Davidson College

Condescending Heroism: Paul Wittgenstein and the Reception of a One-Handed Pianist

by Peter Whitehouse

Prior to the First World War, Paul Wittgenstein was becoming Austria’s next great concert pianist, especially given his wealthy father’s connections to Brahms, Schumann, Strauss, Mahler, and Schoenberg. But tragically, Wittgenstein was wounded while serving in WWI and lost his right arm. All of a sudden, his potential career lay in jeopardy. Despite this tragedy, his determination, stubbornness, and family wealth led him to continue pursuing a career as a concert pianist when he returned home in 1915.

As disability scholar Neil Lerner observed, the term “pianist” assumes that the player has two functioning hands. As a result of this societal expectation, the now one-handed pianist Wittgenstein adopted a unique piano method, breaking apart chords in rapid succession: first, striking notes in the bass (often referred to as the left hand), then using pedal to create a sense of playing the whole chord simultaneously. But this method was ultimately ineffective, as it altered notated rhythm.

Portion of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand

In this recording of Wittgenstein playing Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, we can hear several inaccuracies, just his first few measures, with regards to pitch and tempo in the 3/4 section. These errors are made especially apparent when listening to this modern recording by the Liszt University Symphony Orchestra.

Despite this imprecise technique, he debuted a piano concerto for left hand by former instructor Joseph Labor (who himself was blind) to positive acclaim. To critics, Wittgenstein emerged as a hero in a battle against his disability, satisfying a heroic overcoming narrative. But as Blake Howe observes, the general public and critics actually admired the performance out of anxiety, as Wittgenstein’s playing was actually quite inaccurate. And by feeling the need to resolve this anxiety, the audience defaulted to a sense of relief; to them, Wittgenstein had heroically overcome his disability.

Greater than his desire to play with two-handed proficiency was Wittgenstein’s desired to play the star role. He was able to use his wealth to socially transcend his disability, and commission pieces from Europe’s best composers. However, these pieces were never quite to his liking. Wittgenstein often took orchestral melodies and put them in in the piano part, and demanded exclusive performance rights for commissioned pieces. He extensively edited Strauss’ Parergon and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, and flat-out rejected Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 4 in Bb minor, claiming he “did not understand it.”

As a result of poor performance and lack of professionalism, Wittgenstein’s critics soon turned sour. As biographer Robert Pelton reports, friend Trevor Harvey was critical of Wittgenstein’s insensitivity toward the score and his liberties (see figure 1). Even Wittgenstein’s own sister, Margaret, indicated that his playing had become much worse after he insisted on doing what she thought was impossible.

However, the pieces Wittgenstein attempted were not impossible. Musicologist Blake Howe notes that numerous pianists have followed Wittgenstein’s approach with far greater success. Even two-handed pianists, relying on a technique referred to as “cripping up” (i.e., when non-disabled actors pretend to have one), have found success with performances that Wittgenstein couldn’t manage. Whether or not a cripface practice is ethically sound will be a discussion for another time, but such contrasting performances beg the question: Did Paul Wittgenstein heroically overcome his disability, or did a heroic narrative just require him to do so?

Peter Whitehouse is a senior at Davidson College.

October is National Disability Employment Awareness Month in the U.S., established more than 70 years ago to celebrate the contributions of workers with disabilities. WDAV partnered with Davidson College students in Professor Neil Lerner’s seminar on music and disability studies to produce a blog series highlighting composers and performers with disabilities. This post is a part of that series. Be sure to check WDAV: Of Note for additional blog posts focusing on different artist.

Music, Composed by Brushstrokes

On November 11, 2014, Davidson College will host Arts Jubilee, a showcase of arts and crafts created by members of the college staff. Among the paintings in the show will be Mi Concierto, a work by Myelita Melton, associate producer of WDAV’s bilingual show Concierto and host of the station’s weekend programming. The work was inspired by her work with Concierto, and she offers insight into how her love for the arts crosses genre and medium while inspiring both.

Myelita Melton

Myelita Melton

WDAV: What inspired you to create “Mi Concierto”?
Melton: The music on Concierto evokes great memories from my adventures traveling in Latin America. After high school I lived with a family in Mexico and attended an instituto to learn Spanish. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to visit several Latin American countries, including Cuba. Mi Concierto is a reflection of the people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen, and the music I’ve enjoyed.

WDAV: Describe Mi Concierto’s style and the images you’ve selected.
Melton: Stylistically, Mi Concierto is a combination of Mexican folk art and French Impressionism with lots of added texture. I have filled it with iconography easily recognizable to Latinos, no matter where they come from. These include Concerto’s sun logo, along with religious icons like a “sacred heart” and a peace dove. In honor to the indigenous people of Latin America, I’ve placed a quetzal bird in the center. Its feathers were used in ceremonial headdresses. It still soars in the mountains of Central and South America. The quetzal perches on a conga drum above Quetzalcoatl, the mythical feathered serpent worshiped by the Maya centuries ago. Quetzalcoatl is carved on pyramids in Yucatan. Lastly, the musical images represent the wide spectrum of musical genres Concierto features.

WDAV: Describe some of the important imagery in Mi Concierto.
Melton: That’s the calla lily. It comes in all colors and is found throughout the Americas. It’s often included in paintings by Latin American artists. For me, it’s a very personal image because of a shop keeper in Costa Rica who gave me a long-stemmed, white one at the terrifying summit of Sierra de los Muertos (Hill of the Dead) when I was there in 2007.

WDAV: Do you listen to music while you paint?
Melton: Of course! If the painting is vibrant, I’ll choose something up tempo like mambo, samba, or salsa, but if the piece is somber, I’ll select something from the Romantic era.

WDAV: When did you begin painting?
Melton: I have always been an artist. My family says I started entertaining before I could crawl. When I was little I loved to draw! My favorite thing was a big box of 54 Crayola crayons that came with a sharpener on box. Back then a new set of crayons gave me a kick, now I get the same thrill from new paint brushes.
My artistic adventure is unusually comprehensive. My early experience in theater propelled me into recording. Producing a documentary film in 1990 and operating a cable ad company enabled me to develop artistically as a videographer, editor, photographer and copywriter. Those talents and speaking Spanish became my springboard to jobs in television news and radio. But my creative drive doesn’t stop there. Since 2000, I have written and published a series of 13 industry-specific Spanish books. Even though I’ve only been painting for a couple of years, I think it’s a natural progression in my “all-inclusive” artistic journey.

WDAV: What Paintings Are You Exhibiting in the “Arts Jubilee”?
Four of my paintings are in the exhibit: Appassionata, Árbol de Vita (Tree of Life), Damaged Goods, and Mi Concierto.

Event Information:
November 11 2014, 4:30 pm – 6:00 pm
Chambers Lilly Family Gallery
Davidson College

Davidson College Conducting Class Takes Center Stage

Tara Villa Keith

Davidson Music Professor and Orchestra Director Tara Villa Keith

Davidson Music Professor and Orchestra Director Tara Villa Keith recently passed the baton – literally – to the students in her spring conducting class. As the culmination of the semester-long class, the students directed the Davidson College Orchestra for a special public performance in the Duke Family Performance Hall, leading the roughly 50-member ensemble in performing repertoire from Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Grieg’s Norweigan Dances and Peer Gynt, and Vaughan Williams’s English Folk Song Suite.”

Read entire story on Davidson College’s website.

Davidson College Receives $45 Million Investment – Largest Gift Ever!

Davidson College is excited to announce the largest gift in its history: a $45 million grant from The Duke Endowment to transform the academic heart of its campus.

Beginning in 2013 with a comprehensive construction/renovation plan for six academic buildings, and continuing with new opportunities for curricular expansion, Davidson is embarking – thanks to the generous investment of The Duke Endowment – on a 10-year plan to remake the model of liberal arts education.

The new academic neighborhood configuration will provide for increased opportunities for collaboration with outside businesses, organizations, and universities, significantly enhancing Davidson’s already considerable program of undergraduate research.

“Davidson graduates lead and serve in an increasingly interconnected, rapidly changing world,” explains Davidson College president Carol Quillen. “To stay ahead of these changes, we need to shift how we work, both physically and intellectually. This bold campus plan will enable our exceptional faculty to create a curriculum centered on students doing original work. It will support our dedicated staff as they help students build bridges between learning and life. The Duke Endowment understands the opportunities that our changing world offers, and we cannot thank the Trustees enough for endorsing Davidson’s vision.”

“The founder of The Duke Endowment, James B. Duke, was a visionary in business matters and in philanthropy and I believe he would have taken delight in this historic grant,” says Minor Shaw, chair of the Endowment’s Trustees. “The Trustees of The Duke Endowment wanted to support Davidson’s plan as a testament to our strong belief in the college, its leadership, faculty and staff, and student body.”

The Duke Endowment’s gift will enable Davidson to restructure the main academic portion of its campus to create learning spaces that foster new methods of interdisciplinary learning. Six buildings will be expanded, renovated or constructed over the next decade to create a “neighborhood” with flexible spaces and common areas that encourage the exchange and generation of ideas across conventional academic boundaries—between departments, between disciplines, and between the arts and sciences.

Faculty and staff will be grouped in these facilities by the resources they need and their potential interactions with others. Community and flexible spaces such as a café, artist studios, learning labs, shared equipment, and computational facilities will be situated to promote interactions among all members of the campus community.

Clark G. Ross, Davidson College Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty adds: “President Quillen has shown extraordinary academic foresight in working with the faculty to develop this exciting and ambitious initiative. With this creative interdisciplinary project, Davidson should be an academic beacon among the liberal arts colleges. The Duke Endowment gift helps demonstrate the exciting potential before us.”

The new neighborhood configuration will provide for increased opportunities for collaboration with outside businesses, organizations, and universities, significantly enhancing Davidson’s already considerable program of undergraduate research.

“This gift will help us demonstrate the inestimable value of what highly selective liberal arts colleges do—graduate talented individuals from across the socio-economic spectrum who exert a disproportionate impact for good in the world,” says President Quillen.

Visit http://www.davidson.edu/davidsongift/ for more details!

WDAV Says Goodbye to Beloved Colleague and Friend Ruskin Cooper.

On Wednesday, July 18, Davidson lost a kindhearted and talented member of its community. Ruskin Cooper, Artist Associate for piano at Davidson College, passed away peacefully among his family after losing consciousness due to cardiac arrest.

To honor our friend, WDAV will be playing two of Ruskin’s own recordings in tribute:

Graceful Ghost Rag, by William Bolcom on Friday 7/20/12  at 4:53pm                      Rhapsody in Blue, by George Gershwin on Saturday 7/21/12 at 11am

Please join us in honoring this wonderful man. Ruskin will be greatly missed, and our condolences go out to his family.

To learn more about Ruskin’s many accomplishments and how to pay tribute to him yourself, check out this article from the Winston Salem Journal.

Students Tour the WDAV Studio

Clara H. Jones Summer Institute student

By: Kali Blevins, WDAV Fellow

 On Friday, July 6, WDAV opened its doors to some special guests. Invited by board member Andrew Adair to tour the station, thirty-eight ten to fourteen-year-olds from the Clara H. Jones Summer Institute – a six-week program that focuses on improving fine arts skills as well as increasing reading, math, and science competency – filed into our conference room in matching turquois T-shirts. After a brief introduction by General Manager Scott Nolan, the group split in half – the boys starting with a presentation on radio and classical music while the girls explored the station. With most of the WDAV staff off at Brevard Music Center to record performances for our SummerStages program, this visit brought welcome activity to what would have been an oddly quiet Friday morning. And we were ready to record this excitement in every form of media possible. You can hear New Media Assistant George Marshall’s audio adventures with the kids here.

With pen and paper in hand – someone had to do some old school reporting – I tagged along with the seventh and eighth-grade girls on a tour led by WDAV staff member Sarah Demarest. Our first stop was the Music Library, which houses thousands upon thousands of CDs. “Does anyone have this many CDs at home?” Sarah asked as the group gazed at the station’s music collection. Then Sarah joked, “Does this age still know what CDs are?” She does make a good point. Even here at WDAV, we are almost entirely digitalized; our Music Library exists only for backup. Welcome to the twenty-first century.

Students look at pictures of previous WDAV special guests

Our next stop was a soundproof editing/production studio. One student tried her hand at opening the studio door, a task harder than it looks. After putting her full weight on the door (and using her foot for some extra leverage), she was able to release the airtight seal, and the door opened. We filed into the room as Sarah began to explain a bit about the audio editing process. The girls listened, wide-eyed and curious.

“This is the same kind of soundboard you would use if you were a producer making music,” added one of the Institute’s chaperones when Sarah had finished speaking. “So, if you saw Let it Shine [the latest Disney Channel original movie] and saw him working, this is the same kind of thing.” The room filled with an animated chorus of “ohhhh.” In an inspiring moment of teaching, the chaperone made a connection the girls could easily understand. Suddenly, the world of classical music no longer seemed so far removed from that of pop music.

Michael Muchane performing for the students

Moments later, my tour group met the fifth and sixth-grade girls – they had been doing the same tour backwards – in front of the performance studio. Patiently waiting at the studio’s piano was rising tenth-grader Michael Muchane. Michael has been playing the piano since age seven. He has competed in local and state competitions, performed large scale recitals, won several awards, and has volunteered his time to play in churches and nursing homes. And luckily for us, he was prepared to give a quick concert. Hear Michael play his three pieces by clicking the links below.

Sonata in D Major by Joseph Haydn
Scotch Poem by Edward MacDowell
The Harp Prelude by Sergei Prokofiev

We had one more stop left on our tour of the radio station: the broadcast studio. Unfortunately, we had no live announcers around – meaning no opportunity to see the red “on air” sign light up – but the discussion of how the automation system runs the station sparked some discussion. One student asked a question that has likely been on every radio listener’s mind: “What if someone messes up? Can they stop it or redo it?” The short answer is no. Live announcers don’t get a second go-around. Despite the five-second delay in the radio transmission, as Sarah put it, “what [the announcers] say is for everyone to hear.”

Student examines the sound board in the broadcast studio

With the tour complete, I followed the girls into the conference room from which the boys had just emerged. Once all twenty-some girls had settled into their chairs, Peter Browne, a WDAV board member, began his presentation, which was complete with props and a PowerPoint. Peter started by ringing a hotel desk-sized bell.

.  The group then climbed back on to their bus, collected their complimentary bags of WDAV goodies, and drove back home to Charlotte.

My tour group with Michael in the Clark Performance Studio at WDAV

*Interested in having your students tour the WDAV studio?                                        Give us a call at (877)333-8990.

Davidson Receives $25 Million for Davidson Trust

Davidson College, WDAV’s licensee, has announced it will receive $25 million from Edward L. “Ted” Baker for The Davidson Trust which provides assistance to students for whom a Davidson education would not otherwise be financially feasible. Davidson is committed to meeting 100 % of admitted students’ demonstrated need with grants and student employment instead of loans, and this gift, the second largest in the college’s history, significantly furthers that ambition. Congratulations Davidson College, and thanks to Ted baker for his extraodinary generosity. Read more at the Davidson College Web site.