I’m currently reading “The Piano Shop on the Left Bank” by Thad Carhart.
It is a bit of a departure for me, as I rarely read non-fiction. When I do, I tend to avoid modern “memoirs” or “experiential” books. However, this was praised by Simon over at Stuck in a Book (a wonderful blog – he has a voracious capacity for books and an eye for the unique). Besides, I really enjoyed Paris during my 2009 trip and I play the piano (although not consistently!) So, I gave it a try – I am so glad I did.
Mr. Carhart draws you immediately into his Parisian neighborhood, where his curiosity is daily piqued by a piano workshop he passes on the way to his children’s school. Mr. Carhart had played the piano as a child and his interest in the instrument is rekindled. However, in the old school way, the atelier is not open to everyone – you must be recommended by a current client. Mr. Carhart secures a recommendation and his quest is also aided by the fact that a younger and friendlier technician, “Luc” (name changed for the book), is in the process of taking over the business. His relationship with Luc and the shop assumes a central role in Mr. Carhart’s life, but the heady atmosphere of the “back-room” access to an exclusive club of piano aficionados takes its toll. Mr. Carhart is soon the proud owner of a reconstructed baby grand (despite the fact that he’d thought his small apartment would only fit an upright – his wife is apparently very accommodating!) The book goes on to interweave a narrative of Mr. Carhart’s piano education, covering an array of interesting topics such as the development of the piano from the harpsichord (I loved the description of how Liszt was so hard on the more delicate early pianos that he would destroy one or two during a concert and at the conclusion, the stage was littered with their carcasses) or Mr. Carhart’s search for a piano teacher.
This book is fortuitously-timed, as I have been meaning to get back into playing more regularly myself. Last fall, I was exposed to Shostakovich for the first time and have enjoyed to the 5th and 10th symphonies many times since. I wanted to ‘own’ a little bit of Shostakovich myself, so ordered his 24 Preludes & Fugues. The second volume just arrived on Friday and my fingers were itching to try it out. Difficult keys – Prelude #13 has six flats! (I’m soft on theory, so I had to look up that this is G flat major/E flat minor). However, the 24th prelude & fugue is set in a relatively friendly key (D minor – only one flat) and the tempo didn’t seem too out of my league (except at the end of the fugue, will definitely have to work up to that). Even with the hesitations and errors of my first sight-read through, I can tell it is a wonderful piece. It’s very representative of the harmonic tensions he used in the symphonies (or at least, those that I’m familiar with) and very emotionally-evocative. So, my new goal is to practice this piece and get it to a working comfort level ability, if not ‘perfect’ it. I’m all the more inspired by “The Piano Shop…” and am interested to learn how the rest of Carhart’s own efforts turn out.
The downside of Carhart’s book is the immediate lusting after a well-crafted master piano. Through his observation’s of Luc’s work, Carhart conveys a deep appreciation for the skill, patience, and craft of repairing pianos. There are thousands of specialty parts working together to produce these amazing sounds. Now, I myself have a digital Yamaha Clavinova. When I bought it seven or eight years ago, the big selling points to me were that the weighted action simulates acoustic keyboards, it sounds good, it never needs tuning, was less expensive, and can be played with headphones so as not to disturb the neighbors in your apartment building. These factors have all served me well (and because the keyboard detaches from the base, it’s much easier to move than an acoustic piano). However, despite the fact that I don’t play enough to warrant spending more thousands on a new instrument and now live in an even older building where the slightest sound travels between floors, I found myself dreaming about an acoustic piano. Not necessarily a fancy Steinway, but something well-built that will produce a lovely tone from the result of all those handmade pieces working together. Even if it requires more tuning and care, the satisfaction would be worth the stewardship. If we’re ever free of downstairs neighbors, I’m pretty sure I’ll end up indulging this dream. But for now, the reliable (and silent) Clavinova will have to do!