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Old 05-27-2014, 08:33 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default The Amazing Siena Pianoforte

The Siena Pianoforte is a piano built in the early 1800s in Turin by the Marchesio family. It was presented to Rebecca Marchesio as a wedding gift and she and her husband took it to Tuscany. The sound of the piano is unlike any other—by turns a piano, a harpsichord, a banjo, a guitar, a carillon, a harp, a glockenspiel, a lute, etc. It somehow takes on the color of the music it is playing and molds itself to it. No one knows how since it is built no differently than any other piano and is entirely mechanical—no electricity or electronics involved.

Much of the story of the Siena Pianoforte is undoubtedly legend but some of it is true despite reading like an overly dramatic fiction. Since I cannot separate fact from fancy, I will relate the story as it comes to us and the reader can believe what he or she chooses:

While in Tuscany, a master craftsman became enchanted with the piano's amazing sound and built a finely crafted case for it. In 1868, the piano came into the possession of the municipality of Siena and presented to the Crown Prince Umberto as a wedding gift and was installed in the Quirinal.

Somehow, the piano then ends up in the desert of El-Alamein in Egypt where two famous North African battles took place. According to one source, it had been carried off by the Nazis who intended apparently to bury it along with other European art treasures they had looted and stashed (quite a number of rare violins have surfaced since WW2 that were pilfered by the Nazis who actually specialized in identifying and stealing them). The allied forces recovered the piano but had no idea of its true value. A master piano-tuner named Avner Carmi identified the piano as one he had learned about from his grandfather, Matthew (or Mattis) Yanowsky, a Jewish refugee from Czarist Russia.

Yanowsky once played for Prince Umberto but hated the piano that was provided to him and apologized to Umberto for the bad sound. He spoke of a great piano he had played in St. Petersburg and Liszt himself often played on that he wished he could have used. Umberto replied that he had a wonderful piano at the Quirinal that Liszt had also played for him and that Yanowsky should come by and play it sometime.

Umberto told Yanowsky that the unique wood of the instrument came from Jerusalem and had once been two pillars from Solomon’s Temple—the Masonic Jachin and Boaz. When Emperor Titus ordered the city sacked in 70 CE, he had his soldiers confiscate the two pillars and bring them to Rome. There, they were installed as the pillars of a pagan temple that was destroyed centuries later by the Christians but these two pillars remained standing. So the Christians built a church on the spot with the pillars intact. This church, however, collapsed in an earthquake in the late 18th century and so the pillars were then cut up on the orders of Sebastino Marchesio (Marchisio), the patriarch of a piano-making family, and some of the wood was used to construct the Siena Pianoforte—specifically the soundboard. Sebastino drew up the designs for the piano and started on it but died before he could finish it. His son took up the task between long periods of not being able to work on it so that he too died before he could finish. Sebastino’s grandson now assumed the task but, like his father, could not devote as much time to it as he would have liked and died without finishing the project. Finally, his son, Nicodemo Ferri, Marchisio’s great-grandson, finished the piano while his cousin, Carlo Bartolozzi, carved the outside with beautiful, intricate work. The finished piano was considered the pride of Siena until Umberto took possession of it.

The good prince, unfortunately, was assassinated before Yanowsky could have his chance to play it. He never got a chance to see it but entrusted to his grandson, Carmi, to the task and made him promise to petition the king, Victor Emanuel III, Umberto’s successor, for a visit to the piano. Carmi did this several times over the years but the prince either ignored him or his petitions were never delivered. Carmi went onto become the tuner for the legendary pianists Artur Rubenstein, Artur Schnabel and Alfred Cortot. In 1928, Carmi returned to Rome with a letter from the president of the Playel Piano Company and delivered it to Playel’s manager in Rome to inquire about the piano at the palace. The manager reported that no tuner who had ever entered the palace had seen anything like the Siena Pianoforte. In 1934, Carmi was arrested when he saw the prince on the street and approached him with his request. They thought he might be an assassin. Fortunately, Schnabel was highly regarded and got them to release Carmi. Upon his release, Carmi went to a Professor Leonardo and asked him about the Siena Piano. The professor spoke with the servants at the palace for Carmi but none of them had ever seen this instrument.

