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

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9781596915244: A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano

A grand tale of obsession about the brilliant Glenn Gould and the unique, temperamental instrument he came to love beyond all others, by a top New York Times writer.
Glenn Gould was one of the most complex, brilliant artists of the twentieth century, a musician famous for bizarre habits: he wore a hat and gloves even on the warmest summer day; refused to shake hands for fear of germs or damaged fingers; hummed and conducted himself while he played; and traveled the world with a battered old chair, refusing to perform while sitting on anything else.
But perhaps Gould’s greatest obsession of all was with a Steinway concert grand known as CD318. To explain that relationship, which Gould himself described as “a romance on three legs,” Katie Hafner introduces us to the important figures in Gould’s life, including Verne Edquist, his longtime, long-suffering, blind tuner. She offers a fascinating history of the art of tuning, and takes us inside Steinway during the war years, when CD318 was built. And she dissects Gould’s life with the piano, from his first encounter with it to the endless coddling and tweaking that Edquist performed over the years. Hafner includes Gould’s stormy, sometimes outrageous, correspondence with Steinway, and describes his despair when CD318 was fatally dropped from a loading dock.
The book will appeal to fans of books like The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, as well as to those looking fora rich story of obsession like The Orchid Thief.

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About the Author:

Katie Hafner is a correspondent for the New York Times and the author or coauthor of four books, including Where Wizards Stay Up Late, Cyberpunk, The Well, and The House at the Bridge. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

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.”
From the Hardcover edition.

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