One-Armed Pianist, Suicides Perk Up Wittgenstein Family History

Kurt, Paul and Hermine Wittgenstein, from left, Max Salzer, Leopoldine Wittgenstein, Helene Salzer and Ludwig Wittgenstein speak while on leave from war at Neuwaldegg in Vienna in this handout photo from the summer of 1917

Even in the exotic Vienna of 100 years ago, the Wittgenstein clan stood out for its density of eccentrics. How many families could boast of a one-armed pianist and a child-beating philosopher?

Alexander Waugh’s “The House of Wittgenstein” has at least one stupefying anecdote per page as he describes this stunningly maladroit bunch of cultivated nuts, sweeties, intellectuals, philanthropists and misanthropes who in 1913 inherited the staggering steel fortune assembled by their father, Karl Wittgenstein, also an accomplished bugler.

Karl and Leopoldine had nine children, of whom eight survived to adulthood, all strange in different ways, especially the boys. “To have three sons commit suicide must strain the nerves of even the steeliest mother,” suggests Waugh. At least her last days were brightened by an elderly lesbian diva who came every day to sing the songs by Brahms she had premiered years ago.

Rudi, apparently unhappily homosexual, swallowed poison at age 22. Hans, who may have been an idiot savant and/or mathematical genius, disappeared in an unknown location (maybe in Florida’s Everglades or perhaps Venezuela) after fleeing his family in 1901. Kurt shot himself during World War I, in an unexplained fit of self-destructive patriotism.

One-Armed Pianist

That left two other brothers: Ludwig, author of the esteemed, rather unknowable “Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,” and pianist Paul, who lost his right arm during the war and endured, stoically, the most god-awful captivity in Siberia. Ludwig and Paul are central to Waugh’s narrative, though sister Gretl and her unpleasant American husband are also vividly rendered, along with countless retainers, relatives, artists, mistresses, politicians. Gretl so disliked the way Klimt had painted her, she had another artist work on the face a bit.

Offered generous commissions, composers like Ravel, Prokofiev, Hindemith, Strauss and Korngold undertook to write Paul concertos for the left hand. More often than not he would then berate them for their labors.

As he sat in Ravel’s living room, Paul immediately decided that the beginning of the concerto, a solo cadenza, was really not to his liking.

This is what he said: “If I had wanted to play without the orchestra I would not have commissioned a concerto.” He drove Ravel crazy blithely rewriting the piece right up to the premiere. How did he play? It seems the sight of him always made some roll their eyes; but he dazzled others, at least when he was young.

Tough Teacher

Ludwig was no less intense, at first scaring, then charming Bertrand Russell, who took him under his wing at Cambridge and introduced him to intellectual celebrities like John Maynard Keynes. Yet Ludwig also enjoyed humbling himself with lowly jobs like teaching school to village kids. After concussing a dimwit of 11 in frustration, he was forced to quit and probably spent a bit of his immense fortune on the boy’s outraged family.

Waugh, son of Auberon and grandson of Evelyn, makes his settings come alive, whether it is the concert life in Vienna before the war with its 80 orchestras, the glitter of the vast Wittgenstein palace with its seven pianos, or the noxious atmosphere seeping through the land as Hitler arrived in 1938.

Among other shocks, the Wittgensteins would discover they were Jewish. Jewish! Never had the Wittgensteins considered themselves Jewish. Most had converted long ago. Now their new masters informed them that was a big mistake. With three out of four grandparents Jewish, they were no longer Aryan according to the Nuremberg race laws. For the next seven years, the family was locked in a grotesque tug of war with rapacious Nazis over parts of their fortune.

The brothers escaped but remained estranged until they died. The sisters also survived the war, despite a remarkably clumsy escape attempt involving fake passports. Waugh’s sympathetic yet acerbic storytelling sees them through to their deaths and the incomprehensible destruction of their fabled palais.

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Published in: on February 25, 2009 at 8:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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