Siena Piano - The Legend

The "Siena Pianoforte" is news, not because the keyboard must be father to the pianist in any Wordsworthian sense but because this particular instrument is demonstrable or at least manifestly unique among the hundreds of thousands extant. What other piano takes on the color and the character of whatever music is made upon it? What other piano can seem to be by turns a harp, harpsichord, lute, cimbalom, carillon, banjo, woodwind, marimba, guitar or even a quartet of guitars?

There are no tricks involved, you may be sure. Experts agree that the "Siena Pianoforte" is not significantly different from any other in its main structural aspects. It is not "prepared" a' la John Cage. There is nothing electronic in its mechanism. Virtually every part in it , as a matter of fact, has been replaced - and there is not another like it as the ears can attest.

The "Siena Pianoforte" was built in the first decade of the 1800's by the Marchesio family of Turin, a tight little guild of Piedmontese artisans not readily encountered in the annals of the craft. So painstaking an authority as Arthur Loesser, whose "Men, Women, & Pianos" is the most nearly complete history of pianomanship in print, fails even to mention them.

It is recorded that one of the Marchesio maidens, Rebecca, was taken in marriage during the first quarter of the nineteenth century by a Siennese, and that the couple were given the "Siena Pianoforte" as a wedding gift. It went with them on their removal southward to Tuscany. Some years later, the legend goes, a music-loving wood carver was so enchanted by the instrument that he executed a handsome new case for it. Then in 1868, according to documentary evidence, the municipality of Siena acquired the now famous piano and presented it, also as a wedding present, to the then Crown Prince Umberto. Subsequently it reposed on the Quirinal. How it got from this palatial sanctuary to the bloody sand of El-Alamein is one of the unsolved mysteries of World War II. And how it was rescued, restored, and eventually brought to America makes for one of those implausible sagas that are stranger than any fiction.

The hero of this story is a squat, bushy-browed man of modest but dedicated mien named Avner Carmi, who was born in the Biblical hills of Ephraim of a family that traces its musical lineage back to the Kiev of the Czars. Himself a piano tuner extraordinary whose services were sought by such giants as Busoni, d'Albert, Schnabel and more recently by their heir apparent Arthur Rubinstein, Carmi needed no counsel to be convinced that the instrument he saved from British artillery in the mid-forties was nothing if not very, very special. Miraculously, moreover, Carmi was probably the only man in the whole Middle Eastern battle zone who knew of the "Siena Pianoforte" and could have suspected, though consciously he did not, that a dilapidated item of combat spoils might be the same fabulous and "presumed lost" treasure.

Carmi's grandfather, Matthew Yanowsky, had been a virtuoso in the time when Liszt's primacy left no room for any others near the top. He did, however, achieve a measure of fame, playing before many crowned heads both before and after his emigration from Russia to what was then Palestine in the 1880's. Once he performed for Umberto, presumably in the Holy City during a state visit, and it happened that the instrument provided for the recital was so inadequate that the artist expressed his apologies for what he deemed imperfect results. If only, he told His Majesty, there were any pianos around like the one he remembered from St. Petersburg; now there was an instrument; Liszt himself often played on it.

Yanowsky's grandson is quite clear in his recollection of the old man's report on the ensuing exchange: Umberto replied that he, too, owned a piano on which Liszt himself had played, and so saying he invited the distinguished Palestinian settler to make amends for any real or imagined shortcomings in his command appearance by playing the royal instrument whenever he could come to Rome. Reconstructed third-hand by Carmi, His Majesty's further remarks were approximately as follows:

"My Prize piano at the Quirinal is an Italian original. It was built over a period of four generations by a father, son, grandson and great-grandson. Liszt called its sounds 'divine,' and indeed it has been compared with the harp of King David himself. This instrument once was exhibited in Paris, and the year after that was given to me. It is an upright, and every inch of its shining surface is intricately carved. A gallery of immortal composers is sculptured in the wood. Each of them from a different land, as if to symbolize that with music, the language of the soil, they are united prefiguring Isaiah's prophecy of peace in the latter days.

"The legend is that this piano was made of wood from Jerusalem, from the very pillars of Solomon's temple. When the city was destroyed by Titus his men supposedly carried off to Rome the two most beautiful pillars of the temple, Joachin and Boas. In turn they were installed in a new pagan temple, which later collapsed. The foundation was left standing, and in the Christian era a church was erected on the site, again using Solomon's pillars. The legend tells us that this church was knocked down for the last time by an earthquake, and that the wood then was used to make my wonderful piano."

Before Yanowsky could arrange for a Roman holiday, Umberto was assassinated. Crestfallen, the old man extracted a promise from Carmi that he would someday call on Victor Emanuel III and ask to see this amazing piano that was allegedly made of sacred wood from Jerusalem. Years later, en route to Germany to complete his musical education, the dutiful grandson arrived in Rome and went straightaway to the Quirinal. Let him recount the incident:

"To the palace guard I confided that 'I carry a mission, and no doubt the King will be glad to see me'. He laughed at me. All who seek a royal audience must first request it by mail, fully stating their business, the guard informed me. So I sat down and wrote a very long letter, leaving out no detail. There was no reply, and soon I had to depart. Often in the years after that I found myself in Rome, and each time I wrote out a formal request, but always in vain. Once, in 1934, I tried to make contact with Victor Emanuel directly when I saw him in a marketplace. It was a terrible mistake. The crowd pelted me with fruit and the police arrested me as a would-be assassin. Only the intercession of Schnabel with whom I was just then traveling as tuner, saved me from an indefinite stay in one of the King's prisons. Schnabel managed to convince the authorities, but unfortunately not His Majesty, that I was only in love with one of the royal pianos."

