A Romance on Three Legs

They keep coming, the books on Glenn Gould, long after the Canadian musician’s death in 1982. And I keep consuming them, seeking insights into a pianist both odd and arresting.

American Katie Hafner is a fine journalistic writer, a former staffer at the New York Times, and an amateur pianist, and she has written a touching short book here. Her angle is to explore the three-way relationship between Glenn Gould, his beloved Steinway concert grand, and his stalwart Toronto piano technician, Verne Edquist. She writes with sympathy and dispatch, and her book glides along with an ease that is quite opposite to Gould’s troubled life.

This will become, in fact, now the book I will recommend to someone who knows nothing of Gould and wants an overview of the pianist. It is a quick read, the familiar biographical facts seem all in place, and Hafner even manages to score big with a sympathetic, on-the-record interview with Cornelia Foss, Glenn Gould’s only acknowledged lover.

What a saga that affair was! Cornelia Foss, a German émigré painter, was married to the distinguished American composer/conductor Lukas Foss, himself also a Hitler-era German export. Both Fosses were big fans of Glenn Gould and got to know him well personally: eventually Mrs. Foss decided to trade in her marriage to Lukas for a quiet Toronto partnership with the reclusive Gould. Only she did this with her husband’s blessing and a cross-border commuter’s version of ménage-
à-trois: from 1968 to 1973 she and her two kids would ferry weekly by station wagon between Buffalo, New York and Toronto, Ontario (about two hours’ drive) so that she could preserve intimate relationships with both men. There was no sneaking around: all three artists understood the deal and basically accepted it.

Eventually, however, Cornelia ended her relationship with Gould: she decided she and her children could not contend with such a troubled, insecure soul. Gould spent a few more years continuing to chase after her, and then seems to have retreated permanently from intimate relationships, moving further into the solitude of music.

Gould’s other major, complicated love affair was with a New York Steinway nine-foot grand built during World War Two. He stumbled upon it in Toronto in 1960, at the height of his concert career. It served him for two decades, although in 1971 it was dropped during a move and was forever after structurally compromised.

Much of this book offers helpful lay analysis of piano sound and piano touch, and descriptions of how these are engineered in a piano factory and subsequently modified to an artist’s taste over the ensuing years by elite tuner-technicians. To describe a particular piano’s sound and feel is difficult, of course, yet Hafner does a creditable job. We read about Gould’s constant quest to improve his Steinway, and his stubborn refusal to move on to a better instrument after his had been dropped. Similarly, we marvel at near-blind piano technician Verne Edquist’s uncompromising standards, as well as his ability to tolerate the self-serving and difficult Gould – for whom he worked essentially on retainer for many years.

Then suddenly at the age of fifty it was all over: Glenn Gould’s life ended with a massive stroke. Not long before he had switched his piano playing and recording loyalties from the battered Steinway to a new Yamaha, at a time when few classical pianists were playing the Japanese piano. He had also drifted away from his devoted technician Edquist, without farewell or explanation. He was a strange concert artist to the end, this pianist who had not played a public concert in two decades.

Now nearly thirty years later, the Gould debates continue. We scratch our heads over his lifestyle, honor his Bach recordings, and scoff at his Mozart playing. We regret that he abandoned the concert stage so early in his career, leaving so few of us with recital or concerto memories. We shudder to realize Glenn Gould theoretically could still be concertizing today were he alive, since he would only be in his seventies.

In short, we miss him. But his afterlife seems young and healthy.