01 April 2010

A Romance on Three Legs

You fiction readers, with your emotional epiphanies and family sagas and all. I prefer mostly non-fiction, and I still get quite a lot of feeling out of my favorite books, especially the one I read this week: “A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano” by Katie Hafner.

I shed a tear on page 222 when Gould died of a stroke at age 50. I felt for him when he couldn’t find a Steinway anywhere to suit his particular pianistic needs, and ached with him when the one piano he really did like was broken to pieces on a loading dock. I rooted for his blind piano tuner, who rose from poverty to the heights of that somewhat esoteric profession.

What I’m trying to say is “A Romance on Three Legs” is not only well researched on a topic of great interest, but it’s as well written as any book I’ve read in a long time, fiction or non. It’s simply a glorious work of craft, start to finish.

“A Romance on Three Legs” was Gould’s own term for his love affair with his personal piano. The book concerns Glenn Gould’s search over many years for a piano that somehow could deliver the music he heard in his imagination.

He needed a piano with a delicate touch, not one set up for the bomb shell-like effects of composers such as Rachmaninoff or Liszt. “From an early age,” the author notes, “Gould adopted an unusual and intimately physical relationship with his instrument. Sometimes he lowered his face so close to the keyboard that it looked as if he was playing the piano with his nose. And it often seemed that he was hugging the instrument... Yet Gould’s ‘rather hunchbacked’ technique gave him ‘finger clarity, better definition and feeling’ for the composers he preferred, especially Bach.

Gould “sometimes said that he hummed while playing in order to compensate for the shortcomings of an unfamiliar or inferior piano... it represented wishful thinking, the perfect, ideal phrasing he had in his head that he could never quite achieve in real life.”

“Fans noticed,” Hafner writes. “A woman once sent a letter to Columbia Records from the Midwest to say she had just bought a recording of Bach’s French Suites. ‘Now, you’re not going to believe this, she wrote, ‘but someone is singing in the background as Mr. Gould is playing!’”

Gould also “stomped, swayed in time to the music, and conducted himself whenever he had a free hand. He sat sidesaddle much of the time, with one knee almost on the floor.” He invariably sat low to the keyboard, in an adjustable chair his father had modified for him. That same chair now sits in a museum in Gould’s native Toronto, along with his fabled Steinway CD 318, the piano he used for most of his career.

In 1946 at age 14 Glenn Gould performed with the Toronto Symphony. He quickly built a Canadian reputation, and became internationally acclaimed after New York concerts and the success of his first recording, the Goldberg Variations of Johann Sebastian Bach, released in 1956. This recording has been in print ever since, and it is one of the best-selling classical recordings of all time.

Gould gave up performing in public midway through his career, preferring the silence and concentration of a recording studio, where he would often edit and re-edit himself both on the piano and in the editing room. His recordings were technical masterpieces like no others.

Author Katie Hafner creates a deep and rich portrait of an unusual musical genius. She traces the full history of Steinway pianos, details the art of piano tuning and piano manufacture, and follows the stories of several people crucial to Gould’s life and career.

Along the way she tells every funny story, recounts every eccentricity, every dispute, love affair, grand achievement and petty annoyance. The author narrates the life of this most difficult artist with grace and honesty.

Truly this is a book to savor: “A Romance on Three Legs” by Bay Area writer Katie Hafner.


“A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano” by Katie Harper. Bloomsbury paperback $16. ISBN 1596915250.

Notes on the Gould’s Goldberg Variations from the book:

p. 25... “Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations became the best-selling classical recording of 1956. By 1960, it had sold forty thousand copies, which was, Joseph Roddy noted that year in the New Yorker, ‘just about as astonishing in the record business as a big run on a new edition of the Enneads of Plotinus would be in the book trade.’ Gould outsold the soundtrack for The Pajama Game... it would eventually become the best selling classical solo instrumental album of all time, with sales topping 1.8 million copies... “

P 223... Gould’s funeral (age 50, 1982).. “At the end of the service, the closing aria from the recent recording of the Goldberg Variations was piped into the cathedral (in Toronto)... His grave is marked by a simple granite stone into which the outline of a piano is etched, along with his name, years of birth and death, and the first three measures of the same aria.”

p. 20... “There were many reasons for Oppenheim’s objection (the producer for Columbia Records tried to talk him out of performing the Goldberg Variations). The Goldberg Variations was notoriously challenging; it was a work more often associated with the harpsichord than the piano; it had been recorded on piano by only two musicians, and one, Rosalyn Tureck, was the established authority. But Gould stood his ground and Columbia gave in.”

P. 22... “But in Gould’s agile hands the music became eye-opening, fresh, and brazen... When Gould played Bach, the music became sparse, abstract, and mysterious. (David) Dubal wrote, ‘It was a process that went far beyond quibbling about the correct instrument. Indeed, the timbre of the piano under Gould’s hands became new and unexpected.’”

p.22... “Gould... argued that the harpsichord purists were suffering from ‘musicological overkill’ and that Bach was comparatively indifferent on the question of which instrument a piece of music was best suited to When it came to Bach, he argued that in certain circumstances ‘the piano can get you a lot closer to Bach’s conceptual notions that the harpsichord ever can.’”

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