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
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
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.