“I’d like to see more disabled musicians on the world stage today”

Nicholas McCarthy, who was born without a right hand, made history when he became the only one-handed pianist ever to graduate from the Royal College of Music in July 2012. In this guest post to mark Armistice Day, he remembers the pianists injured in the World War I and the left-handed legacy of Paul Wittgenstein. 

As we remember the servicemen and women who fought in conflicts around the world, there is one injured soldier whose story will always inspire me.

In the wake of the World War I, the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein made his own place in musical history through sheer determination and defiance of convention.

Wittgenstein was injured on the Eastern Front in 1914 when a bullet shattered his right elbow as his regiment fought the advancement of the Russian army. He woke up in a field hospital to find that his right arm had been amputated in surgery.

Less than a year before, the 26-year-old had made his concert debut in the opulent surroundings of Vienna’s Grosser Musikvereinsaal where he was well received by critics.

Wittgenstein had waited his whole life to make his debut. His family was one of the wealthiest and most influential in Austria at the time. His father disapproved of ‘entertainers’ and he had felt unable to pursue his ambition to become a concert pianist until the death of the overbearing patriarch.

When he awoke to find he’d lost his arm, he must have despaired at the thought that his dream had ended so soon after it begun. But he didn’t dwell on it for too long. “It was like climbing a mountain. If you can’t get up one way, you try another,” he wrote of his determination to continue to reach his career goals. Wittgenstein went on to use his money and his status to commission the best composers of the day to create new piano concertos for only the left hand.

Determination and defiance

Nicholas McCarthy staring at the camera for a press shot

For me, it’s this steely determination and defiance that I can relate to. My own story is about determination – there have been countless times when giving up would have been a much easier option.

I’m excited to perform Ravel’s piano concerto for left hand, commissioned by Wittgenstein, with the Kent Sinfonia orchestra at a Concert of Remembrance at St John’s Smith Square, Westminster on 11 November.

It will be the first time since the 1951 Proms that a one-handed concert pianist has performed this powerful piece of music. For me it is about war, loss and rising above circumstance. It’s a huge privilege to play.

Through my career I hope to inspire other young disabled musicians. I support Scope because I believe disabled people should have the same opportunities as everyone else. I want to challenge people’s assumptions about disability.

It takes a huge amount of work and determination – but my disability hasn’t stopped me achieving my dreams. I was told that I would never become a concert pianist and that I’d never get into the Royal College of Music. When I became a concert pianist I was told that I would never get signed to a major record label: I signed with Warner Music in April and my first album called ‘Solo’ came out in September.

A left-handed tradition

NM playing (2)

When I was accepted to the Junior Guildhall it was on the condition that I played only with my left hand. I didn’t realise there was a whole repertoire of left-hand only music. It was only when I started researching this that I discovered the Ravel concerto and the amazing story of Wittgenstein.

It felt like it had all been made especially for me. Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Sergei Prokofiev, Franz Schmidt, Richard Strauss and Maurice Ravel all produced pieces for Wittgenstein to play with his left hand.

Wittgenstein kept the pieces exclusively for his own use until his death. He seems to have been a bit of a difficult man, but I think he was trying to protect himself. I personally disagree with him though, I think music is for sharing and it’s always great to hear others’ interpretations. There were other pianists injured in the First World War who didn’t have his wealth or status therefore were unable to create the opportunities that he created for himself.

I’d like to see more disabled musicians on the world stage today. I hope my story and my career will inspire young disabled people to believe in themselves and to follow their dreams whatever they may be.

Find out more about Nicholas and his career and follow him on Twitter @NMcCarthyPiano.

Building a movement right across the country – #DDA20

Activists Chris Benson and Joanna Owen tell us about how the campaign for civil rights for disabled people involved people from all different backgrounds from right across the country. Protests in Leeds and Oldham showed the public that disabled people wanted to change the country. 

This blog is shared as part of a series of stories to celebrate the campaigners who fought for civil rights. You can find out more on our website or on social media using #DDA20.

