Again on the train, and again heading west. This time it’s Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961) I follow. As briefly described earlier, Wittgenstein was a Vienna-born pianist. He was the offspring of one of the richest Austrian families and among his siblings were, for instance, Margarethe Stonborough-Wittgenstein, known for her commitment to promoting the arts, and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The habitus of patronizing the arts, especially music, was certainly a trait Paul inherited from this background. But he also wanted to be on stage himself. Although his father originally intended otherwise, Paul followed his ambition to become a professional pianist and began giving successful concerts shortly before the outbreak of World War I.
Alas, Wittgenstein enlisted in the Austrian army and sustained a serious injury that resulted in his right arm having to be amputated. After returning home, however, he did not give up his musical career. He collected all the left-hand repertoire he encountered; he arranged compositions by Brahms, Liszt, and others to suit his needs; and he asked the famous composers of his time to write new pieces for him, among them Hindemith, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Richard Strauss (1864-1949) – the reason why I spent a few days in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria, where the composer had owned a beautiful villa, first for the summers and eventually as his main residence.
Strauss and Wittgenstein had known each other since the latter’s childhood, when Strauss was a frequent guest at the legendary Wittgenstein Palais on (former) Alleegasse (now Argentinierstraße) in Vienna. Allegedly, they even regularly played piano four-hands together.
In 1924, Wittgenstein approached the composer with a request for a piano concerto for the left hand only. At that time, Strauss had just completed his autobiographical opera Intermezzo, and his own life also provided the musical idea for the piano concerto now to be written. With the title of the new piece, Parergon zur Symphonia domestica (op. 73), he referred to his op. 53, in which in 1902/03 he had depicted his family life, father, mother, and son each represented by their own musical theme. More than twenty years later, now it was the son’s theme around which this “addition” or “supplement” to the symphony centered. Strauss’ son Franz had just recovered from typhus – from illness to recovery is the central narrative of Parergon. Strauss dated the score 27 January 1925, and Wittgenstein (although himself not entirely pleased with the outcome of his commission) successfully premiered the piece on 10 June the same year in Dresden with Fritz Busch and the Berlin Philharmonic.
About a year later, in spring 1926, Strauss again took on the challenge of writing a large-scale piano piece for left hand only and offered this idea to Wittgenstein, who gladly accepted this opportunity. Panathenäenzug (op. 74) was completed on 14 February 1927 and for the first time performed by Wittgenstein with Bruno Walter and again the Berlin Philharmonic in Berlin in January the following year. For this composition, Strauss, who at the same time was working on the opera Die Ägyptische Helena, took on an ancient Greek subject: the festive procession depicted on the frieze surrounding the Parthenon in Athens.
After its unsuccessful premiere, Panathenäenzug was largely forgotten until the performances by the German pianist Kurt Leimer in the 1940s. As musicologist Antonio Baldassarre (2011) points out, Strauss was tremendously enthusiastic about Leimer’s playing. A recording of Leimer playing Panathenäenzug is available on YouTube.
Strauss’ autograph scores, sketches, and correspondence (and much more…) are still in his family’s possession today and indeed kept in his impressive villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The colleagues at the Richard Strauss Institute are gradually working through these documents and support research on Strauss and his music. With permission of the Strauss family, I not only gained insight into Strauss’ Garmisch residence (a true time capsule), but also access to a number of primary sources, such as letters from Wittgenstein and manuscripts of the two compositions. The institute also has an extensive and well-stocked library specializing in Strauss and related topics. My stay there was a great opportunity to delve deeply into the subject matter, with a panoramic view over the Bavarian mountains.
Research on the collaboration between Wittgenstein and Strauss is presented in:
- Antonio Baldassarre: “Ein längerer Blick ins Raritätenkabinett der Musikgeschichte: Richard Strauss’ Panathenäenzug op. 75 und Kurt Leimer,” in: Music – Space – Chord – Image: Festschrift for Dorothea Baumann’s 65th Birthday, ed. by Idem and Debra Pring, Bern: Peter Lang, 2011, 399-421.
- Carmen Ottner (ed.): Das Klavierkonzert in Österreich und Deutschland von 1900 – 1945: (Schwerpunkt: Werke für Paul Wittgenstein); Symposion 2007, Wien: Doblinger, 2009.
- Irene Suchy, Allan Janik, and Georg Predota (eds.): Empty Sleeve. Der Musiker und Mäzen Paul Wittgenstein, (Edition Brenner-Forum, 3), Innsbruck et al.: StudienVerlag, 2006.
- Walter Werbeck: “Richard Strauss und Paul Wittgenstein. Zu den Klavierkonzerten für die linke Hand ‘Parergon zur Symphonia domestica’ op. 73 und ‘Panathenäenzug’ op. 74,” in: Österreichische Musikzeitschrift 7-8 (1999), 16-25.
Also, the story of Wittgenstein has inspired some novelists:
- John Barchilon: The Crown Prince (1984)
- Lea Singer: Konzert für die linke Hand (2008)