Sunday, 18 May 2008

A Romance on Three Legs

When I received an advance reading copy of Katie Hafner's A Romance on Three Legs from Bloomsbury, I thought that it looked very interesting and that it would be good to dip into it and work my way through gradually, over a period of time.

However, the instant I started reading it, I kept on reading. And on. And on. Right to the end. I found it completely enthralling on many levels.

As is well known, Glenn Gould was one of the most brilliant but complicated musicians of the last century - famed for his eccentric playing style and a vast catalogue of bizarre habits, fears and obsessions.

In this book Katie Hafner explores Gould's greatest obsession of all - his favourite piano, a Steinway concert grand known as CD318. The story of his relationship with this idiosyncratic instrument is one which Gould himself dubbed 'a romance on three legs'.

Gould made his landmark 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations on Steinway piano No. CD174, which was at the time the only piano which suited his extraordinarily exacting requirements. He had it shipped all over North America so he could play it in every concert he gave until one fateful day, CD174 was dropped at a freight depot en route back to New York from a concert in Cleveland and was damaged beyond repair.

Thus began Gould's quest for a replacement piano - one even more perfectly suited to his unique technique and his acutely sensitive ear. This is the story which lies at the centre of this fascinating book. By this point we have already been introduced to some of the other essential characters in the drama: Verne Edquist, Gould's long-suffering, blind tuner and 'voicer'; the Steinway company, its managers, craftsmen and technicians; recording studio personnel and Steinway showroom staff. And we have touched upon the history and art of piano tuning - almost unbelievably intricate, with fine distinctions utterly imperceptible to the 'lay' ear but which meant a whole world of difference to Gould. We have visited the Steinway factory during the war years, when CD318 was in the slow process of being built (the craftsmen having been diverted into the assembly of gliders as part of the war effort).

What follows next is an account of Gould's unfolding relationship with CD318 and the endless tweaking and fine-adjustment he insisted that Edquist and others should make in order to render the instrument even more ideal in every respect. Gould gave up performing in concerts in 1964 and devoted the rest of his life to recordings - sitting low at the keyboard of the increasingly battered-looking CD318 on his specially cut-down 'pygmy chair' from which the seat ultimately fell away, leaving only the basic central strut, upon which Gould would perch and sway as he played.

Then, like its predecessor, CD318, the Perfect Piano was fatally dropped from a loading dock and, despite the devoted attention of technicians and tuners, was never the same again. After all the man and his instrument had been through together, Gould's despair and bereavement were acute, and he never felt truly satisfied with a piano again. He went on to re-record the Goldberg Variations on a Yamaha in 1982 and died of a stroke soon afterwards, aged only 50.

As regular readers will know - from last year's Clavierfest here, brought about by reading Bill Coles' excellent novel - I was already something of a Gould fan already. And certainly a devotee of Bach's keyboard music. But Katie Hafner's immensely readable book has sent me racing back to my shelves to rediscover my Gould CDs; to compare recordings made on CD318 with the 1955 Goldberg Variations played on CD174; to watch again Glenn Gould: The Alchemist.

If you're even the tiniest bit interested in music, musicianship and musical instruments, then you will find this as enthralling as I did. You don't need any previous knowledge, or appreciation, of Gould or his music - it reads like a novel. It's beautifully written, well structured and obviously very thoroughly researched but wears its learning lightly.

You can get a closer look at the extraordinary pygmy chair here.

Here's Gould playing Contrapunctus 01 from Bach's The Art of Fugue (not 100% sure whether this is CD318, I'm afraid - no doubt someone more erudite will tell me):

And here's one that definitely is on CD318, with a terrific view of Gould's hands: Byrd Galliard No 6:

A Romance on Three Legs is published in the UK on 10 June. In the meantime, if you feel inspired to find out more about Gould, there's a wealth of information and links to further resources here.


60 Going On 16 said...

I remember hearing Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations when I was in my teens (in the '60s) and rushing out to buy it because it was so brilliant. Still have it in the great big LP cupboard. (And I have the 1982 Yamaha version on CD.) Almost half a century later, I still listen in amazement.

But Gould and that Steinway - truly a magnificent obsession.

Juliet said...

I've been listening to more Hewitt than Gould in the last couple of years when on a Bach binge, but this has send me right back to Gould and has increased my appreciation tenfold. I've learned so much from this book that I doubt I'd have encountered anywhere else - especially re exactly how and why a piano sounds as it does. Absorbing stuff.

monix said...

Thanks for this review, J. It is enough to restore my recently shaken faith in the House of Bloomsbury!

Katie said...

Juliet, I'm so glad you liked the book, or, as Kevin Bazzana, the main expert on GG these days put it, my "weird little book."

That piano he's using for the Art of Fugue sure does look like CD 318, but I can't tell from listening to it. I'd have to go look at the year that was filmed and figure it out from there.

I'll bet you, however, that if I called Verne Edquist, GG's longtime tuner (still alive and well and living in Toronto) and put the phone up to my computer's speaker, he'd be able to tell us if that's ol' CD 318. His ear is still that sensitive.

Juliet said...

Hi Katie - I spent ages Googling discographies to see if the piano used in each recording is credited anywhere, but couldn't find any listings which do so. Once this would not have bothered me but having read your book I now find it immensely frustrating!

I liked 'A Romance on Three Legs' a lot and wouldn't have called it 'weird' myself! 'Off-beat' perhaps, but that's what made it so exciting - full of stuff I never knew I needed to know! For a book so crammed with ‘facts’ it’s a measure of your writing that there’s never a single dull moment.

That’s amazing about Verne Edquist – he must be nearly 80?

I wish you every success with the book, and look forward to watching the website develop, too.

teabird said...

I'm so glad you wrote about this book - I've so been wanting to read it. I love both of his recordings of "Goldberg," sometimes one, sometimes the other, depending on which side of Bach (and which side of Gould) I want to consider and enjoy. His vocalizing doesn't bother me at all because it brings me into him, his performance, his vision of the piece. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't look past the eccentricities to the artist. (Not unusual - Salvadore Dali comes to mind, although he did become a cartoon toward the end of his life.)

I'm adding you to my list of blogs to read - thank you for commenting on mine!

Juliet said...

Hi Melanie - welcome to Musings I hope you will be able to get your hands on a copy of 'Romance' very soon (I think it's published in the US before the end of May). I look forward to finding out what you think of it.

It's odd that Gould's vocalizing is so frowned upon by many 'purists', yet nobody seems to bat an eyelid when jazz musicians do the same (eg Oscar Peterson - nobody's edited him out of his recordings as far as I'm aware, nor condemned him as too eccentric to take seriously).