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.''
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.
``I was just beginning my concert career in 1955,'' Pollack told me during his appearance at the first Truman Concert. He has been a prize-winner in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow and in 1983 became the first pianist to play for a joint session of Congress. ``I had won the Josef Lhevinne Memorial Scholarship and President Truman was the honorary patron. I presented him with a copy of a recording by his favorite pianist, Josef Lhevinne, with Madame Lhevinne's autograph. He was delighted and for the next 10 years we corresponded. He had a keen interest in my career as well as many other pianists who were his friends.... I have always been grateful for that.''
When pianist-comedian Victor Borge came to a Truman Concert in 1986, he admitted he missed the president: ``I find myself wishing that he could be in the audience again,'' Borge told me on that occasion. He spoke to me at the keyboard during his rehearsal with the Kansas City Symphony. ``He heard me on several occasions, and I'll never forget it. We agreed not to tell each other what we thought of our playing!''
Another concert guest artist was composer David Amram, a self-styled ``pied piper'' who, with garlands of flutes and ocarinas around his neck, presented the world premiere of his symphonic piece, ``Across the Wide Missouri'' at the 1984 Truman Concert. On the same program appeared Willie Stargell, formerly of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He narrated Aaron Copland's ``A Lincoln Portrait.''
They were quite a pair when I met them both on the day of the concert. Together, they epitomized a blend of popular and classical elements that was typical of Truman.
``I saw him light the White House Christmas tree when I was a kid 14 years old in Washington, D.C.,'' recalled Amram. ``In fact, he was the first president, or first public figure during World War II and later, who made us kids see that playing music was an important and admirable thing.''
Stargell's reaction to the occasion? ``Outrageous ... I don't know anything about music, except that I love it. And when you can combine folk music and jazz, that's something! But nothing in baseball could prepare me for this! This is a whole new career for me!''
Perhaps these concerts can ignite for younger generations the same spark of musical interest that Truman evoked in people like Amram and Pollack. That is more important than ever these days, says Washington Post critic Emeritus Paul Hume - when it seems the government is increasingly turning its back on the arts. Hume, of course, is that same gentleman who tangled with Truman in several public forums over the relative merits of Margaret Truman's singing voice. Yet when I visited Hume in his home in Washington, D.C., he had nothing but affection for the president and his musical tastes:
``Well, I think it always helps any time that the president ... helps make some move into the realm of the arts that in any way supports them. The kind of things that the Kennedys did with such brillance and real understanding.... Mr. Truman was very generous about the arts and he appreciated great artists. Sometimes, he might not have understood their art from the inside - but he had a very real amateur's love of it.''
TRUMAN had a big musical secret, by the way. By now, I suppose, everybody is in on it. But, for the record, Dr. Zobrist offers his own account:
``He didn't particularly care for the `Missouri Waltz.' His favorite waltz was the `Blackhawk Waltz.' Truman's own performance of the piece is preserved in the library. Although Mr. Truman many times had no problems saying exactly how he felt about pieces, when it came to the `Missouri Waltz,' he was apologetic because he realized it was the Missouri State Song. But he did say once: `It's a ragtime song and if you let me say what I think, I don't give a damn about it. But it is the state song of Missouri. As far as music is concerned, it's as bad as the `Star-Spangled Banner.'''