A Romance on Three Legs: a Review

A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould’s Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano / by Katie Hafner (Bloomsbury Press, 2008) Hardcover, 272 p. ISBN: 9781596915244

In A Romance on Three Legs, Katie Hafner tells the story of a famous piano and Glenn Gould’s relationship to it. The eccentric Gould spent five years looking for the perfect piano and the right tuner to keep it perfect. He found a Steinway piano (designated CD 318) in a Canadian department store in 1960. By that time, visiting artists had played it in the store’s auditorium and worn it out. It was back stage awaiting disposal. Gould played it and loved it for its featherlight action and harpsichord-like sound.

Verne Edquist, a nearly blind tuner, worked on it until it became an excellent piano. Gould loved it. In fact, “romance on three legs” is Gould’s phrase, not Hafner’s. Hafner interweaves Gould’s and Edquist’s biographies with an overview of the Steinway company and how a piano is built. Her description of the piano and its special characteristics never becomes too technical for the general reader to understand.

Gould’s reputation rests as much on his eccentricities as on his genius as a musician and pianist.  He wore a hat and gloves every day no matter how hot it was. He toured with a battered chair and refused to perform playing on anything else. He also refused to shake hands. He hummed and groaned as he played, even in the recording studio. Hafner does not succumb to the temptation of trying to find a psychological diagnosis for the mannerisms she describes, leaving the focus on the story rather than speculation.

A Romance on Three Legs has an unhappy ending. A shipping crew dropped the piano. Its five-foot fall resulted in a cracked plate. Steinway rebuilt it, but Edquist could not restore it to its condition before the accident. Hafner describes Gould’s despair over the loss for the rest of his life. All-Purpose Guru Alert offers high-quality books like this every day. Stop by often.