It seems that “The Immortal Piano” is for sale on eBay with a “Buy It Now” price of $2 million. Over the years this unique instrument has also been called: “The Siena Piano”, “The King’s Piano”, and “The Harp of David Piano”.
The instrument has, rightly or wrongly, achieved legendary status over the years. This is primarily as a result of a semi-autobiographical book entitled The Immortal Piano, by Israeli piano technician Avner Carmi.
The Siena Piano
As to what is fact and what is fiction is up to the reader to decide, but in short, the story unfolds as follows…
According to Carmi, the piano was conceived by Italian harpsichord maker Sebastiano Marchisio in Turin at the beginning of the 19th century. It was finally completed mid-century by Marchisio’s son and grandsons. The piano was then a simple upright in a plain case, but its unusual tonal quality made the instrument somewhat special. Its gentle sound, it is claimed, was unlike that of any other piano. It has been described as being “…harp-like, pellucid [crystal clear], but smoother than a harpsichord.”
The wafer-thin soundboard (1/5 inch!) with only four ribs contributes to the instrument unique sound. It was built from Lebanese cedarwood taken from a local church which had collapsed during an earthquake. Locals say the wood is from the Temple of King Solomon in Jerusalem. In 70 BCE Emperor Titus had sacked this temple and brought items of value back to Rome, so this could be possible.
The piano was given as a wedding present to Sebastiano Marchisio’s granddaughter Rebecca, who lived in Siena (Italy). It’s remarkable timbre led to it being regularly used across the city for public performances. And, as a result of its ensuing fame, it became known as “The Siena Piano”.
But many felt that the piano’s appearance was not commensurate with an instrument of such status. So Marchisio family members Nicodemo Ferri (a sculptor) and Carlo Bartolozzi (an architect) produced a new case.
The intricate design included portraits of Handel, Mozart, Gluck, Artino and Cherubini. Multiple variations of classical symbols including cherubs, lions, gryphons, mascarons [masks], and arabesques [ornamental motifs] also appear. A detailed carving of the “Harp of David” [aka Kinnor David] features in the centre of the bottom panel.
The piano was an exhibit in the Italian Pavilion of The Paris Universelle Exposition [World Fair] of 1867. It features in the exhibition catalogue, and Camille Saint-Saëns was one of many to play it in situ.
The Kings Piano
The city of Siena formally acquired the piano in 1868 and gave it to Crown Prince Umberto as a wedding gift. Franz Liszt actually played the instrument at the presentation. It was then taken to Quirinal, the Royal Palace in Rome. Umberto became king in 1878, and the piano thus became “The King’s Piano”.
Some years later, Umberto, whilst visiting Jerusalem, encountered a concert pianist called Mattis Yanowski. The king told Yanowski of his unique piano and invited him to Rome to play it. Unfortunately, Umberto was assassinated (1900), and Yanowski was unable to take up the king’s offer, but on his death-bed told his grandson Anver Carmi about the instrument. Carmi, a piano tuner, never managed to get into the Roman palace to examine the piano but was determined to one day seek it out.
Discovered in North Africa
The piano disappeared during World War II, but bizarrely, following the battle of El Alamein, was found amongst Nazi plunder covered in plaster for protection. It was in an unrecognizable state. Carmi, then serving with the British army, convinced the military to keep the instrument to entertain the troops.
After the war, Carmi was able to acquire the non-descript piano which was still covered in plaster. Carmi took the instrument back to his workshop in Tel Aviv for restoration. As he carefully removed the plaster he could see the intricacy of the casework and realised that this was in fact “The King’s Piano” of which his grandfather had spoken.
In 1953 Carmi took the piano to the United States, where he completely rebuilt the instrument. A number of pianists played it including Artur Rubinstein. It was reported that some thought the piano’s sound radically changed with the type of music being played. Time magazine wrote a short article on the instrument in August 1955.
