The Tsar’s Piano

Harry Drabik

The unexpected is a possible trial or potential pleasure of stepping outside the overcoat of the familiar. You never know what you’ll encounter on unknown waters. In the case of my last getaway to Europe an invitation to a special ethnic meal in a private home made me fear that despite fine food the event could be a horrible bore. What would you expect when your hostess is pushing near a hundred? I was confident the pace of the evening would be slow, very possibly painfully so.

The first unanticipated jolt after entering a modest size home came seeing a grand size piano all but fill the living room next to the carefully laid out dining table. Put plainly, that was a hell of a lot of piano for a normal room. But actually it was more piano than most any room could rightly contain. From a distance a concert size instrument doesn’t look near as awesomely imposing as when placed in the typical room of a family home. But the scale of the piano was almost lost in its ornateness. It’s difficult to describe embellished embellishment. How can I characterize lavish and intricate carving originally meant for a royal residence in Tsarist Russia? Examples of nicely carved claw feet are seen on many pieces of finer old furniture, but you’d need to greatly expand the dimensions and detail of any of those to near the effect of the solid legs on the Tsar’s piano. To make the impressive effect all the more imposing the wood and carving was covered in a blend of gloss black and gilding. It was an altogether astonishing instrument even if it wasn’t a Steinway.

After asking (how could I not) about the piano that took up the room next to where we ate the story I was told the instrument was of relatively local manufacture, was made on order for the Tsar, but was not delivered because WW I intervened and Tsarist Russia came to an end. The new Soviet order had no use for ornate music or instruments. So, the Tsar’s piano went into a warehouse because no one could afford it. It wasn’t that long before WW II boiled up to make a very strong market for tanks but not for high end musical instruments. The piano continued in storage and remarkably escaped destruction in a part of the world where ninety percent of some urban areas were bombed and shelled to ruins. (In Warsaw after the war the few people who remained in the city were called Robinsons because they lived on islands surrounded by rubble.)

It seemed a near impossible quirk of fate that a unique instrument would still be around to pay testament to the long gone Tsar who ordered it. Adding to the drama was the piano surviving two major wars, survived the austerity of the communist years when it might easily have been seen as firewood, and then came to rest in a fairly typical house on an ordinary street. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to see the ironies of royally noble instruments passing through turbulent proletarian times when to own or appreciate such an item could cause much trouble by making the owner seem a traitor of the people. 

There could be a sweet ending where our hostess in her nineties gave an after dinner concert as impressive as the piano she played. That was not, understandably, to be. The hostess had to be coaxed by family to play “a little,” Being honest, it’s my guess she didn’t want to play because it would be embarrassing to play with arthritic fingers and overaged abilities. Actually that’s more than a guess because that is how it played out. The music did not flow wonderfully. Stiff fingers missed notes and were too slow to maintain the tempo. But did it matter that her playing was less than concert worthy? Was it important that the next player, a girl of 9 years, had nimble fingers but insufficient practice to play a complex score? None of that mattered. The experience was a human rather than musical one. There is simply no way to describe the evaporation of time and space when a 90 and then a 9 year old took turns on the Tsar’s piano. The important thing was not the history of the instrument or the flaws of the players. What mattered and matters is found in the heart not in decoration. The magic that took hold in the players wasn’t in the playing.

It’s my habit to fish with a single line but to also use a wider net. In this case the wider angle is recognition of a somewhat unaccountable passion among Slavs and Central Europeans. An example of this can be seen in the late cold war when the Soviets got partly over the punishing aspect of denouncing and beating the bourgeois middle class and decided to improve their image by sponsoring the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Hardly anyone remembers this global contest. The name Van Cliburn is also seldom recalled though Van Cliburn became a hero of the cold war by winning the piano portion of the competition. The Soviets wished, of course, to shine on their own territory, but the audience was open and appreciative enough to be honestly enthused about Cliburn’s playing. Think for a moment of the ironies involved going from Tsarist times to communist socialism and somehow (as magical as the survival of the Tsar’s piano itself) come out of all that with a society and individuals bearing an inexplicable passion for music. The idea of perfect social equality meets a peculiar confrontation with musical excellence.

A side note gives a small view of this side of musical history. The early 1800’s when Chopin played and composed were tumultuous years in Europe. Dead in 1849, politics prevented his body being returned to Poland. But he and his music was loved by so many Poles it’s said his heart was secretly smuggled for burial in Poland. The symbol of the Tsar’s piano is likewise in the heart. (But is this piano passion proof of the origin of Russian election turning keyboard skills?)