Notes on a Page

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano by Katie Hafner. (258 pages, Bloomsbury USA, $24.99. Many available at discount.

By Susan Meister

Katie Hafner’s book on yet another side of Glenn Gould’s famous eccentricities is not new—it was published in 2008—but in my view it never received the recognition it deserved.

Romance on Three LegsMost of Gould’s audience has been inundated with books and films about his insistence on using his “pygmy chair,” the battered, low folding chair held together by glue and piano wire on which he sat nearly even with the piano keyboard, his obsession with germs, his use of heavy winter garb including gloves, heavy coat, and wool hat that he wore even in scorching summer weather. But no one had chronicled his dedication to a battle-worn Steinway found shoved in a corner in a department store in Toronto. It was this piano, the CD 318 (“C” being the notation that Steinway used for pianos reserved for Steinway concert artists, and “D” meaning the largest of the Steinway pianos), that would obsess Gould for nearly 30 years.

The story of the piano is inextricably tied to the piano technician who worked on the piano for nearly its entire history with Gould, a story as engaging as any told about Gould himself. That person was Verne Edquist, born dirt poor in Saskatchewan, and because of a case of childhood cataracts for which there was no successful treatment at the time, was nearly doomed to a life of poverty- stricken idleness as a result of his disability. But fate intervened, and Edquist was sent to a school for the blind in Ontario where male residents were offered instruction in piano tuning. Originally championed by a Frenchman named Claude Mortal, for a time the blind dominated the profession.

Edquist’s ear was eerily acute to the sound of the piano, and as he was full of ambition, over a period of a decade he worked himself up from a rough tuner in piano factories to the lead tuner at the Heintzman factory, Canada’s Steinway & Sons. One day, Gould visited the factory, and it was then that Edquist fixed on yet another goal: to be the piano technician to star performers like Gould. Eventually, he and Gould would meet and bond over the CD318 and its “featherlike, fast repeating action…. a piano with a soul.”

Hafner once worked for the New York Times, and she uses her reporting skills to provide an abundance of detail about how piano tuners are trained and how Steinway pianos are made. She even tells the story of Gould’s love affair with Cornelia Foss, wife of composer and conductor Lukas Foss. The idea of Glenn Gould having an erotic relationship seems entirely alien to what is popularly known of his personality, but in fact the romance lasted for several years until Cornelia eventually returned with her two children to live with her ever-patient husband once again. The ending of the affair devastated Gould.

The CD318 occupies the main stage of the book. Although massive, the piano did not have the throbbing bass prized in so many Steinways. Instead, it had a refinement of tone that was beautifully suited both to the contrapuntal features of the Bach repertoire and to Gould’s interpretations of composers like Brahms. Gould recorded ten of the Intermezzi, which he described as “the sexiest interpretation of the Intermezzi you have ever heard.” The CD318, he believed, made this possible.

Edquist became almost as important to Gould as the CD318 itself, integral even to Gould’s performance quality. Gould would go so far as to cancel a recording session unless Edquist could be there. Finally, he ended up working full time for Gould, and eventually Gould made more than 90 recordings of hundreds of works on the CD318, most of the time with Edquist in the studio.

One awful day, after being shipped back from a concert in Cleveland, it was discovered that the piano had been dropped from a shipping dock, breaking its 350-pound iron plate in four places. Although Steinway repaired it, it was never the same. Gould bought the piano from Steinway and continued to play it out of sheer devotion: eventually it became an echo of his failing physical and emotional state.

After his death from a stroke at age 50, the CD318 was given to the National Library of Canada, where it remained for a decade. Verne Edquist was appointed to maintain it in playable condition, as mandated by Gould’s will. The piano achieved its own measure of fame: in the early 1990s, it appears in “Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould,” taking up over three minutes in the documentary. A recording of Bach that Gould made on the CD318 ended up on the Voyager I spacecraft sent into, as Carl Sagan described it, “the cosmic ocean.” Verne Edquist was convinced that the spirit of Glenn Gould accompanied it.

Katie Hafner’s achievement in this book is to have understood and presented the intricacies of piano tuning, the making of pianos and the complexity of their mechanisms, a task that must have taken a layman months to master. She makes it interesting. Verne Edquist’s dedication to his craft is fully realized through her narrative, and even though Gould’s well-known eccentricities are detailed again, she adds a human dimension to his character that is otherwise missing elsewhere. Throughout she demonstrates true devotion to her subjects.

Perhaps this book was neglected because of its unusual focus, but for anyone with a love of the sheer sound of music, or with a special love of the piano as an instrument of passion, it is well worth reading. If that isn’t reason enough, read it to honor the Verne Edquists of the world, whose anonymous artistry is the power behind the star performers they serve.