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Charlotte White's

The Piano

Saturday, May 13, 2017 1:41 PM

by Charlotte White


Everyone in Rangoon knew how desperately I was searching for a piano. This was 1952. Shortly after the war, there had been a great exchange of properties and one would find Steinways and Bechsteins in the strangest places. I tried them wherever I found them but all were useless: unplayable, with rusted strings and bloated felts. They were pianos in name only!

As a concert pianist who had come to Burma with my new husband (we were married only 3 months when he was offered an exciting assignment by the U.S. State Department.  His job involved joining the AID program in planning and building the much desired and necessary pharmaceutical industry.

This newly formed independent, democratic State desired above all to produce their own medications. Before independence they had imported all from Switzerland or England.  

In addition to helping build a pharmaceutical industry, my husband was also required to organize the rebuilding of Rangoon University. All of these projects involved trips to England to find the best architect and scientists to teach and aid in these major operations. They had to be British since the Burmese Government had only Pounds Sterling to spend for additional help. We jumped at the chance. This was a great opportunity for my husband to further his career!

But I missed my piano and my music terribly. One day, to my delight I was told of a new find - another Steinway had been discovered in a basha hut (a very rustic grass hut). Maybe this would be the one…maybe this would be the piano for me! And so I found the only piano tuner in Rangoon. I persuaded him to accompany me to the hut. He arrived, a roly-poly smiling man, wearing his gombang (a typical Burmese wrapped silk headdress) and his longyee (a sarong, tied at the waist with a special knot indicating his proud maleness)!

We entered the small basha hut where an old Burmese woman was sitting on the mud floor smoking a cheroot. There, behind her, amazingly, was a Steinway piano…an upright, but nevertheless a possibility. It looked good. I tried it and surprisingly every note played - but it was terribly out of tune. I asked the tuner to see whether he could bring it back to its correct 440 pitch. Sometimes it is impossible to bring an extremely neglected instrument back to its original pitch.

Luckily I had brought the tuner. He acted as interpreter as well. Of course I spoke no Burmese yet. He was fine as interpreter, but somehow had forgotten to bring his tuning fork…or maybe he never had a tuning fork! I asked him to tell the woman that I was interested in buying the piano, but only if she allowed us to tune it and see whether it could be brought back to pitch. She said, ”NO,” angrily and firmly.  And so I asked why she should object, since even if I chose not to buy the piano, it would only have been improved by the tuning.

Now in order to understand her response, I must tell you something about Burmese music. It is based on a quarter tone scale rather than the half tone scale that is used in the West. That meant that there were notes in between c & c#, d & d#, etc. all the way up the scale. This could be played easily enough by sliding between the notes on a string instrument like a violin, or sitar. The voice, too, was perfect to create this effect - but never the piano, with its permanently fixed keys. To my surprise, the children playing in the streets could singsong these discordant tunes, with their varied and irregular rhythms, with great ease.

To get back to the cheroot smoking woman, she said, impatiently,

”NO, you can’t tune it. It is now in Burmese tune and if you tune it, it will be in English tune.”

The only way a piano would fit into the Burmese musical mode would be by allowing it to go completely out of tune.

Even the daily street sounds included their interpretation of the then American pop tunes, such as “Tennessee Waltz” or ‘Bongo Bongo Bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo.” All were sung in Burmese, of course, with discordant harmonic accompaniment, blasting loudly from fast moving trucks. So, once again I wound up with no piano.

Eventually lady luck smiled on me and I was successful in finding a piano in Rangoon. I should explain the reason I did not send my own Steinway to Burma. I was warned that the humidity and intense heat would ruin it. The only  pianos that survived were those made in England expressly for tropical countries. The strings were sprayed with some chemicals and thus became tropicalized. This prevented rusting. Massive brass bars decorated each corner and seam of the piano, for the purpose of holding it together in case it became unglued.

Well, one evening at a cocktail reception (and the norm was that we were expected to attend  about three a night) we found ourselves visiting the beautiful home of a foreign diplomat, where, miracle of miracles…there in the living room was a healthy looking six foot British tropicalized grand. All I could think of doing was to get my hands on those keys.

My poor husband, exhausted from the heat, was already happily seated in the most comfortable wing chair, sound asleep with his eyes wide open, a trick he developed out of necessity after spending many hours in his hot office (no air conditioning of course) and then running from reception to reception. The British and other Embassies generally closed after a half day because of the climate; only the Americans expected their diplomats and employees to work a full day, just as they had done when they were back home.

I was magnetized by the piano and immediately began to play, and there I remained for the balance of the evening. The tone was luscious and limpid…and I was in heaven. As I played, quite a number of guests were drawn to the piano and surrounded me, as they leaned on the instrument. Among them was the Pakistani Ambassador, Sultinaddim Ahmed. He said, admiringly,

”You must practice many hours a day…you play so beautifully”…I began to cry and said, “I never practice, I don’t even have a piano!” He answered, “That is impossible! I have a tropicalized piano coming in from England. Nobody plays in my family, therefore you must have it. I will arrange everything.”

It was only a small spinet, but I was thrilled with the dream of having my own piano at last.

On the day of its expected arrival, I waited anxiously for the delivery. I looked out the window for hours…when suddenly I saw a vision: four men walking barefoot, along the dirt road, carrying the piano on their heads. This was the most unique way I have ever had a piano delivered. Since I had been an apartment dweller in New York, the piano was generally sent up by elevator, or if necessary hoisted through the window. Of course we paid for the piano, but paid no import taxes because of the Ambassador’s privileges. To show my gratitude I insisted on teaching all of his seven children free of charge.