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Lone Star


Among classical performers of the last half-century, only perhaps Arturo Tos- canini, Vladimir Horowitz, and Maria Callas were the subjects of as much adulation, controversy, and speculation as Glenn Gould. Even so, Gould’s popularity was different. He was part of a new era, and addressed a new audience. Coming along at a time when music conservatories and piano contests were producing increasing numbers of pianists of indistinguishable proficiency and uniform style, Gould seemed both to produce his own unique sound and also to appeal to a new audience of listeners. Claiming a taste for his playing, like the fashion for Marshall McLuhan or for semiotics, became a sign of sophistication during the 1960s and 1970s.

His fame for a while was nearly comparable to Elvis’s—a Gould recording of a Bach prelude and fugue was launched into space on Voyager in 1977 to instruct aliens about human culture, should they ever be able to decipher how to turn on the spacecraft’s phonograph. Since Gould’s death in 1982, caused by a stroke shortly after his fiftieth birthday, his prestige seems only to have grown. A 1990s reissue of his 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations sold nearly two million copies, a virtually unheard-of number for a serious classical album. That recording has since been repackaged once again and become another best seller.

Kevin Bazzana’s Wondrous Strange, following books like Geoffrey Payzant’s semi-official biography of 1978 and Otto Friedrich’s fine, authorized biography from 1989, is the best account so far of his life: lucid, balanced, intelligent, and wide-ranging. Like Gould a resident of Canada, Bazzana concentrates on Gould’s Canadian origins. He investigates Gould’s medical history (Gould was a hypochondriac whose worst fears came true). He analyzes Gould’s radio and television productions for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, in which he exper- imented with contrapuntal speech and which he took as seriously as his musical recordings. And he reviews the Gould discography in some detail.

The book joins an already vast industry. A French scholar has cataloged Gould’s physical tics and proposed a study of his eyebrow move-ments. There are poems and feature films about Gould, novels inspired by him. There are traders in Gould’s scores and memorabilia; Web sites and fan clubs; dances choreographed to his peculiar stage mannerisms and to his recorded performances; soundtracks of movies using his Goldberg recording. There is a Glenn Gould Foundation, a Glenn Gould Prize, a Glenn Gould Park, and music composed in his honor. A tourist industry in Toronto caters to pilgrims wishing to glimpse the house in which he lived as a boy, his grade school, the hotel where he holed up in later years and kept in touch with friends through long late-night–early-morning monologues on the telephone, and even the diners where, sometimes during the middle of the night, he would take his only meal of the day, by himself.

As for his playing, among recorded pianists only Horowitz, whom Gould claimed to disdain but with whom he has much more in common than he ever cared to admit, may be as instantly recognizable on disc to a broad musical public. You usually know when you are listening to Gould, even if, from one performance to another of the same piece, his tempos and articulation change. The opening theme in his second version of the Goldberg Variations, from 1981, is nearly twice as slow as the theme in the version from 1955, the one that made Gould a celebrity. But both albums are unmistakably his. So are his recordings of Mozart, the best of which are far more sympathetic toward the composer than even Gould, who enjoyed attacking Mozart, conceded, but the worst of which are mischievous and hostile, intended to be perverse.

Good or bad, Gould’s playing derived its strange and vital power partly from the conflict between his own stupendous virtuosity and his intense feelings for music—or to be more precise, the power derived from his neurotic struggles to tame and sublimate these enviable traits. After recording the Goldbergs the second time, he spoke disappointedly to the music critic Tim Page about the earlier version, lamenting its lack of deliberation and rhythmic architecture and its posturing excess of dynamic dips and tempo shifts—“things that pass for expressive fervor in your average conservatory.” The slow variation, No. 25, missed “the dignity to bear its suffering with a hint of quiet resignation,” Gould asserted. “There’s a lot of piano playing going on there and I mean that as the most disparaging comment possible.”* Or so he said. Was this itself a pose? In any case, it was exactly this emotive playing that many people admired about the performance.

There were other young pianists of his day as gifted (Sviatoslav Richter, Dinu Lipatti, William Kapell) but none had Gould’s peculiar, electric sound. To detractors this sound was monotonous and unpleasant. Alfred Brendel, another important contemporary and a very different sort of player, called Gould an “eccentric”—as opposed, Brendel said, to a “serious performer”—and he omitted any mention of Gould in an interview some years ago about playing Bach on the piano. The French psychologist and musicologist Michel Schneider claimed to know people for whom Gould’s playing “makes their flesh creep, makes them clench their fingers.” Schneider described Gould’s “remoteness, terror, disproportion… this over-transparent sound, this sublimated piano playing” as if the playing were a pathology.

And, in its way, it was. The distinguishing features of Gould’s style—the exaggerated tempos and dryness of attack combined with sustained tension, ostentatious indications that he had thought out his own new approach, a sometimes cavalier disregard for composers’ markings, and a distaste for anything he deemed too Romantic or too flamboyant—all of this seemed to suggest a calculated, which is not to say insincere, theatrics on Gould’s part and had the effect of a psychological spectacle. Spiky, crisp, full of odd accents, his playing could also be astonishingly graceful, breathless, achingly beautiful. His rigor, concentration, and technique were wonderfully, almost spiritually exhilarating.

