Classical music has always made room for eccentrics, but even in that company Glenn Gould stood out. In the middle of summer, he wore scarves, coats and gloves. He was a hypochondriac, a germ nut who refused to shake hands. He was also a pianist who loathed performing so much that he retired from the concert hall while still in his 30s. When he recorded, he insisted on using a chair that placed him more or less at eye level with the keyboard. No surprise then that when it came to the kind of piano he preferred, he was notoriously picky. It therefore caught everyone off guard when, in 1960, Gould fell in love with Steinway CD318, an unprepossessing concert grand shoved in the corner of a recital hall in Toronto. It had been there for years, and it would have been easy for him to miss his date with destiny. But such are the vagaries of love.
That's the gist of the story Katie Hafner (a former NEWSWEEK writer) tells in "A Romance on Three Legs: Glenn Gould's Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Piano." But boiling this tale down to its essence is a disservice to the author, who understands that this story lives in its details. So Hafner tells how pianos are built, with a focus on the Steinway factory in Queens. Then there's the intricacies of piano tuning and the history of department stores. All of this—maybe not the department-store part—helps explain what pianists listen for, why Gary Graffman treasures one instrument and Rachmaninoff another. And why Gould had so hard a time locating what he called an "infallible apparatus."
In Gould's case, it was all about the action—the action of the keyboard. Gould wanted a piano that would respond to the lightest touch, though he rarely found one that worked the way he wanted. That was hardly surprising, since, by his own admission, he was searching for a piano that played like a harpsichord. CD318 (the factory ID number) gave him what he desired: the ability to skate up and down the keyboard with eerily crystalline articulation. The unsolvable mystery was why that Steinway performed unlike all others.
It isn't giving away too much to say that "A Romance on Three Legs" has its share of tragedy. But you wouldn't want to miss how clearly Hafner makes us see why Gould's eccentricities were more than just charming or laughable. The weird chair, the odd posture, the action of CD318—all were vital to his genius. The results were not always magical, but when Gould was paired with the right composer, Bach especially, he could make you wonder if he was altogether human. And reading Hafner on Gould is sometimes as much fun as listening to him play. And that's saying a lot.