Remember Wladyslaw Szpilman, the Jewish pianist who continued to play Chopin through the Holocaust in the movie The Pianist?
Dang Thai Son is the Wladyslaw Szpilman of our era–a virtuoso who developed an intimate relationship with Fryderyk Chopin at the height of the Vietnam war.
Like Szpilman before the war, Dang hailed from the haute-bourgeoisie. His first piano teacher was his mother, Thai Thi Lien, to whom he owes much of his success.
During the war, when the bombing was at its worst, Thai Thi Lien was evacuated to the countryside with her son and other students.
There, despite her gilded upbringing, the Paris- and Prague-educated Thai Thi Lien resolutely continued to impart her musical knowledge under the harshest of conditions. “Vietnamese people are not afraid to die,” she once said.
According to Thai Thi Lien, “We built grass huts just for the pianos, and trenches next to them, into which we jumped when the planes came.” There was no electricity and a lack of access to proper materials. Rats nibbled on the few shared pianos. The uneducated farmers with whom they stayed were terrified that the racket from the pianos would attract the enemy’s attention.
Undaunted, the young Dang continued to practice.
Under the pitch-black sky of the mountains, with the world around him going mad, night after night, Dang would sit close to this mother and quietly read Chopin’s scores in the candlelight.
Luckily for Dang, Ho Chi Minh was a music lover, and after the war, Dang was given the opportunity to continue his education in Moscow.
In 1980, he went to Warsaw to compete in the International Frédéric Chopin Competition, the Holy Grail for aspiring pianists even today.
To watch Dang in an ill-fitting suit as he sits down at the piano in his very first public performance is to be struck by the bespectacled waif’s strength of purpose—inherited from his formidable mother, perhaps.
The awkward Vietnamese boy won first place at the Chopin Competition, becoming the very first Asian to do so. Dang beat out a field that included his classmate, Ivo Pogorelich, a pianist with movie-star good looks and a sense of entitlement to match.
Why don’t we know more about Dang?
Dang himself has said that he “had many political difficulties to go from one country to another. My first concert in the United States was in 1989, nine years after the competition; there had been an embargo against Vietnam at the time…To make a visa at the time often took two months or more, and I lost opportunities to make a career because of these political difficulties.”
More people know about Lang Lang, Yundi Li etc. than the unassuming man who got there before them all.
Here’s hoping that it won’t be long before that’s rectified.