Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano

Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano

by Katie Hafner


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Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano by Katie Hafner

Glenn Gould was famous for his obsessions: the scarves, sweaters and fingerless gloves that he wore even on the hottest summer days; his deep fear of germs and illness; the odd wooden "pygmy" chair that he carried with him wherever he performed; and his sudden withdrawal from the public stage at the peak of his career. But perhaps Gould's greatest obsession of all was for a particular piano, a Steinway concert grand known as CD318 (C, meaning for the use of Steinway Concert Artists only, and D, denoting it as the largest that Steinway built). A Romance on Three Legs is the story of Gould's love for this piano, from the first moment of discovery, in a Toronto dept. store, to the tragic moment when the piano was dropped and seriously damaged while being transported from a concert overseas. Hafner also introduces us to the world and art of piano tuning, including a central character in Gould's life, the blind tuner Verne Edquist, who lovingly attended to CD318 for more than two decades. We learn how a concert grand is built, and the fascinating story of how Steinway & Sons weathered the war years by supplying materials for the military effort. Indeed, CD318 came very close to ending up as a series of glider parts or, worse, a casket. The book has already been lauded by Kevin Bazzana, author of the definitive Gould biography, who notes that Hafner "has clarified some old mysteries and turned up many fresh details."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781596915251
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
Publication date: 04/28/2009
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 8.30(w) x 5.50(h) x 0.73(d)

About the Author

Katie Hafner is a correspondent for The New York Times, and also a dedicated amateur pianist. Before joining the Times in 1998 she worked at Newsweek and Business Week. She is the author of four books, three of which concern technology and the Internet: Cyberpunk: Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier (with John Markoff) ; Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (with Matthew Lyon); The Well: A Story of Love, Death and Real Life in the Seminal Online Community; and The House at the Bridge: A Story of Modern Germany. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read an Excerpt

And then there was the piano, which the National Library had decided to purchase from Gould’s estate. An eight-foot-eleven-and-one-quarter-inch Steinway concert grand, it was known as CD 318 (C to signify its special status as having been put aside for the use of Steinway concert artists, and D denoting it as the largest of Steinway’s pianos). Like every Steinway piano, it bore its own serial number: 317194. Helmut Kallmann, the head of the library’s music division, oversaw the delivery of CD 318 and later described how all 1,325 pounds of it were unloaded by three expert burly movers and unceremoniously deposited in the ground-floor lobby of the library. They untied the straps, removed the pads, attached the legs, requested a signature, and left.

A musician himself, Kallmann was a devotee of Gould’s work. In the 1960s, he had occasionally crossed paths with Gould at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, where Kallmann supervised the music library. Gould showed up from time to time to pick up musical scores and often stopped to chat. The pianist’s eccentricities were always evident, as was his charm. Gould once endeared himself to Kallmann by asking, “What key do you think my personality is in?”

Like most Gould fans, Kallmann was familiar with the pianist’s legendary Chickering, a one-hundred-year-old small grand that Gould had famously adored. But when it came time to purchase one of Gould’s pianos for the National Library’s permanent collection, Kallmann and his colleagues in the music division knew it had to be CD 318, the piano that had seen Gould through nearly every recording of his career.

Steinway had made many beautiful instruments over the years–not just the classic ebonized concert grands, but also a number of art-case pianos. Among the best-known are an elaborate white-and-gilt decorative piano made for Cornelius Vanderbilt, with paintings of Apollo surrounded by cherubs, and a piano created for the White House, with legs formed of carved eagles. For the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, Steinway had built a tortoiseshell decoration surmounted by a candelabrum. For the oil magnate E. L. Doheny, the company designed a gilded piano in a Louis XV style with carved legs and elaborate moldings. Even Steinway’s standard-issue polished-ebony concert grands were stately and handsome, if also austere.

Not so this instrument.

The piano that arrived in the early afternoon at the loading bay behind the library, its black case scratched and dented, the lid slightly out of alignment and disfigured by visible gouges, looked every bit the orphan. The archivists in Ottawa knew that this tired-looking instrument had been Gould’s favorite concert grand. And they knew that there had once been an accident that had for a time rendered the piano all but unplayable. But that was all they knew.

One evening shortly after the piano’s arrival, after everyone else had left for the day and he was sure he was alone, Kallmann sat down at CD 318 and played on it a bit. He was first taken aback, and then impressed, by the instrument’s extreme responsiveness, its improbably light touch. No wonder Gould, whose musicianship was so closely tied to his dexterity, had been so attached to it. Kallmann suddenly felt as if he understood something crucial about the great pianist and the piano he had loved. During Gould’s lifetime, fans had speculated that the piano he used must have been altered in some extraordinary way, perhaps rigged with special equipment that would make it possible for Gould’s fingers to fly as fast as they did. But Kallmann closely examined the instrument and found nothing out of the ordinary, no piano equivalent of a warp drive. Using ordinary tuning and regulating tools, a piano technician had managed to give the piano its hair-trigger action. Kallmann marveled: That must have been some technician.

Kallmann took it upon himself to investigate CD 318’s provenance. One of the first telephone calls he placed was to the T. Eaton Company, the large Toronto department store whose piano department had been responsible for the instrument for nearly three decades before Gould had purchased it in 1973. Kallmann was directed to Muriel Mussen, who had recently retired from Eaton’s after more than thirty years working in the piano department, where she was in charge of choosing from among a stable of large grands for visiting concert artists.

