Wednesday, June 23, 2010

In the key of G

BR, one of my fellow librarians, knows that I love the piano. She recommended a most wonderful book to me: A romance on three legs: Glenn Gould's obsessive quest for the perfect piano by Katie Hafner. I owe her a huge debt of gratitude!

Glenn Gould was a quirky (irritating, hugely talented, self-involved...the list goes on and on) Canadian pianist who first started performing in the 1950s. He performed live for a very small part of his career, preferring the solitude of recording over the company of an audience. He was very opinionated about music and very eccentric in his interpretations of different composers, especially Bach. His recording of Bach's "Goldberg Variations" is the benchmark by which other pianists are judged. A recording of Gould playing Bach's "Aria" was included in a capsule sent into space to show other civilizations what Earth is like.

Gould was very particular about the instrument he played. In the 1950s, the Steinway Company provided concert grand pianos to orchestras/artists throughout the U.S. and Canada. These pianos were available through piano dealerships and could be shipped around the country as needed. Steinway had several instruments at a department store in Toronto, some of them new and pristine, others worn and well used by concert-playing pianists. Glenn Gould was enamored with one of the old and worn pianos and claimed it for his own. A visually-impaired but extraordinarily gifted piano technician (a piano tuner though that title hardly shows the artistry involved in caring for a Steinway piano) worked with Gould to make piano CD 318 the perfect instrument for Gould's exacting (to say the least!) standards.

The book is a biography of Gould, an explanation of the piano as an instrument, the story of the Steinway Company and its history, an examination of the support system for a musical artist and so much more. I learned so much about the piano and gained a greater appreciation of the talent, strength, stamina and artistry involved in playing it. I will listen to pianists with a very different respect now.

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