In the Mediterranean campaigns of World War II Carmi was attached to an English transportation unit. Its specific task was to collect and sift the miscellany that Rommel's retreating forces had left behind. One day the ex-tuner was summoned to examine a peculiar looking piano, or what seemed to be a piano, that had been turned up in the dunes that morning. The mine-sweepers had almost blown it to bits on the theory that it might be some diabolical Nazi trap. The question was, was it?

Carmi concedes that "there did appear to be something Satanic in this strange apparatus. It was encased in a thick, desert-hardened layer of plaster from top to bottom, so that is more nearly resembled a tomb than anything else. If it were a piano, there could be no proving it then and there because the inside works were hopelessly sand-clogged. From both sides of the action it was possible to see that all manner of experiments that had been made on it, and that it had been rebuilt at least once because the keyboard obviously had been extended and supplementary strings, hammers and keys added to the original set. Now why, I wondered had Rommel's army taken the trouble to lug a museum piece into a combat zone?"

Having persuaded his superior that there was more than met the eyes in this situation, Carmi was soon off by truck to the ordnance headquarters some two hundred miles inside Egypt. No sooner had he arrived when the receiving officer ordered him to make an about-turn with his "rubbish", then relenting to the extent of consigning it to the uttermost extremity of the camp - where everything was burned sooner or later.

Carmi was by no means sure that his unwieldy pile of booty had any real value, but he was, after all, a piano man, and the thought of relegating any instrument to flames was enough to excite his righteous indignation. He went to the officer in charge, presented his credentials as turner-by-appointment to the most famous virtuosi, swore on his years of experience that the battlefield relic should be saved from destruction. The officer grudgingly followed Carmi to the battered box, watched and listened as the skilled hands lifted out the action and strummed on the strings as if they were a harp. The sounds were beautiful, he had to agree. And without further ado a group of Italian prisoners-of-war was brought around to unload the delicate monstrosity.

The piano was repaired in short order - made to work well enough for military morale purposes at any rate. Carmi, his conscience assuaged, went back to his unit, and after that he lost sight of his precious charge for a long while. Subsequently he heard that it had been turned over to a troupe of entertainers who would be making the rounds of army installations, and later he encountered them - and their piano - all over North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

War and its aftermath having presented a succession of more pressing problems, Carmi eventually forgot the plastered mystery-box. But fate was to bring them together again. The piano had gone with the entertainers as far as Palestine, shortly to become Israel. When the troupe disbanded there, the instrument was written off and sold to a Tel-Aviv junk dealer. Fascinated, he had his tuner try to fix the unusual action, and several times he tried to penetrate the now rock-hard plaster covering. The tuner gave up in despair, and the shell remained impenetrable. The junk dealer, disgusted, brought his white elephant to the municipal dump.

Carmi continues the story: "It's an ill wind that blows nobody good. Because of its zero price, the piano time and again found owners who tried to unlock its secrets. None of them did. Then the notion struck somebody that maybe this thing was not really a piano after all. A bee-keeper saw it as ideal hive material; a peasant thought it would make a fine incubator; a butcher was sure that meat could be kept under refrigeration within its five-inch walls. And so it went, until the day came when the long-suffering piano was left to rot, in lonesome ignominy, on a Tel-Aviv street.

"About that time I came home, my army career happily over. While I was telling my wife that I wanted to re-open the old piano workshop the children interrupted to say that they had found my first job for me, and at their insistence I went with them to investigate. As we entered the street I saw a turned-over upright baking in the sun; several youngsters were sitting irreverently on its back. They alighted at our approach, and I saw with a shock of recognition that this instrument was none other than my desert pal of years before. The plaster was incredibly intact, but otherwise the piano was battered beyond belief.

Now in Israel a piano is an object of value, not to be thrown out, given away, or broken up with axes. I didn't understand at first why the authorities had permitted this one to sit on the street like a discarded mattress awaiting the rubbish collector. When I brought it home I began to understand. The explanation was simplicity itself - nobody had been able to make the piano work. I rolled up my sleeves and made ready to bring the dead back to life if humanly possible."

And then, as if preordained, the miracle happened. Suddenly the cement-like plaster began to crack, and within moments chunk after chunk of it fell to the floor. Carmi looked on with stunned incredulity. His heart began to beat fast at the first sight of the polished under-surface. What he saw was an exquisitely detailed relief of a cherub heating on a little drum, "as if to summon the world to music". All at once the idea that doubtless he had entertained unconsciously shattered its way into Carmi's consciousness, and with a gasp he went to his desk to dig out a carefully preserved photograph of the long-lost "Siena Pianoforte." He wheeled around to compare it with his prize, now shed of its last vestige of plaster. In front of him stood King Umbertto's treasured wedding present, the very instrument that he had thirty years before vowed he would see.

Carmi is now in New York completing his forthcoming book. The "Siena Pianoforte" is with him. This recording was made on it. Hear for yourself the "divine sounds" that Liszt heard from its depths. David's harp is may not be, but the allusion surely does no disservice.

Notes by James Lyons
From Esoteric LP ESP-3001, 1955