Several recordings of the piano exist, all released on the Counterpoint/Esoteric label. These include “The Siena Pianoforte” featuring sonatas by Scarlatti and Mozart played by Charles Rosen (CPT 53000; 1955).
In 1970, the piano returned with Carmi to Israel. Anver Carmi died in 1980, and the piano was left to his wife Hannah. It was later put up for sale by her daughter Smira in 1996 for $1million, and purchased by a private collector.
“The Immortal Piano” hasn’t been seen for the past 20 years. However, it is now listed on eBay, and is shown as being located in Caesarea, Israel. The listing doesn’t specifically confirm how much of the instrument is original, but it does state that it is in “very good used condition”, albeit with some cracks and minor damage to the casework.
If you know more about “The Immortal Piano” please do share the information using the Comments section below. It is possible that not all of the above is 100% correct, so any input would be most welcome.
[UPDATE 3-Mar-2020]: The piano did not reach its reserve on eBay, but it did subsequently sell at Winner’s Auction in Jerusalem for $300,000.
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I bought an early LP of this piano in the 60s.
I can upload pdf. articles and sound files if someone can tell me how to do so.
My name is Moshe Porat and I am a piano technician operating in Israel since 1982. As a teenager I heard/read about this piano and I wanted very much to see it in my own eyes. As mention Avner Carmi the owner of this piano passed away in 1980 but if I am not wrong his wife Hanna passed away in 1993. In 1995 I received a phone call from a guy who had bought the apartment of Hanna and Avner and invited me to come and see items that had to do with pianos before he was going to throw them away. I didn’t find useful things but I did find few copies of a book written in German language and some booklets in English with the story of the Sienna Pianoforte and photos of articles published in world press about this piano, I took one book and one booklet which I still have. In the year 2001 I was called to tune a piano in a senior citizens retirement center and while tuning the piano in the lobby a couple of the tenants approached me and Ora said she was one of 3 daughters of Hanna and Avner Carmi. I was in a hurry that day but made an appointment with her in order to hear about the legendary piano from a person who lived with the piano of her living room. After a 2 hour meeting with her I asked her if she knew where the piano was and she said it was auctioned in an art gallery in the city of Herzelia in 1995 but she didn’t know who was the winner of the auction as this information was confidential. At the time I’d just started a website (www.piano.co.il) and I was seeking for piano stories and I wanted a good photo of the Sienna pianoforte at it’s best. They gave me a very nice auction brochure which included photos of the pianos. I then asked them if they could tell me who had bought this piano and they said that generally speaking such information in confidential but since the owner had told them he wanted to sell the piano they were ready to give me his cellphone number. I then contacted the owner and after a while I really saw the piano. It was not at its best but I was able to take the parts off and see the inside. That’s how I became the undeclared historian of this piano. The readers are all welcome to visit my website and see my long article about the Sienna pianoforte but my website is in our Hebrew language so you will not understand much
These photos show only decorative carvings of cherubs, gryphons, lions, David’s harp, etc., I would like to see a photo, taken from above the closed key cover, showing the portraits of the composers, as mentioned. It looks as if they are just above the hinge in the key cover.
I’m afraid that I don’t have any other photos. You can just see the tops of the portraits above the fallboard. Perhaps Moshe Porat (see comment above) can help?
The ‘Siena’ name will be a result of the casework carving being carried out in Siena most likely by Pietro Giusti – the pre-eminent artist working at that time. See the MET Museums casket:
Also various frames by Giusti in the V&A in London
Why would you say that when it clearly states that Bartalozzi e Ferri carved the Piano.
Please correct the name of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. His name was Rubinstein, not Rubenstein. This mistake is so often made, I don’t understand why.
Thank you for pointing this out. The error has been corrected.
I personally knew Avner Carmi and studied piano tuning with him in New York in 1965. I have a certificate of tuning from Mr. Carmi. Feel free to reach me for more information. I also have all of the 5 recordings of the piano, plus additional recording made by Ludmilla Berkwic (hudsonvalleypianonclub.org).
James H. Westerhouse