Glenn Gould's Steinway
Glenn Gould may not be the only Canadian known as much for his eccentricities as his achievements — Sir John A. does comes to mind — but he's surely the most famous.
Glenn Gould may not be the only Canadian known as much for his eccentricities as his achievements — Sir John A. does comes to mind — but he's surely the most famous. Gould, who died in 1982 at age 50, was one of the 20th century's most complex and distinctive musicians, a genius whose piano playing evoked profound emotional responses even from people who never otherwise listened to classical music. His 1955 recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations remains the bestselling solo-instrumental classical album ever made. At the same time he swayed, conducted and grasped at air while at the piano in concert and in the studio, all the while humming and groaning (his recording engineers were never quite able to scrub his vocalizing from his records). Gould hated to be touched, and avoided shaking hands. And he liked things hot, literally: broiling recording studios and layers of clothing no matter the weather. It seemed to many, especially after his death, that Gould had Asperger's syndrome, a high-intellect variant on the spectrum of autistic disorders.
Canadians loved Gould as much for his personality — the sheer assertive un-Canadianism of him — as for his genius. A statue at CBC headquarters in his hometown of Toronto depicts Gould in his year-round outfit of coat, hat, muffler and gloves. But of all his quirks, possibly none was more odd or, as told in Katie Hafner's charming love story, A Romance on Three Legs (McClelland & Stewart), more oddly endearing, than Gould's obsession with one temperamental piano.
All concert grands are not created equal, and some of them keep their virtues well hidden. Steinway CD 318 — C to denote having been made for the use of concert pianists, D to indicate it was the company's largest model, nine feet across and 1,325 lb. — was a year old when it arrived in the Eaton's College Street department store in Toronto in 1946. There it was used, abused and not much admired by waves of visiting artists playing in the Eaton Auditorium. By the time local boy Gould discovered it, 14 years later, he had spent five years trawling the classical music world, from New York to West Berlin, in search of the perfect piano. CD 318, for its part, was old, tired and ignored, stashed backstage at the auditorium, waiting to be shipped back to Steinway for disposal.
No one now knows why Gould was prowling backstage in June 1960, when he spotted CD 318 and sat down at it. It bowled him over. The piano had "soul," Hafner writes, its "featherlight, fast-repeating action" and extraordinary tone combining to produce what Gould often said he sought, an instrument that sounded "a little like an emasculated harpsichord." It was, in short, the perfect instrument for an artist who wanted to play Bach on the piano. But it was also a worn-out mess that required the constant attention of the third member of this love triangle. Verne Edquist, an almost blind, Saskatchewan-born piano tuner, was as stubborn, assertive and gifted in his craft as Gould was in his art. It was Edquist who eventually turned CD 318 into the musical equivalent of a fine-tuned Ferrari engine, and it was Edquist who tried to pick up the pieces when tragedy struck.
In 1971, Gould agreed to make a recording with the Cleveland Orchestra, and shipped CD 318 to Ohio by truck. At the last minute the notoriously capricious pianist cancelled the session, claiming to have a cold (perhaps he did, Hafner shrugs, perhaps not; it's equally likely he feared getting a cold during the journey). So back came CD 318, but when Edquist went to tune it, he discovered the piano's core, its 350-lb. cast-iron plate, was cracked: "Something was terribly wrong, the piano had been dropped."
Gould was heartbroken, and spent a decade in fruitless attempts to restore CD 318 to its former glory. At one point, while it was undergoing its lengthy surgeries, Gould recorded on a harpsichord, pounding its keys with the same force he used to exert on the piano. Edquist spent hours fixing the damage: "The closest I ever came to quitting," he later said. Five full years after CD 318's accident, according to a Steinway official present, Gould examined the latest try at repair and nearly broke into tears. "This is not my piano," he moaned. "What has happened to this piano? I cannot play it, I cannot use it." The perfectionist-artist never really gave up on his ideal instrument until 1981, when he reluctantly re-recorded the Goldberg Variations on a new piano. He died a year later, still bereft and still enraptured.
Maclean's June 23, 2008