Graeme Wood

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Steinway and its Discontents

This book is really the story of two eccentrics. The first is Gould, easily the most finicky in a strong field of stubborn kooks on the concert-pianist circuit. The second, and more interesting, is the collectively eccentric industry of concert-piano builders, as epitomized by Steinway & Sons and the peculiar men (they are all men, at least in this account) who keep their products in tune. Other books have documented Gould’s eccentricities better — this one wastes a great deal of space reprising tired anecdotes about his summer overcoats, his extreme sensitivity to touch, and his diet of Arrowroot biscuits and ketchup — but the Steinway thread reveals an unfamiliar and fascinating side of the classical-music industry.

The piano in question is CD318; the CD before the serial number designates it as one of Steinway’s elite concert grands. Gould found it at Eaton’s, the Toronto department store, long after other pianists had rejected it and he himself had rejected dozens of others. He traveled with it during his short concert career, then recorded on it until 1971, when clumsy movers dropped the piano and ruined it completely. Gould employed highly skilled tuners to make the piano extraordinarily responsive, capable of rendering a distinct (but not necessarily that sonorous or loud) note with Gould’s lightest touch. This special tuning reflects Gould’s prejudices: he didn’t actually like the piano. The tuners’ mission, therefore, was to transcend it, and to turn his instrument into a sort of soft harpsichord.

Hafner’s book suffers somewhat from the distaste of its primary subject (Gould) for its secondary subject (his instrument). Gould was fundamentally uninterested in what he derisively called “piano-playing,” and he moved further and further from the piano near the end of his short life. His favorite Bach was not the Goldberg Variations — the piece with which he will forever be associated, and which Bach wrote for the harpsichord — but The Art of Fugue, for which the composer specified no instrument whatsoever, and which Gould recorded on the organ. He called Walter/Wendy Carlos’s Moog synthesizer albums the most important classical recordings of his time. Given this urge to escape the confines of his Steinway, his love affair with CD318 seems a strange angle from which to contemplate the man.

Originally appeared at TheAtlantic.com

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