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Review of A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest For The Perfect Piano (Katie Hafner)

November 7, 2014

 As a piano technician, and a crazily obsessed admirer of all things Glenn Gould, I expected a lot from this book and was not disappointed. The book was thorough in detailing Gould’s struggles with Steinway, even if it left the reader with a little bit darker view of who Glenn Gould really was as a person, often maintaining a focus on his obsessive tendencies and perhaps failing to demonstrate his other, more positive, attributes. The book was spot on regarding the pianist’s expectations of an instrument, though I wished the author went into a little more detail on how Verne Edquist abided Gould.      


             I have always wondered why Glenn Gould never learned to attend to his own instrument. I would wager he would have made an excellent technician with years of practice. Piano technology is not quite rocket science (but close) and Gould certainly possessed the intellect and the ear for learning coupled with just enough OCD, a trait shared by many good technicians. I was aware of many facets of Glenn Gould’s idiosyncrasies regarding the particulars of the piano going in and found the author did an excellent job describing how concert pianists, many times, simply ask too much. Most pianists lack the ability to assign what colors and personality a piano possesses can be changed, brought out, lowered, and which aspects of a particular piano is a fixed constant to the limitations of the instrument. For instance, I have heard pianists ask for more vibrato, as if it were a violin, or , as detailed in the book, change concrete opinions of an instrument based on their mood that day.

                I first heard of Glenn Gould in late 1989. I found Liszt’s piano transcription of Beethoven’s 5 Symphony played by Glenn Gould and I was hooked. As the years went on, and after the success of the film 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould availability of his recordings and writings became widely available. I shared a kinship when I learned about his chair. For years I had grown to enjoy using a rocking chair, which seat was about the same height as his “boon traveling companion”. To this day I sit a rocking chair when I play, though our similarities as pianist seem to end there, unfortunately. In regards to his choice of using that particular chair, the decision to forgo the wearing of a tuxedo during concerts, and his outright denial of other concert pianist formals, to be refreshing. He wasn’t as much as a rebel as much as he was a logician. If something made no sense to him, such as live performances, or applause, he had no use for it. His writings and radio work, outside of music, became very relevant to me, philosophically speaking, as a young man. He was insanely brilliant with an enormous sense of humor (something I feel was also left out of the book). 

               Finally the author did not seem to be a typical Gould follower. Many books and films about him seem to be spearheaded by an obsessed admirer. Even with its few failing the book surpassed being a homage to the greatest pianist to ever touch a piano. The author was straight forward and objective. A great companion to the book is a recent documentary film on Gould, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould.There is also a wonderful fictional book perhaps based on real events: The Loser , by Thomas Bernhard details the struggles of two pianists who were placed in a piano master class with Glenn Gould at the Mozarteum in Salzburg (and does so with an incredibly small amount of punctuation). The class was taught by none other than Vladimir Horowitz. The main plot line is that the two other pianists were devastated after listening to Gould play Bach. The two quickly came to the realization that becoming a great pianist was no longer an option after listening to their classmate “who had even surpassed the level of the teacher Horowitz”.

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Peter Olivero, Piano Technician



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