Give 'Em Tunes, Harry!
TO the legend of Lincoln's log cabin must be added the story of President Truman's upright piano. That tinkly little parlor instrument was a friend to young Harry as he grew up near Independence, Missouri. On it he first played his favorite little pieces by Mozart, Muzio Clementi, and some of those new ``ragtime'' composers. He played it when he courted his wife-to-be, Bess. And even if he never grew very accomplished as a musician - sometimes ``his fingers wouldn't work,'' as his daughter Bess put it - its music stayed with him for the rest of his life. ``Music occupied a place of importance in his private and public lives,'' wrote Brian Lingham in his book, ``Harry Truman - The Man, His Music.'' ``He involved his family, his friends, his political cronies, and finally the nation in his music.''Skip to next paragraph
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I have visited that old upright piano many times in the basement of the Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. It's difficult to resist picking out a few notes of ``The Missouri Waltz'' on the brittle keyboard. The instrument is like Truman in his later years - small, a bit battered, but still standing its ground. If you sit at the bench and listen carefully, you can almost hear Harry as a child, his stubby fingers scrambling across the keys.
``There are eight pianos here in all,'' says Dr. Benedict Zobrist, the library's director. ``We have a full range of them. They go from this upright that President Truman played when he was a boy - all the way up to the presidential piano he played in the White House, which was a gift from President Nixon. We have a number of other pianos that he had at home and which were gifts to the president.''
Dr. Zobrist tells me young Truman was very serious about music. In 1891 while a young piano student, Truman went with Mrs. E.C. White, a Kansas City teacher who had studied with Theodor Leschetizky, to the Shubert Theatre to hear the legendary virtuoso, Ignaz Paderewski. Backstage after the concert, the legend goes, Paderewski gave Harry a brief lesson in the performance of his famous ``Menuet in G.'' There they were, fussing over the keyboard, two future statesmen - Truman a president of the United States and Paderewski a prime minister of Poland!
For the rest of his life Truman was never far from a piano. In the White House he kept a Steinway Model ``O'' Grand in his office. He played for Stalin and Churchill during several postwar conferences, including the Potsdam Conference on July 19, 1945. While traveling through Salzburg in 1956 he played Mozart on several instruments - the 250-year old organ in the cathedral and the delicate piano in Mozart's home.
He had many musical partners, performing with virtuoso Eugene List, and numerous celebrities like Lauren Bacall, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, and President Nixon. Few pianists have ever had a larger audience than the spring of 1952 when he performed for 30 million Americans during his televised tour of the newly remodeled White House.
Over the years he gathered a treasure-trove of musical memorabilia, all housed in the Truman Library. There is a broad variety of original scores, manuscripts, and other items from all over the world - Duke Ellington's manuscript of ``Portrait of New York Suite,'' which had been commissioned in 1950 by Arturo Toscanini; Irving Berlin's manuscript of the song, ``It Gets Lonely in the White House''; and first editions of Schubert songs bearing the composer's signature. But for Truman himself, the most treasured item was an elegant Great Golden Mozart Medal of the City of Salzburg, presented to him on Oct. 4, 1951. It is the city's highest award for ``outstanding service in the field of music.''
Since 1984 a series of public concerts in Independence, Missouri, have paid tribute to Truman as a ``musical statesman'' and friend to music. This year, on May 8, pianist Andre Watts will perform the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B Flat with the Kansas City Symphony. Highly eclectic affairs, as doubtless the president would have wanted, they have featured the Kansas City Symphony in performance with virtuoso pianists like Daniel Pollack and Lorin Hollander, personalities like Victor Borge and Walter Cronkite, violinist Itzhak Perlman, jazz composer David Amram, and all-city choruses.