To be a Lover, and Especially an Eager one

"The Piano Shop on the Left Bank" by Thad Carhart. A Review by Rolf-Peter Wille

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Location: Taipei, Taiwan

Saturday, June 28, 2003

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by Thad Carhart

a review by Rolf-Peter Wille

In the Straightforward Instruction to his Inventions Bach addresses the "amateurs of the keyboard, and especially the eager ones." In today’s music world the amateur is basically a dilettante and concerts of classical music are becoming increasingly events of specialists playing a specialized repertoire for specialists. Yet, historically, it was always the amateur who stood at the center of musical culture in Europe. An amateur, an "amator," is a lover—and true love is an art.

Thad Carhart’s relationship with the piano evolves very much like a good solid love story, from his being seduced by a mysterious Parisian piano shop, from his first coy attempts to outsmart the reclusive owners, from the way he succeeds in gaining entry into a magical world of piano lovers, to his buying of an instrument, taking piano lessons, maintaining the instrument, and participating in piano related events such as house concerts, master classes, etc. With genuine charm and ingenious simplicity the author describes how the nurturing of this love enriches his daily life, how it builds strong personal rituals, generates growing enthusiasm, knowledge and meaning. This cult of affection is not just a short-lived entertainment for Carhart but the enthusiasm slowly pervades all aspects of his life. The author gradually derives more pleasure from his sojourn in Paris. His observations become more adventurous and under the busy surface of modern Paris he discovers a quaint yet very substantial reclusive culture, a secret circle of enthusiasts, a part of society which would always remain hidden from the eyes of a tourist. The persons he meets—piano dealers, piano builders, technicians, professional musicians, teachers—are described as enthusiastic idealists who have preserved and developed the quality, the integrity and the dignity of their respective profession. Through the help and influence of these inspired professionals the author quickly advances from amateur to piano connoisseur and learns to appreciate the unique place of the piano in European culture: It may be an elegant piece of furniture, a rare antique, a collector’s item or an exquisitely crafted mechanical instrument. But the piano is also a vital link to the past, and the hands of an experienced pianist can instantaneously revive 300 years of history. Last not least a piano can be seen as a living being itself, complete with birthplace, with an individual history, a time of maturation and finally death.

Carhart’s "gumption" and his strong emphasis on quality remind me of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,but Carhart in his narration never acts as a philosopher or teacher. He never fails to inspire and, while reading The Piano Shop on the Left Bank, I somehow regretted being a professional pianist myself. Otherwise I surely would have fallen in love with the piano all over again.

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