How did war-wounded pianist Paul Wittgenstein persuade Ravel, Britten and Prokofiev to write pieces for his left hand?

There are an enormous number of general empirical propositions that count as certain for us. One such is that if someone’s arm is cut off it will not grow again”. Not the most nuanced philosophical assertion, stated plainly and harshly in On Certainty, the posthumously published notes of Ludwig Wittgenstein. But it’s no accident that the great Viennese thinker chose such a brutal image; his pianist brother Paul had suffered a particularly cruel twist of fate in 1914, when a bullet wound sustained at the Russian front claimed his right arm.

Of course, the maimed soldier could not have disputed his younger brother’s observation, but his severe disability didn’t deter him. “It was like climbing a mountain. If you can’t get up one way, you try another,” he wrote of his determination to continue on the path of a virtuoso pianist. Rising above a handicap that would end most performers’ dreams of concert life, flouting the disapproval of his family, one of the wealthiest and most influential in Vienna, he carved out a place for himself in musical history by commissioning...

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