Composers Datebook®

The leftist Britten

Composers Datebook - Jan. 16, 2024


Coming of age in the first half of the 20th century were two exceptionally talented children of the wealthy Austrian steel magnate Karl Wittgenstein: Ludwig Wittgenstein became a famous philosopher and Paul Wittgenstein a concert pianist.

Paul served in the Austrian army in World War I, and, for a concert pianist, suffered a horrific injury: the loss of his right arm. Undaunted, he rebuilt his career by commissioning and performing works for piano left-hand. The family fortune enabled him to commission the leading composers of his day, including Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel and Sergei Prokofiev.

Unfortunately, even the Wittgenstein fortune couldn’t protect the family from the racial laws of Nazi Germany, given the family’s Jewish heritage. In 1938, he left for the United States after Austria’s Anschluss with the German Reich.

In America, he commissioned a concert work from young British expatriate Benjamin Britten, also living in America at the time, and gave the premiere performance of Britten’s Diversions for piano left-hand and orchestra on today’s date in 1942, with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy. Wittgenstein later confessed that of all his commissions, Britten’s work came the closest to fulfilling his needs and wishes.

Music Played in Today's Program

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) Diversions; Peter Donohoe, piano; City of Birmingham Symphony; Simon Rattle, cond. EMI 54270

On This Day


  • 1728 - Italian opera composer Niccoló Piccinni, in Bari;

  • 1905 - Spanish composer Ernesto Halffter, in Madrid;

  • 1934 - American composer Richard Wernick, in Boston, Massachusetts;

  • 1943 - English composer Gavin Bryars, in Goole, Yorkshire;

  • 1943 - English composer Brian Ferneyhough, in Coventry;


  • 1886 - Italian opera composer Amilcare Ponchielli, age 51, in Milan;

  • 1891 - French ballet composer Leo Delibes, age 54, in Paris;

  • 1957 - Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, age 89, in New York;

  • 1969 - Russian-born American composer and songwriter Vernon Duke (Vladimir Dukelsky), age 65, in Santa Monica, Calif,;


  • 1724 - Bach: Sacred Cantata No. 155 ("Mein Gott, wie lang, ach lange") performed on the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany as part of Bach's first annual Sacred Cantata cycle in Leipzig (1723/24);

  • 1739 - Handel: oratorio, "Saul," in London at the King's Theater in the Haymarket (Gregorian date: Jan. 27);

  • 1745 - Handel: musical drama "Hercules" (Julian date: Jan. 5);

  • 1800 - Cherubini: opera "Les deux journées," in Paris at the Théatre Feydeau;

  • 1869 - Borodin: Symphony No. 1, in St. Petersburg (Julian date: Jan. 4);

  • 1876 - Tchaikovsky: "Serenade mélancolique,"in Moscow (Gregorian date: Jan. 28);

  • 1905 - d'Albert: opera "Tiefland" (The Lowlands) (2nd version), in Magdeburg at the Stadttheater;

  • 1916 - Prokofiev: "Scythian" Suite (Gregorian date: Jan. 29);

  • 1933 - Miaskovsky: Symphony No. 11, in Moscow;

  • 1936 - Frank Bridge: "Ovation (Concerto elegiaco)" for Cello and Orchestra, in London, by the BBC Symphony conducted by the composer, with Florence Hooton the soloist;

  • 1942 - Britten: "Diversions on a Theme" for Piano Left Hand, by pianist Paul Wittgenstein, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting;

  • 1969 - Babbitt: "Relata II," by the New York Philharmonic, with Leonard Bernstein conducting;

  • 1983 - Daniel Asia: "Why (?) Jacob" for piano, by Sanford Margolis;

  • 1997 - Esa-Pekka Salonen: "L.A. Variations" for orchestra, by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with the composer conducting.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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