In 1939, Carmi visited the Siena Cathedral and spoke to an old priest, an organist, who remembered the story of the piano made from the pillars of Solomon’s Temple. The piano was brought once a year to the cathedral to be played during wine festival. At the city archives, Carmi located some old photos of the piano and another recounting of its amazing story. He took some of the photos with him.

The 1868 photos Carmi used to identify the piano.

After the war, Carmi was employed by the British to accompany them to North Africa to evaluate the booty snatched up by Rommel’s men. One day, the British forces came upon what appeared to be a whitish coffin sticking up out of the sand. They examined it closely and realized it seemed to be some kind of piano covered in hard plaster. They called Carmi over to have a look. Carmi saw that it was indeed some kind of piano covered over with hardened plaster baked in the North African sun. But he could see the strings and hammers inside even though they were clogged with sand. He could also see the mechanism had been rebuilt with extra keys, strings and hammers although by whom was a mystery. In fact, the whole thing was a mystery. Whose piano was it and why did the Germans drag it out here?

Carmi decided the piano must have value and so had it loaded on a truck and transported to another station about 200 miles outside of Egypt. A British officer pronounced it to be rubbish and consigned it to a burn pile but Carmi obstreperously objected and cleaned some of sand out off the strings and strummed them and the officer agreed that it sounded lovely and relented. The piano was then restored hastily by Carmi and it was used to entertain troops by a traveling show that took it all over the desert then to Sicily and Italy and onto Palestine (not yet Israel). Carmi lost contact with it for a while.

After the traveling show broke up in Palestine, the piano was sold to a junk dealer in Tel Aviv. He tried to get it properly tuned but no one understood the strange action of the mechanism. He tried to dislodge the plaster—now rock hard—but could not. In disgust, he left it at a junkyard. From there, the piano passed through several owners but none discovered its secret.

When Carmi left the military, he retired to Israel and told his wife he wanted to reopen his piano shop. His wife or children then took him to see a piano that was simply sitting in the street badly in need of restoration for his first job. Carmi was shocked to see the old plaster monstrosity he had rescued in North Africa some three decades before. He took it back to his shop and saw that no one had tuned it nor knew how. One story says that a truck driver had delivered the piano and was paying to have it restored. He changed his mind however and went to Carmi’s shop to demand his money back. He and Carmi argued and the driver began banging his fist on the plaster piano. Fearful that the man might destroy something, Carmi gave him back his money and pushed him out of his shop. He went back to work tuning the piano when his daughter noticed, to his surprise, that the plaster had started cracking where the man had pounded it with his fist. One crack opened another and another and within a short while, it all fell away leaving the true piano visible—an amazingly ornate old thing. Excitedly, Carmi ran to his desk and withdrew the photo of the Siena Pianoforte he had kept all those years (or pulled the photo from his pocket, depending on the story) and saw that it was the very same instrument!

When Carmi announced his find to the musical world, that world was, of course, very skeptical but all who have examined and heard the Siena agree it is an amazing instrument of very high if not unique quality. So unusual is the sound that the French teacher Lazare Lévy played it at Carmi’s invitation, turned to him and said, “Carmi, I think the entire piano industry is on the wrong track!”

Carmi believes completely that the piano soundboard was made from the pillars of the Temple of Jerusalem although historians generally agree that Jachin and Boaz would have been made of brass. Yet, some of the pillars could have been wood and might have been shipped to Rome as plundered booty often was (such as the Egyptian obelisk that sits at the Vatican). Carmi owns the piano and won’t allow carbon dating of the wood saying he doesn’t want to know how old the wood is. He and his wife believe the story and that’s all that matters.

What we do know is that this piano exists, whatever its origins, and it sounds like nothing else. Notice how amazingly it somehow adapts itself differently for each player and composer:

Anatole Kitain plays Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring - YouTube

Scarlatti / Charles Rosen, 1955: Sonata in G major, L.487 - Performed on the Siena Pianoforte - YouTube

Marisa Regules plays Debussy "Estampes" on the Siena pianoforte - YouTube
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Old 05-27-2014, 08:41 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Avner and Hanna Carmi at the Siena Pianoforte.
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Old 07-17-2014, 12:36 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Do you know the whereabouts of he Siena Piano today?
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