THE WEIGHT OF A PIANO
By Chris Cander
Imagine if Irving Berlin had read Chris Cander’s novel. He’d sit down to write a song. He’d get as far as “I hate a piano.” Then the man who gave the world lines like “a fine way to treat a Steinway” would mutter: “Blüthner. Dark. Troubled. And doesn’t rhyme with anything.”
An old German Blüthner, in this instance an upright, binds the plot of “The Weight of a Piano.” It’s an improbable survivor, like the Blüthner brand itself, which has outlasted the Weimar Republic, the Third Reich and the Cold War. Brahms, Debussy and Bartok had Blüthners, as did Liberace, and recordings will keep some Blüthners alive forever. Paul McCartney played one on the Beatles album “Let It Be.”
But considering what happens in “The Weight of a Piano,” another Blüthner seems worth mentioning. The one built for the Hindenburg escaped destruction over New Jersey, having been taken off the airship before the fatal flight in 1937. Stashed at the Blüthner factory in Leipzig, it was destroyed by Allied bombs six years later.
“The Weight of a Piano” is about memory and identity. A young Californian named Clara wonders if “every single thing” ever played on her Blüthner had “left an afterimage, a shadow of emotion deposited somewhere inside the case.” It had done a lot of traveling and must have been a fixture in a lot of lives before Cander picks up the story, when it’s middle-aged.
Cander writes that the Blüthner in “The Weight of a Piano” always “sounded melancholy,” even when the music was supposed to be upbeat. Mostly what we hear is by Alexander Scriabin. He dreamed big dreams, bigger than études or sonatas. His sprawling work “Mysterium,” the New York Times critic Donal Henahan once wrote, “apparently would have pitched all the senses into one big Cuisinart and set the control on pulse.”
“The Weight of a Piano” throws a lot into the Cuisinart — it’s immense, intense and imaginative. Clara’s Blüthner once belonged to a Russian named Katya. It was bequeathed to her by a notorious neighbor in the Khrushchev-era apartment building where she grew up. She turns out to be talented. After the Leningrad Conservatory, she marries Mikhail, an engineering student who insists on emigrating with their son, Grisha.
Also in the mix are Bruce, a U.C.L.A. professor who is one of Katya’s few adult pupils when she’s giving piano lessons in California (they go from the Blüthner to bed); Bruce’s wife, Alice, who draws the line at living under the same roof as the Blüthner (Mikhail having flown into a vodka-stoked rage and Katya having asked Bruce to take the Blüthner for safekeeping); and one of Alice’s Virginia Slims, which starts a deadly fire.
Katya, who assumes the piano has been destroyed, thinks she can’t live without Bruce or the Blüthner. But the Blüthner is fine because Bruce had sent it out for a tuning and some touch-up work. Clara, who is Bruce’s daughter, is fine, too, because she was away at a sleepover that night.
She grows up with relatives in Bakersfield, Calif., and becomes an auto mechanic just like Uncle Jack. The Blüthner is her one inherited possession, even if she’s no pianist. And of all the Blüthners in all the online ads in all the world, it’s the one that Grisha — who now goes by Greg — spots as soon as Clara, now in her mid-20s, decides to list it.
There’s a lot to process here, but Cander is a smart, deft storyteller who holds her Scriabin-worthy tale together. She understands how something as beloved as a piano can actually be a burden.
She also understands the inner workings of a Blüthner, just as she seems to understand carburetors and brakes. I’d probably let her work on my piano — or my car.