Monday, June 23, 2014

Garrincha (1933–1983)

"a phenomenon, capable of sheer magic. It was difficult to know which way he was going to go because of his legs and because he was as comfortable on his left foot as his right, so he could cut inside or go down the line and he had a ferocious shot too." (Mel Hopkins, Wales full back)

Manuel Francisco dos Santos was born in Pau Grande, Brazil, in total poverty, the grandson of slaves.  He was barely educated, and went on to lead a fairly disastrous life, dying of alcoholism before his fiftieth birthday.  The one thing he could do was play football.  Dribbling, corners, free kicks, people asked whether he was from another planet, such were his skills.  He could even head the ball, despite his shortness.  On four separate occasions in his career, he scored direct from a corner.  With Pele, he was probably the greatest soccer player that Brazil has ever known, and he even has a soccer stadium named after him.   And he was born disabled.

It was his sister who named him Garrincha, after he was born with a deformed spine and a left leg six centimeters shorter than his right: he was always small for his age, and his right leg bent outwards and his left leg bent inwards.  To fans, he was known as Alegria do Povo, “joy of the people” or Anjo de Pernas Tortas, “angel with bent legs”.  And it was watching Garrincha that fans first started chanting “Ole”, the bullfighting cry, as he feinted and tricked defenders with those extraordinary and unpredictable legs.
He was 20 when he joined Botafogo, scoring a hat trick in his first team debut.   Before that, he had been playing for his factory team.  He went on to score 232 goals in 581 matches during his twelve years playing for the club.  

He didn’t play in the 1954 World Cup.  But his reputation for extraordinary dribbling meant that he was in the squad for the next competition, held in Sweden in 1958: he played with a 17 year old named Pelé, and Brazil went on to win its first World Cup.  Brazil would never lose a match with both Pelé and Garrincha on the team.

Four years later in Chile, Pelé was injured early, and so Garrincha got the solo glory, knocking out England with two goals in the quarters and repeating his feat against Chile in the semis.  The British press described him as "Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney and a snake charmer all rolled into one."  Again, Brazil won the Cup, and Garrincha was named best player of the tournament, and won the Golden Boot as leading goalscorer.  He also got the girl, as a glamorous samba singer entered the team dressing room after the match to embrace him in the shower (she would later become wife number two).  
In 1966, luckily for England, Garrincha had problems with his knee, and Brazil lost to Hungary – his only defeat in 55 internationals.

Off the pitch, Garrincha partied as hard as he played.  He is said to have lost his virginity aged 12, to a goat.  Later he drove over his father while drunk.  The father was also a drunk, and cachaca was Garrincha’s undoing too.  Women were often the casualties, including the mother-in-law whom he killed in a drunken car accident in 1969, and her daughter, his second wife Elza Soares, that samba singer, who left him after he attacked her in 1977.  He had at least 14 children, including impregnating local girls when he went on tour with his team. 

As with George Best and Paul Gascoigne, it's questionable whether the sins of a genius should be forgiven. In Brazil, a dismal domestic record did not prevent you becoming a superstar, with the stadium in Brasilia being named after him in 1974.  When he died of cirrhosis of the liver on January 20, 1983, once again a pauper, thousands of fans came to view his body at the Maracanã stadium and pay their respects to the man who had won them their first two World Cups.

As the South American writer Eduardo Galeano wrote:

“In the entire history of football no one made more people happy. When he was out there, the pitch was a circus ring, the ball a tamed animal, the match a party invitation. Garrincha nurtured his pet, the ball, and together they created such mischief that people almost died laughing. He jumped over it, it gambolled around him, hid itself away, skipped off and made him run after it. And on the way, his opponents ran into each other.”

Link: Garrincha in action

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961)

“There are an enormous number of general empirical propositions that count as certain for us. One such is that if someone’s arm is cut off it will not grow again”. (Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty)

Ludwig Wittgenstein has always been one of my favourite philosophers, so naturally I was intrigued, on reading the wonderful biography by Ray Monk, to learn about his older brother, Paul.  The Wittgenstein family were Austrian and extremely rich, and their home was visited by many famous composers and cultural figures – Brahms, Mahler, Strauss etc.  

