Books: ‘The Piano Shop on the Left Bank’ by Thad Cahart

Every morning as he walked his children to school through his Paris neighbourhood, American writer Thad Carhart (1950 – ) would pass a modest shopfront that kept him intrigued. The stencil sign says “Desforgers Pianos: outillage, fournitures” and the tools and components of piano repair displayed in its windows – tightening wrenches, tuning pins, pieces of felt, small pieces of hardware – illustrated the work that went on behind the glass. Venturing inside on several occasions to express his interest in acquiring a used piano, Carhart was mysteriously rebuffed. The shop seemed as determined in its reserve as the most punctilious Parisian aristocrat. He later learnt that a new customer must be recommended to the shop by one of its existing customers, his first step in unlocking the “complicated network of local relationships that was extremely difficult for a foreigner to penetrate.”

Admitted to its inner sanctum, Carhart discovers that the piano atelier is a wonderland of craft and culture, crammed with dismantled pianos of exquisite artistry, celebrated pedigree, and esteemed provenance (had one indeed belonged to Beethoven?) Among its fascinating holdings he eventually comes upon a piano for himself, a Stingl baby grand (if Steinway is the only name you are familiar with, you are in for quite an education). As Carhart describes the astonishing delivery of the imposing instrument to his apartment, recollects the allure and aggravations of his childhood piano lessons, and warmly recounts the rekindling of lost musical passion that the Stingl inspires, he writes with an easygoing yet enthralling enthusiasm. Along the way, he effortlessly delivers an informative course on the history and construction of pianos and offers more insight into the French temperament than you might discover in a dozen weightier tomes. Best of all, he introduces us to an unforgettable cast of characters – the tuner, Jos, who sleeps in empty trains, Carhart’s Hungarian teacher, Anna, who reacquaints the author with the pleasures of Bach and Bartok, Schumann and Schubert; and most memorably, Luc, the master of the atelier, whose expertise and gift for friendship is portrayed with great affection.

The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is sheer delight.

Quotes from the Book

“I wanted to love this piano. I wanted to invite music back into my life.”

“The effect is captivating as all of the tones mix, like a watercolor with hues swirled together, and lovely carrying notes long after the fingers are lifted from the keys.”

“There is no such thing as music note by note, just as there is no such thing as a book word by word. We have accept that things are ambiguous. Is there any more fundamental lesson that we must learn as we mature? As my friend had told me, he might have been talking about all of life, not just music.”

Thad Carhart (b. 1950) has lived in France for much of his life. He was educated at Yale and Stanford and has worked as an events coordinator in the music industry and as communications head of Apple Compter’s European division. A freelance writer and consultant, he currently lives in Paris with his wife, Simo, and their two children. The Piano Shop on the Left Bank is available as a Random House reprint, 2002.

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