Gould, Bach and the Goldbergs

The opening bars of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations are inscribed on the headstone of Glenn Gould’s grave, located in a remote part of Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery. No musician is as closely identified with Bach’s keyboard music as this Canadian pianist. Artur Schnabel and Alfred Brendel may reign supreme as interpreters of the 32 Beethoven sonatas, and Vladimir Horowitz for his renditions of the Romantic Era music of Chopin, Schumann and Liszt, but none can challenge Gould’s aesthetic, technical and historical immersion in Bach.

Gould was a profoundly complex man who avoided the canonic repertory played by many of the world’s most famous pianists. He concentrated instead on Bach and pre-Baroque composers such as Gibbons, Byrd and Sweelink, then leapt across three centuries to early 20th century revolutionaries such as Berg, Hindemith, Krenek and Schoenberg. Gould’s very first recording was Alban Berg’s 1910 Piano Sonata for CBC Radio in October 1952, when he was 20. He recorded the Berg work seven times more. Beethoven, whose work he loved (though he performed it less), was, for Gould, the true hinge between the Baroque and Modernist eras.

The most famous image of Gould at the keyboard has struck many as mere idiosyncrasy: he is seated in a low chair rather than on the traditional flat bench, his arms and elbows below the keyboard, hunched like an insect over its prey. But this was no affectation; Gould had an accident before his teen years that defined his posture and also shaped his unique fingering style. Wikipedia describes it this way:

Around the same time, he injured his back as a result of a fall from a boat ramp on the shore of Lake Simcoe. This incident is almost certainly related to the adjustable-height chair his father made shortly thereafter. Gould's mother would urge the young Gould to sit up straight at the keyboard. He used this chair for the rest of his life and took it with him almost everywhere. The famous chair was designed so that Gould could sit very low at the keyboard. The chair allowed him to pull down on the keys rather than striking them from above, a central technical idea of his teacher at the Conservatory, Alberto Guerrero. 
Glenn Gould and Alberto Guerrero
Glenn Gould and Alberto Guerrero
Gould developed a technique that enabled him to choose a very fast tempo while retaining the separateness and clarity of each note. His extremely low position at the instrument arguably permitted more control over the keyboard. 

As Gould developed into his late 20s, he became ever more obsessed with personal privacy, and he ended his live performances at age 32. His final performance was not in Canada but in Los Angeles, at the Wilshire Ebell Theater, on April 10, 1964. He performed excerpts from Bach’s Art of the Fugue and Hindemith’s Piano Sonata No. 3, jumping from 1741 to 1936.

Gould’s desire for privacy caused him to retreat into the studio for his recordings (unlike today’s great Russian pianist, Grigori Sokolov, who records only in live concerts). Nevertheless, he was very public in his aesthetic and critical writings on music — employing a style that was as specific and detailed as his performance technique — and poetic and imagistic in his impassioned lectures. Among the many radio programs he wrote and performed for the CBC is the Solitude Trilogy, which ran from 1967-1977 and began with The Idea of North, in which he discusses the emotional and philosophical implications of coming from a culture that embraces open landscapes and long winters.

At the end of January 1960, Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic broadcast a television program sponsored by the Ford Motor Co. (Try to conceive of such a pairing on TV today.) It was titled The Creative Performer, and the guests were Eileen Farrell, Igor Stravinsky (conducting the three final scenes of The Firebird) and Gould. The focus was on the performing artist as creative collaborator with the composer in the interpretation of musical scores.

By way of introduction, Bernstein discusses a score’s dynamic markings (or lack thereof) as signposts for the performer. To illustrate this idea, he presents the bare-bones manuscript (without stage directions) of the opening scene of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After discussing the vagaries and uncertainties of Baroque-era scores, Bernstein presents Gould playing the opening movement of Bach’s first keyboard concerto, which Bach wrote for the harpsichord. Gould performs it on a modern Steinway, the clarity of his musical vision dominant. Besides the frequent close-ups of his fingers, watch the overhead medium shot that starts at about the nine-minute mark. Gould’s long, tapered fingers “tap” rather than strike the keys (as his teachers describe it) to hypnotic effect!

Gould’s reputation for constantly reinterpreting his work is nowhere more apparent than in his two recordings of the Bach Goldberg Variations, which bookended his career. The first, in 1955, is full of sharp articulation and quickness; the last, in 1981, is deliberate and reflective. This was his valediction to us.

In March of 1967, Gould introduced his television performance of Beethoven’s The Tempest (Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Opus 31, No. 2) by joking that the director had given him “four minutes to say something original about Beethoven.” He then takes more than five minutes to not only describe something “original,” but also define the parallel and conflicting elements that are an amalgam of the creative process: the “inventor” and the “museum curator.” Gould uses The Tempest and the Diabelli Variations as departure points for greater reflections on human personality dynamics. Even if you decide not to watch his performance of the sonata here, please watch these engaging introductory five minutes from Glenn Gould, philosopher. 

As Gould abandoned the concert hall, his performance mannerisms became more prominent; he came to resemble a deeply hunching bow over the keyboard, made more dramatic by the long overcoats he wore to keep warm. Wikipedia describes a few of his eccentricities:

The temperature of the recording studio had to be exactly regulated. He invariably insisted that it had to be extremely warm. According to Friedrich, the air-conditioning engineer had to work just as hard as the recording engineers. The piano had to be set at a certain height and would be raised on wooden blocks if necessary. A small rug would sometimes be required for his feet underneath the piano. He had to sit 14 inches above the floor and would play concerts only while sitting on the old chair his father had made. He continued to use this chair even when the seat was completely worn through. His chair is so closely identified with him that it is shown in a place of honor in a glass case at the national library of Canada.

Gould’s performance style is on full display, along with his highly singular tempi, in these excerpts from Bach’s incomplete Art of the Fugue:

Gould died in 1982 just days after a stroke paralyzed the left side of his body. The stroke occurred two days after his 50th birthday.

A pair of half-hour documentaries made by the National Film Board of Canada in 1959 look back on the halcyon days of his early career. The first documentary, Off the Record, is a love song to the New York City of that bygone era. It opens with a shot of Gould walking down the sidewalk as he heads to the Steinway showroom on West 57th Street, searching for the piano to match his vision for an upcoming recording session. A technician follows Gould with his signature low chair, which always traveled with him. Gould is next seen at rest in his lakeside cottage, discussing composition. 

The second film, On the Record, opens with a scene featuring a New York cabbie, who asks Gould if he is a pianist of the “longhair variety.” Gould confesses that he is. After paying cab fare, the 27-year-old pianist enters the Columbia recording studio, where we watch him and sound technicians as they lay down a recording of Bach’s Italian Concerto.

Both of these wonderfully intimate films were directed by Roman Kroitor and Wolf Koenig. These short documentaries render this intensely private figure as a too vulnerable figure, one struggling, like all of us, to find his niche in an often indifferent, even hostile world. For Gould, the music of Bach was his saving balm.


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