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The Lebrecht Weekly

 

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


Richly miserable

By Norman Lebrecht / September 1, 2008


The Wittgensteins of Vienna would make a marvellous television soap. Of the nine children of steel magnate Karl, the youngest emerged as a great philosopher, his elder brother played left-hand piano and a sister was one of the most famous faces on canvas.

Of the rest, three committed suicide, one died in infancy and two lived blameless lives. By midpoint, none of the survivors were speaking to the others, as is so often the case in families with unearned wealth. And then came the nuns and the Nazis. Maybe it’s a musical.

Karl, the sixth child of Jewish parents who converted to Cristianuty, slipped away to American in his teens and wound up working as a bouncer in a jazz bar. Back home, he married a nice Jewish girl and set up a failed steel mill in business with the new Russian railways. The fortune he made was worth several hundred million dollars in today’s terms, enough to build him a palace off the Ringstrasse with a salon where Brahms played his latest bits and pieces.

Karl was typically feared by his children, none of whom fulfilled his expectations. The oldest son, Hans, went missing in America, presumed dead. The next, Rudi, poisoned himself with potassium cyanide in a Berlin bar, apparently fearing exposure as a homosexual. A third brother shot himself on the Italian front at the end of the First World War. Not a happy lot, the Wittgensteins, nor sexually secure.

Margaret, a sister, is the subject of one of Klimt’s most celebrated portraits, which she hated because it did not show her best side (you can find it in any poster shop). She married an American Jew, Jerome Steinberger, who called himself Stonborough, and lived with him in frigid misery.

Paul, the penultimate brother, had his right arm shot off in the early days of the First War, was carted around Russian prisoner camps in unspeakable conditions, and returned to make a name for himself as a one-armed pianist, playing works that he commissioned from Richard Strauss, Ravel, Prokofiev, Franz Schmidt and Britten, among others. He kept mistresses in squalid cottages, forcing one of them to have an abortion, from which she died.

Ludwig, the youngest, shared a classroom in Linz with Adolf Hitler before going to Cambridge where Bertie Russell acclaimed him as ‘perhaps the most perfect example I have ever known of genius as traditionally conceived, passionate, profound, intense and dominating.’ Ludwig published one book, the Tractatus Logicus, and pursued guilt-ridden relationships with bright young men. He gave away all his money to his brothers and sisters but found no contentment in genteel poverty.

When the Nazis rolled into Vienna, the Wittgensteins went to such lengths to deny their Jewish antecedents that they sought to convict Karl’s father of bastardy in the hope he might have given them ‘pure’ blood. The Nazis skinned the saps of much of their fortune, leaving Paul and Margaret to grumble to death in America, while Ludwig fought poker duels in Cambridge common rooms.

Their untold saga is related with infectious relish and a degree of Schadenfreude by Alexander Waugh, once a music critic on this paper. Plundering a trove of family correspondence, Waugh leaves his characters with few redeeming features – even their charitable gifts are somehow compromised – but the Wittgensteins are compellingly recognisable as the nouveaux riches of our own times.

Waugh gives inadequate account of Ludwig’s philosophical breakthrough, and of the relative merits of Paul’s commissions, none of which except the Ravel and Prokofiev are works you’d want to hear twice (I heard the Schmidt left-hand concerto in Vienna some months ago and prayed for it to end). Waugh exhibits a cloth ear for Viennese anti-semitism and for the nuanced self-loathing of Christian Jews. These deficiencies, though, do not derail a work of real discovery and rollicking narrative. This is a memorable biography, not to be missed.

Alexander Waugh: The House of Wittgenstein Bloomsbury 20

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


 

 

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