Some Fond Memories of My Life at the Piano

Franz Mohr was Vladimir Horowitz’s personal piano tuner and technician for more than a decade, traveling with him to concerts all over the world. As retired Master Concert Technician for Steinway & Sons, he visited piano dealerships and other venues throughout the United States, giving lectures and telling delightful stories of his experiences tuning pianos for some of the greatest artists of the 20th century—Horowitz, Rubenstein, Cliburn, Pollini, and others. I was fortunate to hear one of these lectures when Mohr visited Clinton’s Piano dealership while Horowitz’s piano was still there. Prior to his visit, Tyke asked if I would play the piano as a prelude to the lecture. I was honored. After the program I asked Tyke if one of the technicians from the store had tuned the piano, and he said, “Franz tuned it.” Good heavens, I said to myself, for me?

At the age of 16 I was among a group of high school students selected for an Independent Study Program. Each of us was given two weeks off from school to devote to a special project of our choosing. At the end of that time we made a presentation to a group of faculty members. I focused on the Connecticut composer Charles Ives, who was not well known at the time. As part of my project I learned the third movement of Ives’ Piano Sonata No. 2 (1840–60), known as “The Concord Sonata.” Its four movements represent figures associated with transcendentalism: I. Emerson, II. Hawthorne, III. The Alcotts, and IV. Thoreau. I concentrated on the third movement—‘The Alcotts’—because it was of moderate length and within the limits of my piano technique. The remaining movements are tremendously difficult, and the entire sonata takes nearly an hour to perform.

While doing research in the library, I learned that “The Concord Sonata” had premiered in 1939 in New York, performed at a Town Hall recital by John Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick was also the first pianist to record the work, which was released by Columbia Records in 1948. I listened to that recording in the library and later discovered that it took Kirkpatrick six years to prepare his performance! Kirkpatrick was a close friend of Charles Ives and personally worked with him on the sonata, as Ives maneuvered his way through its many revisions. As part of my study, figuring there was nothing to lose, I wrote a letter to John Kirkpatrick, and a week or so later, when the phone rang in my parents’ home, I answered it. “Hello, Bruce,” a voice on the other end said, “this is John Kirkpatrick.” I hyperventilated. Mr. Kirkpatrick certainly understood my astonishment, because I heard him chuckle. He said he would be en route from New York to New Haven, and since I lived in between, wanted to pick me up, take me to Yale University, and show me the Ives Collection. I was shocked.

When he arrived, I hopped in his Volkswagen and off we went to Yale, where he led me through rooms in various libraries, eventually arriving in a room with a piano. “Well,” he said, “the first thing I guess I’ll have you do is play ‘The Alcotts’ for me.” This came as a complete surprise, so I had no time to be nervous. Fortunately, I had my copy of the score with me. After I played for Mr. Kirkpatrick, he told me he was unhappy with the edition I had. Charles Ives had begun substantial work on the piece as early as 1911, and had largely completed it by 1915. It was first published in 1920, with a revised edition in 1947. Mr. Kirkpatrick pulled a hardcopy edition from the Ives Collection off the shelves behind him, took out a pad of yellow legal paper and, drawing lines on it by hand, transformed it into a sheet of staff paper. Then he wrote out the final page of “The Alcotts” for me from the edition he preferred—by hand, in pencil—and I taped it into my score.

It was a thrill to share this experience when I gave my Independent Study presentation, at which I performed “The Alcotts” on the piano. Later, I was one of a small group of students from the program chosen to repeat my presentation before the Board of Education. However, my fondest memento is that sheet of yellow paper, which remains taped to my score of “The Concord Sonata” to this day.