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Governor-General David Johnston sits at Glenn Gould’s practice piano at Rideau Hall on Thursday, February 17, 2016 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)
Governor-General David Johnston sits at Glenn Gould’s practice piano at Rideau Hall on Thursday, February 17, 2016 in Ottawa. (Dave Chan for The Globe and Mail)

The keys to Canada’s musical history reside in Glenn Gould’s pianos Add to ...

Governor-General David Johnston is more hockey player than pianist – one of North America’s oldest outdoor rinks is literally in his backyard – although he did take violin lessons as a kid. But when he leans against the black, early-1930s Steinway Model B grand piano in the corner of Rideau Hall’s “Long Gallery” – a room that appears to be in a perpetual state of party preparations – its original owner’s eminence takes hold.

Sort of.

“I can play a little bit, but not so that you’d want to record it,” Johnston says with a laugh, as a photographer snaps his hands hovering over the keys. “I’ll be intense. Okay, serious business, huh? Governor-General pretends to play the Steinway.”

Of course, the man who once practised on it wasn’t pretending at all: He was Glenn Gould, Canada’s most famous piano virtuoso.

Known for his unique style and groundbreaking interpretation of such classics as Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the Toronto-born Gould became one of Canada’s first musical superstars. He was also a perfectionist – tinkering with the mechanics of his pianos in order to get the lightness and speed he desired.

“You knew you had to do it his way,” says Verne Edquist, Gould’s former piano tuner, now 85 years old. “Sometimes it wasn’t the right way, but that’s what he wanted, so you did it.”

The Steinway at Rideau Hall (built some time between 1932 and 1934, depending on whom you ask) was Gould’s “working” piano, a diminutive 6-foot-11 model he kept in his apartment on St. Clair Avenue West in Toronto. And it is only one of five Gould pianos currently preserved in Canada.

There are two in Toronto: an 1895 Chickering baby grand at CBC’s Glenn Gould Studio, and one of Gould’s later-in-life Yamahas at Roy Thomson Hall. The other Yamaha, a nine-foot concert grand, lives at King’s University College, a Christian school in Edmonton.

By all accounts, though, the most important piano in Gould’s life was the Steinway CD 318 – his “romance on three legs.” The restored grand piano – estimated value: $1.5-million – has been on display since 2012 at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre.

But it was moved earlier this month to the Canadian Museum of Nature, as the NAC undergoes $110-million in renovations for Canada’s 150th anniversary celebration in July, 2017.

The piano “retains part of his soul,” Jan Lisiecki says. The 20-year-old Canadian pianist, somewhat of a prodigy himself, played on the CD 318 at both the piano’s NAC inauguration in 2012, and at its à bientôt before heading into storage earlier this month.

“Gould would say that he doesn’t even like the piano as an instrument – it’s just his way of expressing himself in music.”

Unlike wine and, well, violins, pianos don’t age well – so it’s tough to know how the piano felt to Gould.

“It’s almost as if you’d see a poster, and it was faded,” Lisiecki says.

The NAC is also in possession of Gould’s famous folding concert chair, built by his father. Gould used it to sit much lower than a standard piano bench – almost eye level with the keys – and it was used so much that the seat wore out. (For what it’s worth, the value of the chair has been put as “priceless.”)

According to biographers, Gould discovered the CD 318 at the Eaton Auditorium in Toronto in 1960. He was 28.

“Once he got it, he said, ‘It’s done, this is the instrument for the rest of my life,’” says Brian Levine, executive director of the Glenn Gould Foundation in Toronto. “Until one day it got dropped off the back of a truck.”

The accident happened in 1971, back at Eaton’s. Gould was heartbroken.

“He questioned me like a lawyer,” Edquist says. “Before it was dropped, it was a beautiful piece of engineering. It was wonderful.”

The piano was never the same – and eventually Gould switched to Yamahas for the digital recordings at the end of his career.

The Steinway practice piano at Rideau Hall was purchased by the government from Gould’s estate in 1983, the year after he died from a stroke at age 50. It cost $12,500.

“It came with the condition that wherever it went, whoever purchased it should keep it tuned and have it played, and accessible to the broad public,” Johnston says. “We were absolutely delighted to fulfill that condition.”

Not everyone is allowed to touch, however. Some 250,000 people tour Rideau Hall each year, but only a select few are invited to play.

That includes special guests such as Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, astronaut Chris Hadfield and Hockey Night in Canada’s George Stroumboulopoulos. (It’s not believed former prime minister Stephen Harper, known for his impromptu piano concerts, ever tickled its ivories.)

But the piano is not just for the famous.

Former governor-general Michaëlle Jean’s daughter used to practise on it, and Johnston says one of his employees – whom he refers to as “Mike the footman” – is a “marvellous” piano player. He wanted to show off Mike’s skills to a reporter on a recent visit.

“Mark, yo Mark! Is Mike around today?” Johnston bellowed to another employee. (Alas, Mike was not.)

For his part, Johnston says it’s important for a “youngish” country like Canada to preserve its cultural history, in piano form or otherwise.

“Apart from the indigenous people, we have only 400 years of civilization,” Johnston says. “Remembering our great artists is part of the building of the soul of the country – the poetry of the country.”

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