Oh, yes, said Mussen when Kallmann explained why he was calling. CD 318. And Glenn Gould. Of course. The piano, she said, had come to Eaton’s around 1946, and for years famous pianists who came through Toronto in the course of a concert tour had played on it. But as the piano had aged, it had lost its appeal. In fact, in the 1950s, concert pianists began to complain about it. And in 1960, just as Eaton’s was preparing to dispose of it–by which she meant that the company planned to ship it back to Steinway in exchange for a newer instrument–Glenn Gould chanced upon it.

From the moment he lifted the fallboard, Gould was smitten. He had been famously fussy about his pianos and spent years rejecting most factory-issue Steinways. But here was a piano whose qualities just happened to be ideally aligned to his particular style of playing. Before long, he was playing on CD 318 exclusively. That piano, Mussen observed, came to be as eccentric as Glenn Gould himself, coddled and tweaked and regulated by Mr. Gould’s principal technician–a man Muriel Mussen referred to simply as Verne–to achieve the supremely responsive keyboard action that Gould required. She explained that Gould grew so attached to CD 318, and became so fearful of unfamiliar pianos, that he insisted on taking it with him for important concerts. Later, after he stopped performing in public, he made nearly all his recordings on CD 318.

Once, Mussen recalled, in the course of extolling the virtues of this piano, Gould told her something about his relationship to CD 318 that she would never forget: “This is the first time in history,” he said, “that there has ever been a romance on three legs.”

Table of Contents

Prologue: Ottawa, 1983     1
Toronto     9
Saskatchewan     31
Astoria     57
The Trouble with Pianos     83
Eaton's     113
A Romance on Three Legs     129
CD 318 in the Studio     151
Broken Piano     167
Making Do     177
The Defection     207
Afterlife     225
Acknowledgments     233
Notes     243
Index     251

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Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Benz1966 More than 1 year ago
I loved this book for a few reasons. The first being that I am a pianist - no where near Glenn Gould's level, but I have played classical music for the bulk of my life and even attended college pursuing a piano performance degree. Unlike Glenn Gould, however, I was more a fan of the romantics and really didn't "get" Bach. Until I heard him play it. If you have never listened to Glenn Gould play Bach I encourage you to go and find a recording <i> right now </i>. It's nothing like you will have heard before. There is a mention in this book on how Gould says that he would not record a piece if he did not have something new to add to it. He set the standard for performances of Bach and I have yet to hear anything as unique and perfect as listening to him play it. However, this is not a biography of Glenn Gould. It's more of a memoir of the piano, Steinway CD318. That's the second thing I loved about this book. I grew up in a home where many pianos went in and out of my life. I played on everything from Steinways and Bosendorfers to Yamahas and Wurlitzers. One of my favorite piano's was a little grand in a music store. It was a Petrof, a piano made in Czechoslovakia. I connected with that instrument in a way that I've never connected with one since. The tone seemed to make the music for me and the action made me feel as if I was at home. I've often wondered where that piano ended up and I hope it was as well cared for as I would have cared for it. The only other instrument that came even close to having that kind of connection was when I had an opportunity to play on Artur Rubensteins piano as a teenager. My dad jokes to this day that it took that piano to teach me how to play a piece of music I'd been struggling on for months to master. And lastly, this is a story about Verne, Gould's piano tuner and one of the main figures in CD318's life. This was a man who had only 10% of his vision, heard notes as colors and spent years perfecting his craft. He put up with so much of Gould's idiosyncrasies that just reading about it had me shaking my head and wondering at his patience. My father tuned for years while I was growing up. He would rebuild, repair, restring and move pianos in and out of my life on a regular basis. I would often bemoan the fact that I'd just get to play the pianos in their beat up condition and that as soon as they reached a wonderful level they were sold off and replaced with another project. Later on in my lifetime I was thankful for that, as it provided me with the opportunity to adjust quickly to different pianos I performed on. Glenn Gould refused to do that. He went through piano after piano and only his old Chickering and CD318 would do for him. The book is aptly titled.. for indeed this was a romantic story.
dmarksnewyorkcity More than 1 year ago
There are times in life when books and passions coalesce, as if perfectly divine universes marry, becoming one. Katie Hafner's Romance on Three Legs is such a union. Glenn Gould, the incarnation of everything Bach, and more, found his piano, his sole companion. Gould's reveting quest for his piano is explored, magically, in Katie's spell binding book, which reads like the smoothest dialogue, and for those who love a terrific mystery, you don't have to be a Gould lover to adore this read. I only put it down twice, each, to turn out my light to sleep. Never mind the stuffed shirts and the concert hall etiquette and attire, the musings of all in attendance, saddle your gear, and ready yourselves for an old fashioned yarn, rife with imagination and resolve. Get ready to meet Gould's friend, a deaf piano tuner, who, with the spirited knowledge of a wizard incarnate, takes Gould's hand and leads him to his promised land.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very enjoyable. The piano, Steinway CD 318, is as much a character of the book as Gould and his piano technician. There is much detail about the construction, maintenance, and tuning of a piano, and about the world of concert pianos, and about the decline of Steinway during the period that they were owned by CBS. These aspects were my favorite part of the book. But a reader who was not interested in these things could skim those chapters and still have a good account of Gould's unusual personality and career.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Have 6 legs..... just saying
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pianoman58 More than 1 year ago
A wonderfull book. I have not turned pages like this since I was a teenager. This book is a biography of Glenn Gould pivoted with his beloved Steinway CD318 and people surrounding them. It is a wonderfull adventure and drama filled with excitement. I cannot help checking his recording dates of his CDs to confirm his life stage after reading this book. I hope she would write a book about Sviastrav Richter also. I would make a movie based on this book if I hit lottery.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago