam didn’t officially take its name until 1947.

The dam spent the 14 years following Ickes’s proclamation without an official name. Ultimately, on April 30, 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed a law authorizing the original Hoover handle, recognizing the 31st president’s hand in bringing the dam to life in the first place.

12. Nazis attempted to blow up the Hoover Dam.

In 1939, the United States government learned of a pair of German Nazi agents’ scheme to bomb the Hoover Dam and its power facilities. Destruction of the dam itself was not the central goal, but hampering its energy production was a key piece of the agents’ plan to undercut California’s aviation manufacturing industry. To ward off aerial attacks, authorities considered camouflaging the Hoover Dam with a paint job or even building a decoy dam downstream from the real thing. Ultimately, the Germans only managed to get as far as conducting onsite investigative work before their ploy was quashed, thanks to an increase in military security around the dam.

13. Today, the Hoover Dam helps power three states.

The dam’s energy helps keep the lights on for customers in California, Arizona, and Nevada. It creates enough power for 1.3 million people.

14. The Hoover Dam was once the world’s tallest dam.

When it was finished in 1936, the Hoover Dam was remarkable not only for having completed construction a full two years ahead of schedule, but also for its unprecedented stature. The Black Canyon structure stretched 726 feet from base to top, practically soaring above the old record holder, Oregon’s 420-foot-tall Owyhee Dam. After holding the height title for two decades, Hoover was at last outdone by Switzerland’s 820-foot-tall Mauvoisin Dam in 1957. Eleven years later, it lost its domestic title to California’s 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam.