The House of Wittgenstein: A Family At War
They are all absolutely mental, and quite possibly none of them were ever happy. It tapers off towards the end, as the Wittgensteins themselves do likewise. Alexander Waugh. The Wittgenstein family was one of the richest, most talented and most eccentric in European history. The domineering paternal influence of Karl Wittgenstein left his eight children fraught by inner antagonisms and nervous tension.
Three of his sons committed suicide; Paul, the fourth, became a world-famous concert pianist using only his left hand , while Ludwig, the youngest, is now regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century. But Karl insisted that he follow a career in industry or finance. Rudi and Ludwig were homosexual, and Hans may have been, too. There the parallels end.
A Nervous Splendor
Thomas Mann traced the decline of the Buddenbrooks through four generations, but the Wittgensteins rose and fell within the span of two. Karl more or less built the family fortune himself. He was no stolid merchant but an audacious risk-taker, and something of a rebel in early life. At the age of seventeen, he absconded to New York, where he arrived in the spring of with a violin and no money.
The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War by Alexander Waugh | Books | The Guardian
He worked as a waiter, then, among other things, he played in a minstrel band, a gig that came to an abrupt end when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a theatre and musical performances were banned. Karl was too ashamed to write to his family or answer their letters. It was only when he got a steady job as a teacher at a college in upstate New York that he recovered enough pride to agree to return. His father was a land agent and a trader, and at first Karl was put to work on one of his rented farms.
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After dropping out, he took a series of engineering jobs. Energy and intelligence got him into management, audacious deal-making took him higher, and some capital from his wife he married in provided the first grains of powder for an explosive entrepreneurial rampage.
Waugh says that Karl Wittgenstein was a chancer, whose enormous fortune owed as much to the favorable outcomes of his gambles as to his hard work and his skills. That is implausible; nobody has quite such a consistent run of good luck. Karl was adept at swinging the odds in his own favor, and he knew exactly which chances to take—in particular, he appreciated the significance of technology more keenly than his competitors did. Newspaper articles by Karl Wittgenstein show that he believed in unfettered capitalism though not in free trade and was opposed to any legislation aimed at protecting consumers from cartels or fraud.
Such laws, in his opinion, would interfere with the crucial work of vigorous entrepreneurs, who would ultimately raise the standard of living for everybody. An early master of the leveraged buyout, he no doubt cut some corners while assembling his ingeniously integrated empire of mines, iron- and steelworks, and hardware factories. He certainly reaped the benefits of monopoly wherever he could find them. Karl was no philanthropist on the scale of his American friend Andrew Carnegie.
Brahms was a family friend. Richard Strauss came and performed duets with the young Paul. Music was more than entertainment for the Wittgensteins, though, and more than art. For one thing, it became a store of value. Pages from the Wittgenstein collection of autographed musical manuscripts flutter through this wonderfully told story. Music was also, Waugh writes, the only effective way in which the Wittgenstein children could communicate with their shy, nervous, and intensely musical mother.
And music provided consolation and distraction from the tragedies of the family, about which they were mostly required to remain silent. Sometime in , Hans fled from his father and went to America, much as his own father had done thirty-six years earlier. In , he disappeared, by most accounts, from a boat, which may have been in the Chesapeake Bay, perhaps on the Orinoco River in Venezuela, or in several other places. Wherever it was, no one doubted that he had committed suicide. Rudi was a twenty-two-year-old chemistry student in Berlin when he walked into a bar on a May evening in , requested a sentimental song from the pianist, and then mixed potassium cyanide into a glass of milk and died in agony.
The suicide note left for his parents said that he had been grieving over the death of a friend.
The House of Wittgenstein
A more likely explanation is that he thought he was identifiable as the subject of a published case study about homosexuality. Waugh thinks that this enforced silence, which the dutiful Mrs. Wittgenstein supported, created a permanent rift between parents and children. Perhaps it was because Paul, after he lost his right arm, had the most tangible affliction in the family that he found the focus to remake himself. His determination to succeed on the concert stage was, in part, inspired by the example of Josef Labor, a blind organist and composer who was a favorite of the Wittgenstein family.
Paul worked furiously and ingeniously to develop techniques that would enable him to perform.
THE HOUSE OF WITTGENSTEIN: A Family At War by Alexander Waugh (Bloomsbury, £20)
The training began while he was still recovering from the amputation in a Russian prison hospital, tapping on a dummy keyboard that he had etched in charcoal on a crate. Later, on a real piano, he often practiced for up to seven hours at a sitting. He made few recordings, and Waugh, who is also a composer and a music critic, remarks that most of them are bad. His most lasting significance comes from having commissioned one-handed works from at least a dozen composers, including Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Benjamin Britten, Paul Hindemith, and Maurice Ravel, whose Piano Concerto for the Left Hand remains widely performed.
Strauss extracted a particularly large fee, and Britten, at least, affected to be in it just for the money.
In , Siegfried Rapp, a pianist who had lost his right arm in the Second World War, asked for permission to perform some of these works, many of which had been written a quarter of a century earlier. Paul usually bought exclusive performing rights for his commissions, and he said no. He even felt betrayed by composers who wanted to rearrange his commissions to produce two-handed versions.
Russell later grew less indulgent toward his erstwhile pupil, but he had identified a family characteristic: when they believed that an important principle was at stake—which, for them, was often—the Wittgensteins were not inclined to be nice. He was a fiercely private man who liked to book entire railway carriages for himself, even when travelling with his family. His wife, Hilde, who was half blind and had been his pupil, bore him two children in Vienna before their marriage; the elder child had been conceived shortly after their first piano lesson, when Hilde was eighteen years old and Paul was forty-seven.
When his wife and children arrived in the United States, in , he set them up in a house on Long Island, which he visited on weekends from his apartment on Riverside Drive. Arriving in New York without a valet, he soon ran into trouble.