THE IMMORTAL PIANO : A recollection
by Willem Verster
Years ago, whilst still an undergraduate student at the Potchefstroom University, in the former Western Transvaal (now the North West Province), I visited W.Bro. Tommy Coulter and his wife Day, at their farm Little Lake in the Potchefstroom district. During my visit, Day asked me whether I had ever heard of or read about the Immortal Piano. The name did not mean anything to me, and she then produced the book, 'The Immortal Piano' written by Avner Carmi. From the minute I started reading the book, I was absolutely spellbound, and I could hardly put it down, and I could not wait to start reading again! I spent hours riveted to the book, and looking at the photographs of this magnificent instrument. Tommy also had an old 33 r.p.m. record of music played on this piano. (Yes, these were what was used BEFORE CD's !!!) The sound of this piano being played so beautifully still echoes in my mind. I can still hear Mozart's 'Rondo alla Turca' !! Magic !!
I digress. Anyhow, about three years after reading this I went on an overseas holiday, and visited Israel as part of the tour. Whilst in Tel Aviv, I telephoned the University Music Department, and enquired about the piano and Professor Carmi. No luck. I got a telephone number from the University, and the person I spoke to knew about the Immortal Piano, AND he also had Professor Carmi's home number! I was ecstatic! At last, the Immortal Piano!!
Now what, you may rightly ask, does a piano have to do with a Masonic website? Let me tell you. The Immortal Piano, or the Siena Pianoforte (to give it it's correct name) was given to the late King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Italy on the occasion of Their Majesties' wedding day. It was crafted in Siena, Italy, and the wood that was used in the making of the piano casing, was reputed to be the wood from two pillars in King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem! Now this is what immediately grabbed my attention. This is the legend, anyhow, and even if not true, it still remains marvellously intriguing, to say the least!!
Professor Carmi writes that since his early childhood he had been hearing about this from his grandfather. It was always referred to as the King's Piano, or King David's Harp. He describes how his grandfather always told him about the marvellous piano, that adapted its sound to whatever piece that was being played. It sounded now, like a bell tinkling, and then like a harp etc. He tells how one day, on hearing an ice cream truck tinkling past, he ran outside running after it and shouting 'The piano, the piano!!'
Professor Carmi relates how King Umberto related the following story to his (Carmi's) grandfather : ' "This particular piano, [...] was built, according to legend, from pillars that came from King Solomon's Temple. When Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, Titus brought back to Rome not only the holy paraphernalia of the Temple, but also two of its glorious pillars, and used them in the erection of a pagan shrine. Later with the coming of Christianity and the destruction of the heathen shrines, a church was built on the same foundation and Solomon's pillars were used again. But after some hundreds of years, an earthquake destroyed the ancient church. Then along came a certain lover of music, and from the holy wood of the old pillars he brought forth a piano. As he was doing this - so the legend goes - the soul of the lost harp of King David, hovering in the air, entered into the pillars and made its home there." "That's why our piano is called the Harp of King David!" concluded the Queen.' (The Immortal Piano, by Avner and Hannah Carmi, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York, 1960, p.16)
Legend has it that the wood from the two great pillars at the entrance to the Temple was used, but these two pillars were made of molten brass. In Scripture, one reads of these two great pillars, and OTHER pillars as well. As King Umberto told Professor Carmi's Grandfather, Titus brought back 'two of its glorious pillars'. The story continues, with a history that would make people shake their heads in disbelief, and the piano finally ended up in Petach-Ticvah, a village near Tel Aviv in the State of Israel.
This is where I would like to take up my story of the piano. I telephoned professor Carmi at his home, and told him who I was, and that I was from South Africa. He sounded very pleased and intrigued that I knew about the piano. I was absolutely thrilled when he invited me to come to Petach-Ticvah to see the piano, and I took a taxi and went to his house. I was received jovially by Professor Carmi and his charming wife Hannah. At that stage I was absolutely dying to see the piano, but he made me sit down whilst "I go to prepare it for you", with a twinkle in his eyes. Mrs Carmi served tea, and finally I was escorted into a room with The Piano occupying pride of place. Spotlights were focussed on it, and the wood had a beautiful rich glow.
The keys were covered in Mother of pearl, and gave it a beautiful appearance. The piano was covered with the most beautiful and intricate carvings. The whole effect was like basket weave, and it had the likeness of the following composers and their names : Händel, Mozart, Glück, Cherubini and Guido Aretino. The rest of it was covered with cherubim, holding garlands of flowers and trumpets. Franz Liszt, when living in Rome, and still unkown in Italy at that stage, played on the piano as well.
I stood there, transfixed, and just stared. It was like a dream, finally seeing the Immortal Piano in real life, after having read its full history so many years before. Professor Carmi looked at me, and then he indicated towards the piano and said to me: "You play". I could not believe me ears!! It was not possible, that I was going to play on a piano on which Franz Liszt himself had played!! On which other famous pianists had played!! That had stood in the Quirinale Palace in Rome!! I went and I sat down in front of this masterpiece, and I just looked, and softly touched the glowing wood, the gleaming keys. Hesitantly, I started playing, and the piece still echoes in my head: Christian Sinding's "Rustle of Spring". It was like magic. The piano adapted itself to what was being played...... What I had read was true, and here was I, sitting and playing this marvellous instrument. It is something I will never forget.
I would have loved to have been able to tell the whole history of the piano here, but that is not possible. I would not be able to do justice to its glorious history, and besides, Professor Carmi has already done it in his book, "The Immortal Piano". Almost twenty years later, I wonder what has happened to the piano, and if Professor Carmi is still alive. It is my fervent wish that this piano is on view somewhere for people to look at it and to admire the craftsmanship that went into its making. Life is beautiful, and is made more so by people who also admire beautiful things to enable others to experience it as well.
Zeerust, December 1997