The noted Austrian-born American pianist, Paul Wittgenstein, was born to the industrialist Karl Wittgenstein. Two years later, his brother, the future philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was born. The household was frequently visited by prominent cultural figures, amongst them the composers Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, with whom the young Paul played duets. Paul studied with Malvine Bree and later with a much better known figure, the Polish virtuoso Theodor Leschetizky. He made his public debut in 1913 and some favourable reviews were written about him. The following year, however, World War I broke out, and he was called up for military service. He was wounded and captured by Russia during an assault on Poland, and his right arm had to be amputated. During his recovery, he resolved to continue his piano playing career using only his left hand.
Following the end of the war, Paul Wittgenstein put this plan into action, studying intensely, arranging pieces for the left hand alone and learning new pieces composed for him by his old teacher Josef Labor (who was blind). Once again he began to give concerts, and became well known and loved. He then approached more famous composers, asking them to write works for him to perform. Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Schmidt, and Richard Strauss all produced pieces for him. Maurice Ravel wrote his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, which became more famous than any of the other compositions that Wittgenstein inspired. Sergei Prokofiev also wrote a concerto for him, his fourth; but Wittgenstein said that he did not understand the piece, and he never played it publicly. Many of the pieces that Wittgenstein commissioned are still frequently performed today by two-armed pianists; in particular, the Austrian pianist Friedrich Wührer, claiming the composer's sanction but apparently over Wittgenstein's objections, created two-hand arrangements of Franz Schmidt's Wittgenstein-inspired left-hand works Pianists born after Wittgenstein who for one reason or another have lost the use of their right hands, such as Leon Fleisher and João Carlos Martins, have also played works composed for him.
The Wittgenstein family had converted to Christianity three generations before his birth on the paternal side and two generations before on the maternal side; nonetheless they were of mainly Jewish descent, and under the Nuremberg laws they were classed as Jews. Following the rise of the Nazi Party and the annexation of Austria, Paul tried to persuade his sisters Helene and Hermine to leave Vienna, but they demurred: they were attached to their homes there, and could not believe such a distinguished family as theirs was in real danger. Ludwig had already been living in England for some years, and Margarete (Gretl) was married to an American. Paul himself, who was no longer permitted to perform in public concerts under the Nazis, departed for the United States in 1938. From there he and Gretl, with some assistance from Ludwig (who acquired British nationality in 1939), managed to use family finances (mostly held abroad) and legal connections to attain non-Jewish status for their sisters.
Paul Wittgenstein appeared in the major musical centers in Europe; toured America in 1934. In 1938, he settled in New York, and became a naturalized American citizen in 1946. He spent the rest of his life in the USA, where he did a good deal of teaching as well as playing. He taught privately in New York (1938-1960), and also at the Ralph Wolfe Conservatory in New Rochelle (1938-1943), and at Manhananville College of the Sacred Heart (1940-1945). John Barchilon's novel The Crown Prince (1984) is based on his career.