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The madness of genius Glenn Gould (4)

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Glenn Herbert Gould (25 September 1932 – 4 October 1982) was a Canadian pianist who became one of the best-known and most-celebrated classical pianists of the 20th century. He was renowned as an interpreter of the keyboard works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Gould’s playing was distinguished by a remarkable technical proficiency and a capacity to articulate the contrapuntal texture of Bach’s music.

Gould rejected most of the standard Romantic piano literature by Chopin, Liszt, and others, in favour of Bach and Beethoven mainly, along with some late-Romantic and modernist composers. Although his recordings were dominated by Bach and Beethoven, Gould’s repertoire was diverse, including works by Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms; pre-Baroque composers such as Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck and Orlando Gibbons; and 20th-century composers including Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, and Richard Strauss.

Gould was known for his eccentricities, from his unorthodox musical interpretations and mannerisms at the keyboard to aspects of his lifestyle and behaviour. He stopped giving concerts at the age of 31 to concentrate on studio recording and other projects.

Gould was also a writer, broadcaster, composer and conductor. He was a prolific contributor to musical journals, in which he discussed music theory and outlined his musical philosophy. He performed on television and radio, and produced three musique concrète radio documentaries called the Solitude Trilogy, about isolated areas of Canada.

Gould was a child prodigy and was described in adulthood as a musical phenomenon. He claimed to have almost never practised on the piano itself, preferring to study repertoire by reading, another technique he had learned from Guerrero. He may have spoken ironically about his practising as there is evidence that, on occasion, he did practise quite hard, sometimes using his own drills and techniques.

He stated that he did not understand the requirement of other pianists to continuously reinforce their relationship with the instrument by practising many hours a day. It seems that Gould was able to practise mentally without access to an instrument, once going so far as to prepare for a recording of Brahms‘ piano works without playing them until only a few weeks before the sessions.

Gould could play from memory not just a vast repertoire of piano music, but also a wide range of orchestral and operatic transcriptions. He could “memorize at sight” and once challenged his friend John Roberts to name any piece of music that he could not “instantly play from memory”.

In creating music, Gould much preferred the control and intimacy provided by the recording studio. He disliked the concert hall, which he compared to a competitive sporting arena. He held his final public performance in 1964, and thereafter devoted his career to the studio, recording albums and several radio documentaries. He was attracted to the technical aspects of recording, and considered the manipulation of tape to be another part of the creative process.

Although Gould’s recording studio producers have testified that “he needed splicing less than most performers”, Gould used the process to give himself total artistic control over the recording process. He recounted his recording of the A minor fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier and how it was spliced together from two takes, with the fugue’s expositions from one take and its episodes from another.

Gould’s first commercial recording (of Berg’s Piano sonata, Op. 1) came in 1953 on the short-lived Canadian Hallmark label. He soon signed with Columbia Records’ classical music division and, in 1955, recorded Bach: The Goldberg Variations, his breakthrough work. Although there was some controversy at Columbia about the appropriateness of this “debut” piece, the record received phenomenal praise and was among the best-selling classical music albums of its era.

Gould became closely associated with the piece, playing it in full or in part at many recitals. A new recording of the Goldberg Variations, made in 1981, would be among his last albums; the piece was one of only a few he recorded twice in the studio. The 1981 release was one of CBS Masterworks’ first digital recordings. The 1955 interpretation is highly energetic and often frenetic; the later is slower and more deliberate Gould wanted to treat the aria and its 30 variations as a cohesive whole.

Gould revered J.S. Bach, stating that the Baroque composer was “first and last an architect, a constructor of sound, and what makes him so inestimably valuable to us is that he was beyond a doubt the greatest architect of sound who ever lived”.

He recorded most of Bach’s other keyboard works, including both books of The Well-Tempered Clavier and the Partitas, French Suites, English Suites, Inventions and Sinfonias, keyboard concertos, and a number of toccatas (which interested him least, being less polyphonic). For his only recording at the organ, he recorded about half of The Art of Fugue, which was also released posthumously on piano.

As for Beethoven, Gould preferred the composer’s early and late periods. He recorded all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos, 23 of the 32 piano sonatas, and numerous bagatelles and variations. Gould was the first pianist to record any of Liszt’s piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies (beginning with the Fifth Symphony, in 1967, with the Sixth released in 1969).

Gould also recorded works by Brahms, Mozart, and many other prominent piano composers (with the notable exception of Chopin), though he was outspoken in his criticism of the Romantic era as a whole. He was extremely critical of Frédéric Chopin.

When asked in a radio interview if he did not find himself wanting to play Chopin, he replied: “No, I don’t. I play it in a weak moment – maybe once a year or twice a year for myself. But it doesn’t convince me.” However, in 1970, he played the B minor sonata by Chopin for the CBC and stated that he liked some of the miniatures and that he “sort of liked the first movement of the B minor” but never recorded any of Chopin’s music.

Although he recorded all of Mozart’s sonatas and admitted enjoying the “actual playing” of them, Gould claimed to dislike Mozart’s later works, to the extent of arguing (perhaps facetiously) that Mozart died too late rather than too early. He was fond of a number of lesser-known composers such as Orlando Gibbons, whose Anthems he had heard as a teenager, and whose music he felt a “spiritual attachment” to.

He recorded a number of Gibbons’s keyboard works, and called him his favourite composer, despite his better-known admiration for the technical mastery of Bach. He made recordings of piano music by Jean Sibelius (the Sonatines and Kyllikki), Georges Bizet (the Variations Chromatiques de Concert and the Premier nocturne), Richard Strauss (the Piano Sonata, the Five Pieces, and Enoch Arden with Claude Rains), and Paul Hindemith (the three piano sonatas and the sonatas for brass and piano). He also made recordings of the complete piano works Lieder by Arnold Schoenberg. In early September 1982, Gould made his final recording: Strauss’s Piano Sonata in B minor.

Gould made numerous television and radio programs for CBC Television and CBC Radio. Notable productions include his musique concrète Solitude Trilogy, which consists of The Idea of North, a meditation on Northern Canada and its people, The Latecomers, about Newfoundland, and The Quiet in the Land, about Mennonites in Manitoba. All three use a radiophonic electronic-music technique that Gould called “contrapuntal radio”, in which several people are heard speaking at once—much like the voices in a fugue—manipulated through overdubbing and editing.

Gould’s experience of driving across northern Ontario while listening to Top 40 radio in 1967 provided the inspiration for one of his most unusual radio pieces, The Search for Petula Clark, a witty and eloquent dissertation on the recordings of the renowned British pop singer, who was then at the peak of her international success.

Completed Gould’s original works

  • A Merry Thought, for piano (1941; earliest surviving work)
  • Our Gifts, for voice & piano (1943)
  • Rondo in D major, piano (1948)
  • Suite for Twelfth Night, for piano (1949; MS lost):
  1. Nocturne
  2. Whimsical Nonsense
  3. Elizabethan Gaiety
  4. Regal Atmosphere
  • Sonata for Piano (1948–50)
  • 5 Short Piano Pieces (c. 1949–50)
  • Sonata for Bassoon and Piano (1950)
  • Prelude, Cantilena and Gigue, for clarinet & bassoon (1951)
  • 2 Piano Pieces (1951)
  • Three Fugues on One Subject, No. 2 (1952)
  • String Quartet in F minor, Op. 1 (1953–55)
  • So You Want to Write a Fugue?, for 4 solo voices & piano or string quartet (1957–58)
  • Lieberson Madrigal, for 4 solo voices (1964)
  • From Chilkoot’s Icy Glacier, for 4 solo voices (1967)

Arrangements and cadenzas

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