(from THE ETUDE magazine - June 1947)

The sensationally brilliant successes of Leonard Pennario, in concert and as soloist with our foremost orchestras, prior to his entry into the military service, created furors in audiences such as those which have greeted radio and Hollywood stars. This had no effect upon his natural modesty. His impressions regarding his experiences in China and Burma, with armies of men who, though surrounded with seething millions, were continually under tragic strain and desperately desolate in a disease-ridden, tropical country, are startling. After his return from the front he went to the home of Dr. Guy Maier, his teacher for many years, for preparation for his present coast to coast tour, during which he has been overwhelmed by cheering crowds of admirers, not merely for his playing, but for his compositions as well.  - EDITOR’S NOTE.

WHEN WAR broke, just what happened to the minds and imaginations of thousands of young musicians is difficult to picture. Here they were, with others in similar cultural and scientific callings demanding the super-development of the hands, suddenly called upon to go through the roughest and  toughest kind of training. In earlier wars, virtuosi, musicians, and artists were usually carefully protected from danger. During the last war they no longer could remain far from the battlefronts, guarded like the art treasures in museums such as the Louvre, the Hermitage, or the Prado.  Bach, Handel, Gluck, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Rubinstein, Liszt, Brahms, Verdi, were kept as far away from the smell of gunpowder as possible.

In World War I many distinguished musicians, notably John Philip Sousa, Ernest Schelling, Guy Maier, Percy Grainger, Albert Spalding, and others, volunteered for the Service for which they were best adapted. In World War II our democracy called for the best in all our young men fit for service. It was a war in which science, art, and music all had a definite part.

What might it do to the young musician's art and his personal interests for the future? For my part, despite the misgivings of my friends, since there had to be what Virgil in his "Aeneid" describes as "War, horrible war!" ("Bella, horrida bella!"), I would not have given up my service in World War II for anything.

When the Japanese attack occurred on December 11, 1941, I was seventeen years old. All of my life up to that moment had been focused upon becoming a virtuoso pianist. I already had been soloist with large symphony orchestras. I had been graduated from high school and was attending my first semester at the University of Southern California. I had toured our major cities, playing with our leading orchestras, and had received gratifying comment from foremost critics. At the same time, I was continuing my studies with Dr. Guy Maier. The artistic future seemed promising.

A Patriotic Musician

I knew, however, that it was only a matter of time before I would find myself in uniform, and when I came to wear that uniform I was just as proud as any young American could be. I realized that it would make a tremendous change in everything, but hating war above all things, I wanted to do my part in what we hope will prove a readjustment of world civilization that will convince all people of all lands that war, like pestilence and disease, which gradually are being wiped out by human understanding, will disappear from the face of the earth. One thing I did know was that life in the army is so intense, so concentrated that one lives in one year the equivalent of several years. It has an unquestioned maturing effect which is hard to explain. Many of the G.I.'s went into the Service as boys and came out men.

Finally the day came, and I was placed in the Air Corps and later in Special Service. I was moved from one camp to another and went through basic training in the Air Forces without any injury to my hands save lack of practice. When it was found that I was a pianist, I was permitted to accept engagements, and for some eight months I toured the United States, in uniform, appearing with great orchestras. All the proceeds of my concerts of course were turned over to the Air Forces Relief Fund, and Army Emergency Relief Fund.

Experiences in the Tropical Jungle

Soon, I learned that a shipment of my unit was bound for Asia. It all came so quickly that it was hard for us to get our bearings. We flew from Newfoundland to the Azores, to Casablanca, to Cairo, to Karachi, and to Calcutta. Our bases were at Tezgaon and at Kermitola. One cannot realize what it means to the human imagination to be yanked, in a relatively few hours, from the comforts of America, to the edge of a tropical jungle in India. We were located in a new clearing in the heart of an Indian jungle, in a wholly different kind of country from anything I had ever seen before. The deadening heat, the terrible humidity, the stench of the Orient, the never-ending night noises of the jungle made a change so dramatic that it is hard to describe. Never again could I complain about any kind of travel in America. Riding in an American freight car would be a luxury in comparison with some of the "accommodations" we had to endure in Asia. Imagine the psychological effect upon thousands of American young men, coming from fine American homes! Obviously, one of the first considerations in looking after the wellbeing of our boys was to keep up their spirits. I was in Special Service and was assigned to groups to accomplish this highly important task. No sacrifice was too great to carry cheer and inspiration to these men, isolated from anything suggestive of home in "God's country." And oh, how great was their appreciation! I never can be repaid for any concerts in the future in the way that I was rewarded by the interest of these men. Twelve thousand miles away from home, in a stinking land, surrounded by all kinds of perils, they needed the higher and more spiritual things of life as much as they needed food and water, and our government, faced with a dreadful task, took great pains to supply these spiritual and human needs.

