Potsdam, Truman, Chopin and Mom

In late summer 1945, the leaders of the the United States, Great Britain and Russia gathered in Potsdam for a conference after the end of World War II in Europe.   The goal was to reach an agreement on what to do with territories Germany had held.   The setting was depressing, and, worse, the discussions were tense and unavailing even after a welcome Allied victory.   It was a long two weeks. 

By many reports, the most pleasant part of the conference was an evening entertainment planned by the Americans.  A grand piano was set out on the portico, and music was provided by an American violinist and pianist currently serving in the military.  

The two played several pieces together, and then US president Harry Truman, a pianist himself, played Paderewski’s Minuet in G.  

To end the evening, the other pianist, Sgt. Eugene List, played  Frédéric Chopin’s “Waltz in A Minor,” Truman’s favorite.  The musician did not know the piece from memory, and he was surprised when the president offered to stand by the piano and turn the pages as List tickled the ivories.  (None of the other conference attendees or aides was confident enough to take the job.  Wimps.)

Later, in early 1947 and after List had resumed his career as a concert pianist, he was invited to the White House to perform for a diplomatic reception.  Once again, Truman asked to hear the “Waltz in A Minor.”

Harry Truman

This engaging biography lets us understand the serious but low-key man who was president during a consequential period in the middle of the 20th century. 

It opens with his grandparents’ settlement in the “Muzzuruh” part of Missouri and continues through his foreshortened schooling, his several careers in banking, farming, artillery leadership in the Battle of the Argonne Forest, among others,  and ultimately to political office and the presidency. 

The story is further enhanced by local and political context and observations about Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower,  the presidents who preceded and succeeded him.  

Definitely worth a look.

Frédéric Chopin

This Polish composer was born in Warsaw just about a century after the invention of the piano.  (Its predecessor keyboards were big pipe organs and small harpsichords,  which were useful but not particularly expressive.) 

As a child, Chopin took to the piano and became known for for his performances and, later, for his musical compositions as well. 

He and the instrument were enormously influential as European music moved from its Classical period to the Romantic one.  The piano’s capacity for loud or soft intonation and for staccato or legato renderings, plus its pedals’ accommodation of further nuance, allowed more emotive renderings of music.

Chopin, Franz Liszt, Robert Schumann and others made full use of these new tools by writing music that allowed pianists to draw more sensitive shadings from the notes on their music scores.


My Mother

My mother, like several of her children, studied piano as a child.  One of the happiest days of her adult life must have been when she and my father bought a used baby grand piano. 

She played often, and Chopin was her favorite composer — or maybe, on some days, it was Mendelssohn.  Much as I enjoy the waltz that was Harry Truman’s favorite, the Chopin piece I like best is another waltz, perhaps because I remember my mother playing it.

Mom died young, but not as young as Frédéric Chopin.  Dogged all his life by poor health, he died in 1849 in Paris of complications from tuberculosis.  He was just 39 years old.

Note: This review discusses the latest of many books on why Chopin remains essential to audiences, performers and musicologists.

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