Chris Benson

Chris is a solicitor at the firm Leigh Day. In the run-up to the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act he was a support worker for adults with learning difficulties.

Protesters at Leeds City train station

I remember being in a pub with some disabled people that I was assisting. The landlord asked my group to leave because he didn’t feel comfortable with them being there. I was so shocked to learn there was no law to right this wrong. Disabled people couldn’t escape discrimination and there was nothing they could do to tackle it when it happened to them.

I’m not a disabled person. I got involved in the campaign for civil rights as a facilitator. My job was to support the involvement of individuals with learning difficulties. So, once people were handcuffed to a train or a bus, I would stash the keys somewhere and make sure everybody had a cup of coffee.

Taking control

Picture of Chris Benson taken in SalfordMy strongest memory is of disabled people taking control of lives. Quite a lot of the people I worked with had severe learning difficulties but they knew what they were doing and why they were doing it. Seeing disabled people take direct action remains one of the most positive things that I’ve ever been involved with.

It was tough being in a Northern town because most campaigning was based in London. We couldn’t get down to London too often because buses and trains were tough to access, the costs of travelling were high, and the time and energy needed were so great.

We worked locally to raise awareness of the importance of rights. One of our memorable protests was in Oldham Town Centre, where we demonstrated against inaccessible public transport. What was key about that demonstration was service managers joined disabled people in lying down in front of buses to stop them from moving.

Causing difficulty

I was conscious of a big difficulty when it came to disabled people campaigning for rights. Adults with learning difficulties were very reliant on statutory services. If anybody asked their social worker or carer to support them in going on a protest to obtain rights, it caused professional difficulty. The staff – employed by the local council – had to make a choice, and so I often chose to use my free time to support the campaign for rights for disabled people.

The idea that disabled people had adapted minibuses or that local councils provided transport dominated the public mind. Actually, what disabled people wanted was to get on the bus like everybody else at the end of their street. We made the point that disabled people can’t get on the bus and go where they want. We raised awareness about the lack of rights where people would previously have had no idea. It put non-disabled people into the same shoes as disabled people and got our message across.

Joanna Owen

Joanna is a solicitor. In the run-up to the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act she was working with the Brent Association of Disabled People in London and took part in direct actions with the Direct Action Network.

I’m generally quite a quiet person when it comes to sticking up for myself. I’m not really the type of person to shout loudly about the things that bother me. I had shied away from campaigning through direct action for a long time because I thought it wasn’t ‘me’. As soon as I got involved in the Direct Action Network (DAN), I felt so strong.

A DAN national action focused on public transport that was impossible for disabled people to use. Over 100 disabled people travelled to Leeds City Station from all parts of the country.

Chained to an Intercity train

The railway station had no passenger lift to the platforms, so disabled people had to take the goods lift. Trains had one
space per train for a wheelchair user, so wheelchair users often had to travel in the guard’s van. With both the station and trains inaccessible, we were insulted that £40,000 had been spent on a garden on the end of one platform. It was insulting that disabled people were expected to sit in the garden while waiting for trains they cannot get on.

Picture of protesters handcuffed to a train at Leeds train station

As planned, people chained themselves to the Intercity 225 to London. Everybody had a role, from handcuffing themselves, crowding around the handcuffed campaigners to stop the police from cutting them loose, leafletting the public, or chanting. The whole day felt positive as the campaign stopped a train from leaving for up to forty minutes. That protest felt wonderful.

It felt particularly good to see we had support from so many non-disabled people. It validated our message. Usually, people didn’t really know about access issues unless somebody brought them to their attention. Campaigning is a good way of achieving that.

Negotiating is important for achieving change, but it happens away from the public eye. Behind the scenes negotiations happen at a slower pace and, at that time, we had run out of patience. We wanted the railway company to realise that disabled people mattered.

Find out more about the activists and campaigners who fought for civil rights and about the Disability Discrimination Act