I soon learned to forget what a piano lacked as long as it had any kind of keyboard from which I could wrangle some tunes. The further I went, the worse were the pianos. The men didn’t complain, and who was I to grumble, under such circumstances? Sometimes the strings would break and the hammers would fly into the air. But I always knew that I was playing for a gang of fellows, some of whom might never wake up the following morning, while others might awake and find a jackal as a bedfellow. I played under every imaginable condition.   Once, I gave a concert in an outdoor theater in a pouring rain. Not one of the men left, and the applause was wonderful.  It was the monsoon season and the rain came down in cataracts.

Musical Tastes of the G.I.'s

Sometimes the temperature in that climate ranged from 110 degrees to 130 degrees Fahrenheit, but I didn't seem to mind it when I realized what it meant to the men. My programs were largely the better known classics - Chopin, Debussy, Rachmaninoff, Grieg, and so on. I never  gave them Bach, because I found that it was a little too technical and "stiff," as they called it. I never carried any music with me, as I had memorized a large repertory of all kinds of pieces from Home on the Range to Shostakovich. It was surprising to know how many of our boys knew good music. However, they called for all sorts of things. Now and then I played "Boogie-Woogie" for certain groups, just to prove that I was "human." Remember, some of these boys were so isolated that they had had no entertainment for months. When they heard good music they "raised the roof."   They were the greatest audience in the world.

Picture yourself in a jungle, miles from anything like civilization. Around you the blood-chilling yells and screams from the fathomless darkness of the night, the air at times so clouded with vultures that often they would swoop down upon the men in the chow line and bite hunks of food out of their mess gear, as they stood waiting for food. And such food! Of course there were good cooks in the army, but they were few and far between. Often, the materials were foul. Then, there was the everlasting stench of the Orient. Naturally, when music came, the men “ate it up."

All of my life I had heard of the fabulous beauty and romance and mystery of the East. It all may be there, but I travelled very extensively in India, and by comparison with other countries, I feel that it is the most despicable country in the world.  On all sides are every imaginable kind of loathsome sickness, poverty, filth, and oh, the unforgivable stench! The lack of education and the stupidity of pagan fanaticism are appalling. The conception of religion, which makes them torture themselves, is of course similar to that of the Flagellants of the Middle Ages, but one of the evidences of Christian civilization is that we have grown away from that. Let India get rid of these monstrous pagan practices and clean its streets of unthinkable evidences of disease, before it claims civilized recognition.

Parts of China are very fascinating and charming. I played there three and four weeks at a time, often giving three two-hour concerts a day at a stretch - 10 AM, 2 PM, and 7:30 PM, to accommodate the various shifts.  The boys asked for all sorts of things, from the St. Louis Blues of Handy to the St. Matthew Passion of Bach.   Many of the Chinese take a keen and understanding interest in music. Most of the Indians, save in a few centers near the big cities, see far more interest in fakirs and a fight between a cobra and a mongoose than in music.

At one place in China there was no piano at all. I was offered a little field organ used in chapel services. Two of the attendants got down on their knees and pushed down the bellows pedals while I played, but I wished all the time that I might have had my American Baldwin piano. I never played on any piano in the Orient that could be called good. There are few grand pianos. All that I played on were uprights, in the hundreds of the concerts I gave.

Music seemed to give our men something that was spiritually essential. One G.I. said to me, "You know, I don't know a damn thing about music, but I call that a hell of a swell performance! It did something to me!"

Somehow, the war made me realize my previous birthright blessings that came to me from America. I found myself maturing in my views of life very rapidly. Surrounded by millenniums of civilization and the evidences of education, culture, religion, and art, and the lack of it, one has time to think and expand his vision in a manner which would have required decades to accomplish, without the intensive days spent in the War.  I made a number of trips to China, by way of Burma over the "Hump" - the Himalayas - the highest mountains in the world.  No one can comprehend the perils of such a trip. An accident might land one in the most desolate territory in the world and bring almost certain death. That so many planes got through safely is almost miraculous.

In India I met some charming English people and enjoyed playing for them. The Calcutta Symphony Orchestra was a brave effort to bring Occidental musical culture to the East. When one realizes what difficulties surrounded it, one wonders that it existed at all. There were twenty-six different nationalities to the orchestra, and as many different costumes. It was almost as picturesque as the sideshow in a circus. They played Brahms symphonies and Beethoven overtures, which were beyond the ability of the orchestra. It was not as good as the average American high school orchestra. I was invited to play a concerto with it, but declined, because I was sure that we never would end together. Unquestionably, in the Orient of tomorrow there will be vast changes. China and Japan have adopted many of the best things from our civilization (and also some of the worst). There is, however, a great hopefulness in China, while in India the centuries of despair over all the land have not yet come to an end.

NOTE: Pennario traveled back to the States in 1946 on the A.W. Greeley, where he played the piano for the G.I.'s on board:
"THE SALT" - January 8, 1946 (PREVIEW of performance by Leonard Pennario, Pianist)
"THE SALT" - January 14, 1946 (REVIEW of performance by Leonard Pennario, Pianist)

The Leonard Pennario Website

Leonard Pennario - Obituary (2008)

Back to the CBI Page