Gould could, however, play Bach perfunctorily (as with the Toccatas), and some of his greatest recordings are not what’s commonly associated with him: his Brahms intermezzi, for instance (despite his disparaging remarks about Brahms), his recordings both of early composers like Byrd and Gibbons and of modernists like Berg and Prokofiev. In these renditions, one hears, besides the usual percussive and tensile sound, a suppleness of pulse, subtlety of coloration, and alacrity in responding to changes of tempo, as well as charm, even tenderness and vulnerability—qualities Gould might almost have wished to disown. But then, he was, as he had to concede, a Romantic despite himself. He once made an admission about Horowitz that was revealing. He couldn’t help admiring, he said,

the sense of space that very often infiltrated his playing, the way in which, sometimes very unexpectedly, an alto voice or a tenor voice would appear that you weren’t aware of…. It suddenly gave a sense of a three-dimensional aspect to the playing.

He could have been describing his own playing.

He was born Glenn Herbert Gold on September 25, 1932, an only child in a Protestant family of furriers who by the late 1930s had begun to call themselves Gould, perhaps to avoid being mistaken for Jews. The Toronto where Gould grew up, Bazzana recounts, was a small, peaceful, puritanical, Anglophilic city. Canada was achieving a degree of cultural independence in those decades, increasingly through the radio and television. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation was pioneering and experimental. Gould was among the few classical musicians (Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein were others) who, early on, recognized and exploited the potential of the new technologies.

As a boy, he was a loner, polite, gangly, and disheveled, already an insomniac, amusing when he chose to be but also a young fogy, intolerant of his friends’ smoking, drinking, and flirting. There has been some speculation about Asperger’s syndrome. He was the sort of teenager who affected a German accent after reading Nietzsche and who claimed to identify with Tonio Kröger, Mann’s fictional aesthete.

His parents coddled him. His mother, Florence, in whose bed he slept at their summer cottage on alternate nights with his father, became his first piano teacher, and her Scottish heritage, Bazzana writes, fostered in him a strict and evangelical view of music. Bert, his father, spent heavily on newer, better instruments and, after Gould’s talent compelled the family to look beyond his mother’s instruction, on a formal music education.

Gould studied at the Toronto Conservatory with a Chilean-born pianist, Alberto Guerrero, one of the heroes in Bazzana’s book, previously slighted because Gould, who lacked Guerrero’s generosity, did not want to be seen as anyone’s disciple, which in the end he wasn’t. Even so, Bazzana shows, Guerrero excited the young Gould’s interest; he taught him how to analyze a score, how to memorize music away from the keyboard; he fostered Gould’s contrapuntal style, with its stress on independent voices and a sturdy bass line. He even encouraged Gould’s peculiar, low-seated posture at the piano (but not his other onstage shenanigans, such as warming his hands in water and crossing his legs): Guerrero pointed out that sitting low gave Gould’s fingers greater independence from his arms and shoulders. When, as an adult, Gould dismissed Guerrero, Guerrero responded: “If Glenn feels he hasn’t learned anything from me as a teacher, it’s the greatest compliment,” meaning that a successful student is one who comes to think for himself. Still, Guerrero observed, “Al maestro cuchillada.” To the teacher goes the knife.

Gould’s friend the writer Robert Fulford recalled him even as a boy having “the most breathtaking confidence I’ve ever known.” It was combined with a repressive sense that music, or at least good music, as he eccentrically defined it, must be a spiritual refuge from “worldly grime,” which is how Gould described the sonatas of Scarlatti. Fulford added that “in Glenn’s mind,” music was “refined and bodiless, almost entirely separated from the physical.”

So Gould embraced the rationalism of Schoenberg but hated Stravinsky (Rite of Spring was, he said, “a very offensive work” and Soldier’s Tale “a piece of trash”). Bach was his paragon of order, the master of beloved counterpoint, which meant Gould conveniently ignored Bach as a man of the theater. Mozart was too melodious for him, and Gould played him as if he were a failed contrapuntalist, grossly exaggerating the bass lines in homophonic music, rather than treating them as accompaniments. He admired the pianist Artur Schnabel partly because, as Theodor Leschetizky, Schnabel’s famous teacher, said about him, “you will never be a pianist; you are a musician”—that is, Schnabel was an idealist who transcended the hurly-burly of playing. Gould might have preferred not to acknowledge that Schnabel was, like Schoenberg, also a Romantic at heart.

He was a bundle of absurd contradictions. His favorite conductors included Leopold Stokowski and he loved Humperdinck’s Hänsel and Gretel. He told an interviewer that his taste was “roughly demarcated by The Art of the Fugue on one side and Tristan on the other,” while almost everything in between was “at best, the subject of admiration rather than love.” But this was not true. He despised Schubert for being repetitive, and middle-period Beethoven as bombastic. The first movement of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111, one of the glories of music, was, for him, “a bad piece,” but he revered Haydn. He played Liszt’s transcriptions of Beethoven symphonies and also, for his pleasure, piano transcriptions of Mahler, Bruckner, and Elgar. Meanwhile, he wrote off nearly all Spanish music and Italian opera, which he found cloyingly melodious and too sensuous (it made him “intensely uncomfortable,” he once said, revealingly). About the music of France, he considered Fauré’s music “junk” but declared Bizet’s forgettable and rarely played Variations chromatiques as “one of the very few masterpieces for solo piano to emerge from the third quarter of the nineteenth century.” His recording of it, from 1971, while brilliant, is humorless and thereby a lost argument for the composition’s resuscitation.

  1. *

    See the liner notes to Glenn Gould, A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations, 1955 & 1981 (Sony, 2002).

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