The Siena piano in 1868
|Other names||Immortal Piano|
Harp of King David
|Camille Saint-Saëns, Franz Liszt, Charles Rosen|
The Siena Piano, also called the Immortal Piano and the Harp of King David, is a piano constructed at the beginning of the 19th century that became famous in the 1950s for its remarkable sound and its unusual history. Its timbre is similar to both a piano and a harpsichord. Legend has it that it was partially built with wood from the pillars of the Temple of Solomon, because of its excellent sound and it being the spiritual descendant of the Harp of David. Most critics say it is best for playing Mozart, Scarlatti and Debussy.
In 1799, Sebastian Marchisio, a harpsichord maker in Turin, Italy began constructing the piano, but died before it was completed.
His family completed the first build and it was later given as a wedding gift to Marchisio's granddaughter. Several modifications later it appeared at the Paris World's Fair in 1867. It was then given as a wedding present by the city of Siena to the future king Umberto I of Italy, after which it fell into Nazi possession.
Following the defeat of the Germans by the British in the Battle of El Alamein, 1942, the British found the piano, all plastered up, in a desert in North Africa. It was then used by some British entertainers who toured camps and sang for the wounded. It found a home at a Tel Aviv piano workshop belonging to Avner Carmi Yanowsky by way of an Israeli merchant.
Carmi renovated the piano and he tried it out with several renowned musicians on tour in Israel. Pianist Pnina Salzman gave the first public recital of the Siena piano in Israel, a concert organized under the sponsorship of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, on the day of the declaration of Israel's independence. The piano then toured Europe finally finding its way to the United States, where it was shown at Steinway Hall and used for recordings. During this time the piano was extensively repaired again and again, the ancient crumbling sounding board giving way due to its age. During these times Sohmer Piano Company also decided to help Carmi with the repairs for over a year. Marie-Jose de Savoia, after listening to the piano, gave her patronage for the piano to be played at a concert for the United Nations International Year of the Child in Jerusalem.
Carmi and his wife wrote a book about the piano titled The Immortal Piano. His daughter finally sold it in 1996 to a private collector for $1 million. The most recent owner, who lived in the town of Caesarea, put the instrument up for auction in 2020.
The Siena piano is an upright piano with dual pedals whose wood carvings are characteristic of early 19th century Italy. The finishing touches and decorations on the piano were put on by Sebastian Marchisio's great-grandson, one of Italy's most famous craftsmen at the time, Nicomedo Ferri and a cousin. They engraved laughing, dancing, playing cherubs and other designs such as harps, pipes, faces and lions. Portraits of Händel, Mozart, Aretino, Cherubini and Gluck were also made. The front face of the underbody has a bas-relief panel decorated with arabesques with a large laurel wreath in the middle of which is a harp of David surrounded by two griffins. On the lid the creators of the piano are written in Italian - Fratelli Marchisio, Turino and Bartalozzi e Ferri, Siena.
Lazare Lévy said of the piano after performing a recital with it, "This is the most astonishing piano I have come across. The works of Couperin and Scarlatti sound as if they had been written especially for the Siena piano. And playing Bach and Mozart is much more interesting than any other piano I've ever played on..." American conductor and radio host David Randolph agreed that the piano sounds like a harpsichord at times and at other times like a lute, harp or guitar. Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos said "I love the Immortal Piano, its sound and story equally". Artur Schnabel said this is the story of a "pianoman extraordinary, simply falling in love with the King's piano".