The piano at the heart of this story is a vessel imbued with a sense of love, loss and memory by the people who inherit it, and so its weight is much more than its physical mass. This is a powerful tale of how we live with grief, with what we hang on to of the people we love and the joy and pain of memory. However, The Weight of a Piano has an immersive warm feel to the narrative as it opens; love of music, of motor engines, of craftsmanship, of first love, all enrapture the reader. The romantic feel of this novel is beguiling and engaging, but we are always vaguely aware of more complex undertones. As the story unfolds Cander explores what it is to love and be loved, from the simple, pure love of an object or art form to a more complex understanding of how we recognise love, experience it and the deeper, darker, more complex reality of mature love and ultimately, loss and grief. The sense of anticipation and intrigue around the story blossoms and the desire to know what happened in the past as much as where we are headed in the present make this a riveting read.
Curiously, I was reading this book when I saw an article in the Guardian about Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt. Her piano, a F278 Fazioli, which she described as her “best friend” was destroyed in an accident in transit. “She said she was in such shock it had taken her 10 days to announce the news.”
This is a recognition of the symbiosis between her and the instrument, a love of it’s sound, the piano and her career were inseparable in her mind. Hewitt’s experience struck a chord, its reminiscent of the opening of this novel; Julius Blüther, the piano maker, is meticulous in his selection of wood for his instruments. When the finished piano is presented to him it is perfect in his eyes, the human contact, the owner/player, will alter the instrument, not quite despoil it but somehow impact on its purity, it will become something else. It’s an obsession, a love, it’s about the intrinsic beauty and value of the instrument. So the first person to love the piano in this story is Herr Blüther. For the characters that follow, Katya, Clara and Greg the love for the piano is bound up with their love for their family. The piano is a physical embodiment of their relationships, something to cling to of the past, a treasured memory of loved ones missed. A different kind of love altogether.
The romantic feel of this novel is something you could get carried away, enveloped in the enthusiasms of the characters, it’s seductive and pleasurable but the reader is gradually sees the underlying tragedy at the heart of the story, a deep sadness that the characters carry but don’t understand, meaning eludes them, yet they are drowning in it. Any chance of redemption for Clara and Greg depends on making sense of their relationships.
The novel opens high in the Romanian mountains, a deep forest, it’s cold, everything is covered in a layer of snow, (white, virgin). These spruce trees are perfect for the soundboards of fine pianos, for creating warm tones, they make instruments that are ideal for Schumann and Liszt, (romantics). Julius Blüthner of Leipzig taps his walking stick against the trees, ‘listening for the music hidden inside’. He has a better sense of this than even Ignaz Bösendorfer and Carl Bechstein. He attached a ribbon to the bark of the trees he chooses and watches the lumberjacks as they cut down those selected. The wood is kept damp, transported back to Germany with delicate care and seasoned before manufacture. In 1905 the assistant Klavierbaumeister selects, glues, and planes the sound board to perfection, even the Klavierbaumeister admires his work. This will be piano number 66,825, it has been years in the making. Finally the first note, a C-sharp, issues with the ‘power of a child’s first cry’.
Present day: Twenty-six year old Clara Lundy in under the bonnet of a ’96 Chevrolet Blazer. Peter asks her to take a look at another job but before she can do that there’s a phone call in the office. Ryan sounds irritated that he couldn’t reach her on her mobile, even though he knows she’s working. He’s taking off for a while and he wants Clara out of the flat, she protests, she thought they were still talking. He sticks the knife in, it’s her fault, he wanted something more, she doesn’t want to settle down, he has to move on:
“So that’s it?”
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Clara has never been good at lasting relationships. She makes arrangements with Peter and some of the guys to move her stuff to a new place, including the piano she inherited from her father. Clara loves being a mechanic, her parents were academics but when they died she moved in with her aunt and uncle, Ila and Jack, in Bakersfield and grew up playing and working in Jack’s garage.
On route to her new flat Clara breaks her wrist in an accident moving the piano, the doctor signs her off work for a few weeks. She decided to sell the piano, she could do with the money. The emotional bond with her father that the piano represents leads her to regret making this decision. Her meeting with Greg, a photographer, who seems to need the slightly battered, out of tune, piano as much as she does leads to an uncovering of the past. It’s not about playing the instrument for either of them, there is no creative urge and yet it has more meaning for these non-players.
1962, Ekaterina Dmitrievna, Katya, sneaks behind her father into the flat of the old blind German, a half-Jewish deserter from the SS, (a story in its own right). Her father has to tune the piano often as the German beats out his sadness on the instrument at night, melancholy, angry. One day when her father has left she asks the German to play something for her, to her surprise he plays a soft Scriabin sonata, (richly tonal). Katya loves this ‘monster’ and when he dies he leaves her the piano, a gift she took as proof ‘of the goodness in mankind’s heart’.
At the Leningrad Conservatory Katya meets Mikhail ‘Misha’ Zeldin, an engineer. He is very on message, not at all a free spirit but when they embrace the first kiss conjures a Rachmaninoff piece in her mind. Katya has her music, Misha his career, they have a young boy, but things change and the prospect of emigrating to America becomes a goal. How on earth does Katya’s piano get to America?
The conjunction of the present and past stories is a little more complex than the reader might expect and all the better for an added tension. The obsession at the heart of the novel is more about the emotional connection to family, about loss and abandonment and dealing with that and how it impacts future relationships. The novel is atmospheric, the setting: Russia, Italy, Bakersfield and Death Valley all play into the mood of the piece. The association with Death Valley and the story in the narrative is particularly evocative and powerful. This story grips at times like a mystery, I was genuinely intrigued by the plight of the piano through history and the bitter sweet human story that accompanied it. The Weight of a Piano is also an exposition on art and creativity. The piano is a physical vessel that transports a story, a material imprint of the intangible. The novel is occasionally sentimental, but who cares?
For Blüthner the piano has its finest moment before it is touched by human hand, it’s perfect, I prefer it battered and bruised by human contact when it’s a reflection of the owners.
Paul Burke 4/4*
The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander
9781787702103 Europa Editions Paperback January 2020