All the children were musical and ambitious.   However, their father Karl wanted them to go into the family manufacturing business, rather than taking an artistic path.   But grandmother Fanny was a patron of musicians, and so she encouraged Paul when he showed particular signs of musical talent.  

In 1913, after his father’s death, he gave a successful debut concert, albeit after renting the hall and paying for the orchestra himself.  

At the outbreak of war, however, he joined up with the Austrian army, and served on the Russian front.  During fighting in Ukraine he was shot in the arm and captured by the Russians.  His right arm had to be amputated, which must have felt like the end of his career.  Hearing the news, Ludwig wrote in his diary: “I keep having to think of poor Paul, who has so suddenly lost his career! How terrible. What philosophy is needed to get over it! If only this can be achieved in any other way than suicide!”  (Three of their siblings did indeed kill themselves).

However, recovering in a prison-of-war camp in Omsk, Paul was undaunted, writing to his former teacher to ask him to compose a piano concerto for just the left hand.  He drew the outline of a piano keyboard on a wooden crate, and practiced playing it seven hours a day, to the bemusement of other prisoners.  “It was like climbing a mountain. If you can’t get up one way, you try another”  he later said. He was probably inspired by another Austrian, Leopold Godowsky, who taught piano at the Imperial Academy of Music, and who had both transcribed and commissioned pieces for the left hand in order to improve students’ technique.  He would have known also of Count Géza Zichy, one of Liszt’s students, who became the world’s first professional one-armed pianist after a hunting accident.  

After the war, Wittgenstein continued as a pianist, arranging pieces for the left hand and playing pieces that he had commissioned.  He did not want to be known simply as a freak or receive sympathy.  By commissioning work by famous composers, he would generate respect and become a famous performer.

Here the Wittgenstein wealth came in handy.  He commissioned work from leading composers including Prokofiev, Strauss, Hindemith, Korngold and many others, and always insisted on exclusive performing rights.  Unfortunately, his tastes were for nineteenth century style Romantic music, not the avant garde compositions favoured by people like Hindemith.   Those pieces he did not like, he did not play, and some were not discovered and performed until after his death, for example the work by Hindemith finally premiered in 2004.  In 1931 he wrote to Prokofiev:

“Thank you for the concerto, but I do not understand a single note in it, and I will not play it.”

Another pianist who had lost his arm in the War was to play that piece for the first time in 1956.  Wittgenstein also fell out badly with Ravel, because he made his own changes to the new Concerto in D for the Left Hand, without any consultation. 

The musician Ivan Ilic has suggested that Wittgenstein may not have been familiar with the actual work of the composers whom he commissioned, being guided instead by their prestige, saying 
“If Wittgenstein had been more familiar with Ravel’s compositional style there is no way that he would have been surprised with the result.”  
Prokofiev said of him, “I don’t see any special talent in his left hand.” 
It may be that Paul Wittgenstein would never have become a famous piano player if it had not been for his unusual circumstances.   His family certainly felt embarrassed by him, feeling he brought shame to the Wittgenstein name and wishing he would give up performing.

Paul emigrated from Austria to the United States in 1938.  The Wittgenstein family were originally Jewish, although they had been Christians for three generations on the paternal side and two on the maternal side.  To the Nazis, they were still of course Jews.   The sisters of Paul and Ludwig insisted on staying in Vienna, believing that no one would dare to disturb their privileged existence.  In practice, Paul had to bribe the Nazi regime to leave his sisters alone.  The Wittgensteins were one of the most wealthy private families in Europe, with assets of $6 billion, and this all went to protecting the two sisters in their Vienna palace.

Paul Wittgenstein died in New York City in 1961, after becoming an American citizen and continuing his career of playing and teaching music.  While in America, he commissioned a piece from Benjamin Britten in 1942, but, predictably, did not like it.  Whatever Wittgenstein’s own tastes and talent, disabled pianists have good reason to thank him for his determination and contribution to expanding the repertoire.  Other pianists lacking the use of two hands, like Leon Fleisher, have since followed his lead and played his commissions.