Occasionally, a musician grappling with an injury can end up making a permanent impact on his or her field. Such was the case of Paul Wittgenstein, an Austrian pianist from a wealthy family (his younger brother was Ludwig, the philosopher) who lost his right arm in World War I. Undaunted, Wittgenstein started commissioning the most renowned composers of the day — including Benjamin Britten, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel and Richard Strauss — to write pieces for left-handed piano. Many of these works turned out to be such masterpieces that they entered the piano repertoire and are regularly played by two-handed pianists.
Richard Bidnick happens to be one. He’s not a concert pianist; the Pennsylvania-born New Jerseyite moved to Vermont in July to become the new director of the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier. But he began studying piano at age 11 and has continued to play. Bidnick is one of several pianists featured in a 2010 German-Austrian documentary about Wittgenstein, entitled All in One Hand: The Pianist Paul Wittgenstein, which he’ll screen at the library on November 28 and follow up with a talk.
Bidnick, speaking with impressive rapidity from his library-office phone, says he became interested in the left-handed repertoire in 2000. He had just bought a new grand piano, and a friend gave him a book on the art of piano that included a 1920s concerto by Sergei Bortkiewicz, written for Wittgenstein. At the time, there were no known recordings of the piece — that is, until Bidnick did some research and tracked down a copy of a 1950s radio recording in a German archive.
“It was amazing to hear,” Bidnick recalls. “It opened up the door.” Soon he was “scouring the archives” for recordings of and information about other left-handed works for piano. “Some of the composers had become forgotten,” he notes.
In 2004, Bidnick attended a Wittgenstein symposium in Berlin and met Wittgenstein’s daughter, Joan Ripley Wittgenstein, who lives in Virginia. The two discussed Joan’s idea for a biography of her father. But the librarian told her he was more interested in researching and playing left-handed music than in writing a book about Wittgenstein’s life. Bidnick made his music research available to Wittgenstein’s eventual biographer, and Joan mentioned Bidnick to the documentary film director as one of the world’s premier scholars of one-handed piano.
In the film, Bidnick is one of several pianists to demonstrate Wittgenstein’s innovative five-fingered techniques, including keyboard giants Leon Fleisher and Pierre Boulez. “You have to have such a strong back,” he comments on the challenge of playing one-handed. “When you see it, it’s kind of like, amazing.”
Participating in the film granted Bidnick the rights to screen it in the U.S. for educational purposes, which he has done several times so far in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
“It’s a film about someone turning a tragedy into great art. I consider Paul Wittgenstein to be a 20th-century musical hero because of that,” Bidnick says. The tragedy extended to the pianist’s status as half-Jewish, he adds: “Hitler took everything away from him.” The film, concludes the librarian, “has human drama, history, music — all of it.”
Screening of "All in One Hand: The Pianist Paul Wittgenstein" and talk by Richard Bidnick. Wednesday, November 28, 7 p.m. at Kellogg-Hubbard Library, Montpelier. kellogghubbard.org