I recently read A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano by Katie Hafner. Glenn Gould was one of the most celebrated classical pianists of the 20th century. He is especially known for his performances of Bach and his incredible technique.
The book itself was well-written and easy to read. It is certainly not a biography of Gould, but rather a story illustrating some of the eccentric genius of the man as his life intersects with one very specific piano, Steinway CD 318.
In the process of telling the tale, Hafner sketches in Gould’s background, and then introduces other threads that weave through the rest of the book. Those threads include the history of the Steinway & Sons Co. and of the concert grand pianos they built. I learned something of the process of building pianos and why each piano has its own unique personality — especially when pianos were hand-built in a process that took months or years.
Another character in the book is Charles Verne Edquist, the man who for years tuned and voiced CD 318 in the attempt to satisfy Gould’s quest for perfection. Edquist’s own background story is told and is interesting in itself given he was nearly blind from childhood, and grew up in 1940s Canada.
So, would this book be of interest to someone who is not a musician or a classical music buff? Since I can’t erase my own background as a piano player, I can’t say for sure, but I believe so and here’s why:
- It’s the story of an eccentric and interesting man.
- The book includes tidbits of history and its effects, for instance:
- The history of Steinway & Sons and their relationship with concert pianists
- A bit about growing up blind in the early-to-mid 20th century
- How World War II affected the making of pianos — especially CD 318
- How changing attitudes during the 20th century affected live performance and even how pianos are manufactured
- The Steinway CD 318 is itself a fascinating character in the story, beginning with its unique birth during WWII, and ending with its purchase by the National Library of Canada.
- There’s even a mystery of sorts, involving the dropping of CD 318 during transport.
I’m (obviously) not a book reviewer, but this is my take.
Gould has special significance for me. In the 1990s, my piano teacher, Marilyn Pennington, referred to him as a pianist whose interpretation of classical music was based on his own inner ear rather than on a strict or pure interpretation of the music as intended by the composer. In the context of our conversation, she was essentially using Gould as an example showing that my own way of playing classical piano had some precedence.
Of course, Marilyn’s heart really belonged to jazz, so taking a more laid back approach to the drier world of classical music was natural.
That has nothing to do with the book, really, but it helps explain how it even got on my radar.