When Maurice Ravel lost faith in Wittgenstein

When Maurice Ravel lost faith in Wittgenstein


norman lebrecht

April 24, 2016

The wealthy one-armed pianist Paul Wittgenstein commissioned left-hand concertos from numerous composers, among them Prokofiev, Strauss, Schmidt and Britten. The most successful was by Maurice Ravel but the composer (below) was reported to be dissatisfied with the performance.

maurice ravel smoking



Listen to this 1937 recording and you can see why.

Especially at 1:40 –>; 2:55 – 3:10; 11:10 –> 11:30

Fascinating stuff.


  • Adam Stern says:

    Painful. The (many) wrong notes aren’t nearly as distressing as the frequent re-writes of the solo part. I read once that at their first meeting to go through the piece, Ravel had to keep telling Wittgenstein to stick to the score because of his many deviations from it. After many such admonitions, Wittgenstein said, “What’s your problem? Performers aren’t slaves!” Ravel responded icily, “Performers ARE slaves.” If Wittgenstein was subjecting Ravel’s text to the sort of nonsense recorded here, I fully endorse Ravel’s retort.

    • CDH says:

      But when Gabriela Montero does it is called improvisation and for some obscure reason approved? I had the chance to hear her play some Mozart (or her variation thereof) recently. I passed, as I am not interested in her composition till she writes a piece and puts her name to it.

      • MacroV says:

        Montero improvises music, often based on certain pieces or compositional styles. I’m not aware of her making wholesale changes in a printed text in a performance, which is what Wittgenstein was doing to Ravel’s concerto, perhaps because he couldn’t play it the way Ravel wrote it. Surely the difference is clear?

        • Adam Stern says:

          Dear Macrov, Wittgenstein’s revisions aren’t simplifications; in most cases they are showy add-ons to what’s already there (e.g., extra flourishes and glissandi). Perhaps if he had practiced what WAS in the text and hadn’t been so concerned with putting his own stamp on it, we’d have had an admirable document to savor.
          Best regards, Adam

        • CDH says:

          Not to me. A programme note in the write-up advertising Montero’s appearance said she would be improvising on Mozart’s Piano Concerto whatever. (I forget, because as soon as I saw that word, I was on to an alternative choice). Not exactly a “slave” if she is “doing it her way.” I don’t care what she does at late-night gigs or jams — it is doubtless very clever and entertaining — but at a serious full-bore concert, I am not interested.

          May be different from someone who just can’t play what’s put in front of hi, though it reads as if PW just wanted to add his own flourishes — too. End result: junk music. He’s gone, but while I understand Montero is an able pianist, I would rather hear that ability put to the test of playing a piece as it was meant to be played, not how she “improvises” it — which by definition would suggest it would depend upon her mood. I am not interested in her moods.

    • NYMike says:

      A broom and dustpan needed under the piano…..

  • John Borstlap says:

    It’s just very bad piano playing.

    The piano part is very difficult, both technically and in terms of expression. Keeping to the score is already a superhuman challenge let alone producing a good performance.

    Keeping too precisely to the score in a rhythmic sense, can result in a stiff performance, which isn’t good either. This is a problem with all music by Ravel: you have to ‘do’ something with the text but exactly what?

    A recording of this concerto which keeps very close to the score but takes a few very small freedoms, is the one by Samson François who does indeed capture the sublime nature of the music:


  • Malcolm Kottler says:

    If anyone wants to read details about the back-and-forth between Ravel and Wittgenstein over several years, read Alexander Waugh, The House of Wittgenstein, a Family at War, pp. 171-178.

  • JimP says:

    I thought this would be about Ludwig Wittgenstein.

    • William Safford says:

      Immanuel Kant was a real pissant
      Who was very rarely stable.
      Heidegger, Heidegger was a boozy beggar
      Who could think you under the table.
      David Hume could out-consume
      Schopenhauer and Hegel,
      And Wittgenstein was a beery swine
      Who was just as sloshed as Schlegel.

      –Monty Python – The Philosophers Song

      Yup, we’re talking about Ludwig’s brother.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Ludwig W. composed only about 20 seconds of music for string quartet, and then he stopped abruptly. Probably he had by then solved all musical questions in his mind, and thus composing a complete piece was not worth the effort.

  • Adam Stern says:

    A one-armed pianist named Paul
    Had the brazenness, chutzpah and gall
    To trash one of Maurice’s
    Most glorious pieces.
    Apologies made? Bugger all.

  • Hilary says:

    The contrabasson at the start is very insecure as well.

    • William Safford says:

      I noticed that as well. It sounds as if he breathed after every two notes. Did he have pneumonia?

      • William Safford says:

        Or, to be fair, he may have been playing as loudly as he could, so as to be able to be heard with the recording equipment of the time. Contrabassoons don’t project very well.