Thad Carhart studied at Yale and Stanford and has worked as an events coordinator in the music industry and as communications head of Apple Computer’s European division. He has lived in France for the better part of his life and The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a forgotten passion in a Paris Atelier in his first book.
It is a lovely, engaging memoir and the title of the book very clearly mentions what it is all about… Pianos, music and Paris.
A narrow street near where the author lives has a small store front with a little stenciled sign that says “Desforges: Atelier” which seems to beckon him tantalizingly… and one day after dropping his children off to school, he walks in and asks about buying a piano. The owner refuses to do any sort of business with strangers in his atelier (workshop) where he repairs, refurbishes and rebuilds used pianos for a very select clientele.
After many repeated polite brush offs, an introduction (from a former client) and with the help of the owner’s younger assistant (and soon to be owner of the shop) Luc, he is granted entry into the sanctum sanctorum- a magical, ethereal space which is full of pianos of all makes, vintages, sizes, colours and temperaments.
The piano started off as a harpsichord, a keyboard which would not allow any type of expression. However hard or soft you played you would get only one standard sound. The harpsichord evolved into the Piano. A piano is actually called a Pianoforte. Piano means soft, forte means loud. An instrument that allows an entire range of dynamics depending on the “touch” the pianist uses while playing it.
Luc is absolutely passionate about pianos and is a brilliant matchmaker. His specialty is marrying off the right piano to the right customer. You will get to know many pianos and their characters, Bosendofers, Stienways, Chickerings, Pleyels, etc.
Eventually, Carhart buys a baby grand Stingl which takes the pride of place in his apartment and so his forgotten passion for playing the piano blossoms.
His friendship with Luc deepens, and we are witness to some amazing insights on the craft of piano making, the history of the instrument and the mechanics of what make the piano what it is. He also has some very interesting stuff to say about the classical masters, the lives and times of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Lizst and others are lightly touched on.
Meanwhile he also starts taking lessons from Anna, a music teacher who teaches adult students. Her technique of teaching and a lesson with her is discussed and is shown to be very different from the traditional way the piano is taught.
Reading about his music lessons bought fond memories of my own music lessons with my teacher and left me misty eyed. He also goes down the memory lane and talks about various other teachers he had, from angelic to almost witchlike.
There is also the piano tuner Jos who was allowed to tune pianos only before 11 in the morning, because after that he is roaring drunk. There is a very comic (tragic?) interlude when Jos “tunes” Anna’s piano in the afternoon…
And then there is Paris, his description of that lovely city and its peoples as seen by him is endearing to anyone who has not been there just as a tourist and knows of the close knit neighbourhoods and almost secret kinships of the citizens. This peep into a very private Paris is quite special.
Towards the end of the book, he talks about his visit to the factory where the world’s best pianos are made, the Fazioli Pianos. Each of these fantastic instruments are hand assembled and could cost upwards of a hundred thousand dollars. His description of how a Fazioli piano sounded is awesome… “When I touched the cabinet of the piano, I could feel the sound coming at me like a controlled earthquake.”
This book may not have much appeal though, for people who are not interested in a piano or western classical music because the details are pretty exhaustive. It is definitely not a book that can be read at full speed. It really needs to be read a few pages at a time.
A quiet masterpiece of a book written with love and almost lyrical prose, it will definitely inspire anyone who has ever played the piano but has stopped to return to the instrument and savour its many delights.