WHAT LUDWIG USED TO WHISTLE
What Ludwig used to whistle should amaze
all people who can’t do this. He would whistle
all parts of string quartets, and paraphrase
their notes, an intercontinental missile
who flew to Cambridge from the woods of Wien,
crash-landing in a place called Trinity.
“Whereof one cannot whistle,” was the paen
he pouted, thinking of infinity,
but while all that of which one cannot speak
requires silence, string quartets did not
evoke this from him, since his great technique
brought him within his great namesake’s earshot.
In the NYT, March 22, 2009, Philip W. Bennett writes:
With reference to the musical talents of the Wittgensteins, your reviewer did not mention the prodigious whistling talents of Ludwig, the philosopher. It is reported that Ludwig could whistle the entire parts of string quartets along with those playing instruments. When he visited the United States in 1949 as a guest of Norman Malcolm of Cornell, Malcolm reports, Wittgenstein whistled whole symphonies on the drive from New York City to Ithaca.
Béla Szabadosz writes about Ludwig Wittgenstein:
Paul Engelmann, whom Wittgenstein met during the Great War and who became a good friend, provides a few more details. He tells us that when they first met during the war, Wittgenstein "played no instrument; later he learned to play the clarinet, and played it very well; I once heard him in Schubert's 'Shepherd on the Rock'. Instruments apart, he whistled beautifully. On one occasion, when the conversation turned to the viola part in the third movement of a Beethoven string quartet, he whistled the part from beginning to end, with a tone as pure and as strong as that of an instrument. I have repeatedly heard him perform such feats."  How appropriate whistling the air is for a philosopher who has regard for, and builds on, the everyday! Engelmann also notes that Wittgenstein had a detailed knowledge of the whole Western European musical repertoire, and this was so before he learned an instrument. Running in the family then, music was, and though Ludwig was not actively engaged in music making until later, he had a participant's understanding of it through the natural practice of whistling.
© 2009 Gershon Hepner 3/22/09