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Thai Thi Lien, Vietnam's matriarch pianist and pedagogue, passes away

Thai Thi Lien, one of the founders of Vietnam's National Academy of Music, passed away on Tuesday peacefully at her home at the age of 106, her son Tran Thanh Binh said.
Thai Thi Lien performs a piece of music by Chopin at her centennial concert in 2017. Photos courtesy of Thai Thi Lien's family

She was one of the seven founding members of the country's Conservatory of Music in 1956 and Dean of the Piano Department for 20 years. She trained many talented pianists, with the most internationally successful concert pianist being her youngest son, Dang Thai Son.

Her last public performance came in 2017, commemorating her 100 years of age and after she had suffered a minor stroke. She performed Chopin's Mazurka and a YouTube video of the piece was posted by a fan, receiving nearly seven million views.

After the milestone concert celebrating her centenary, she withdrew from public performances but still played at home for her former students, the most recent visit coming during the Lunar New Year festival last week.

At 106 years of age, she left behind an immense void in music and of struggling to overcome life adversities. She always exuded a positive, resilient and loving ambience to everyone who got to meet or know her.

Last year, she fought COVID-19 and won, though she was hospitalised in an intensive care unit.

Born in 1918 in what was then Sai Gon of French Indochina to a wealthy Catholic family, her father was one of the few Vietnamese French-trained engineers. She studied music from four years of age with French Catholic sisters in Sai Gon for 11 years and put on her first performance at the City Hall.

While in Sai Gon, she studied with French pianist Armande Caron, who was quoted in the Malaya Tribune on September 30, 1931, as an "eloquent interpreter of Chopin, Schubert and Schumann".

She trained in Sai Gon, first under the tutelage of the French pianistic tradition of Catholic nuns, then Caron, who was Isidor Philipp's student. Philipp won the first piano prize at Paris Conservatoire in 1883. Philipp’s teacher was Georges Mathias — a student of Chopin.

While pursuing a professional career as a pianist, the political turmoil of the then-French Indochina drove the Thai sisters to different paths. While the elder sister Louise Nguyen Van Ty (born Thai Thi Lang), found her career in French music halls with her compositions played, recorded and printed, the younger sister Thai Thi Lien followed the call of the underground revolutionary movement in Sai Gon, following her brother, who fought against the French rule and occupation of the country.

She was a messenger for the revolutionary forces and her Sai Gon music salon was a rendezvous for patriotic elite congressmen and medical doctors, lawyers and artists.

MOTHERHOOD: She gave birth to her daughter in Prague before graduating from the city's conservatory. Photo courtesy of the family

She followed her husband to represent the Viet Minh (Vietnam League for Independence) at the Fontainebleau Agreements in 1946 and later moved to Prague, the then capital of Czechoslovakia, where she graduated from the Prague Music Conservatory in 1951.

She then joined the Central Music and Arts troupes in the Viet Bac revolutionary base. When Hanoi was liberated in 1954, she moved to the city and later joined six other prominent composers and musicians to establish the then Vietnam Music School.

During the war against American involvement in Vietnam, she evacuated the music school to the countryside, where the teachers taught and students studied in air-raid shelters, often under American air bombardment.

In 1970, she was invited as a guest to the 8th International Chopin Competition in Warsaw and brought home with her books, discs and stories about the competition that opened a whole new world of music to the young Son in the evacuated school in the countryside.

With the cooperation with the then Socialist Eastern European countries, Vietnamese music students got to study with Russian piano teachers, having masterclasses with Polish pianists, who detected the early talent of Dang Thai Son. She retired in 1977 after 20 years of leading the piano department and producing leading pianists of the time.

At 100 years old, Madame Lien still frequented music concerts when her son Dang Thai Son performed in Hanoi.

In 1980, she once again became known across the country when her son Son won the 10th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, which shocked the piano world. Newspapers lauded the up-and-coming young pianist from war-torn Vietnam becoming the winner of the world's oldest and most prestigious piano competition. The young man didn't come from anywhere - in fact, his professional lineage can be traced all the way back to Chopin.

In 2021, Son made history again when he became the first Chopin competition winner who trained his student Bruce Liu to become the 18th Competition winner, which Madame Lien closely followed via the YouTube posts of the Chopin Institute in Warsaw.

For her contribution to the country's struggle to win independence, she was bestowed with the Labour Order, First Class. She was also awarded a series of accolades including People's Teacher for laying the foundations of piano training in the country.

Her daughter Tran Thu Bach Ha followed the footsteps of her mother to become a respected pianist and pedagogue, who was Director of the Hanoi Conservartory of Music, today Vietnam's National Academy of Music, for 10 years.

Madame Lien is survived by three children, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Her memorial service will take place at the National Funeral Hall on Saturday. 

Source: Vietnam News


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