The mystery of Glenn Gould

Few musicians have divided opinion as starkly as the Canadian pianist. For some, he was the ultimate aesthete; for others, everything a performer should not be

Michael Church
Monday 29 November 2004 01:00
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What is it about Glenn Gould? This hyper-eccentric Canadian pianist may be long in his grave, but Sony is reporting record sales for the umpteenth re-release of his two dramatically different recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations, after the previous release topped the charts in the United States. Gould has exerted unique fascination since he shot to prominence in the Fifties; his premature death in 1982 - "a great career move", said his Sony producer - actually stoked public interest, with biographies, websites, records, and relics doing for him what they've done for Elvis Presley.

What is it about Glenn Gould? This hyper-eccentric Canadian pianist may be long in his grave, but Sony is reporting record sales for the umpteenth re-release of his two dramatically different recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations, after the previous release topped the charts in the United States. Gould has exerted unique fascination since he shot to prominence in the Fifties; his premature death in 1982 - "a great career move", said his Sony producer - actually stoked public interest, with biographies, websites, records, and relics doing for him what they've done for Elvis Presley.

Gould's army of famous fans was headed by Igor Stravinsky, Herbert von Karajan, and Leonard Bernstein, with Yehudi Menuhin and Mstislav Rostropovich close behind; other admirers have included the jazzman Oscar Peterson, guitarist Brian Jones, and the writers Samuel Beckett and Roland Barthes. Ask budding pianists - anywhere in the world - whom they wish to emulate, and they'll often name Glenn Gould. Kevin Bazzana, who wrote the definitive biography Wondrous Strange and edits the Glenn Gould Foundation newsletter, was once sent a photo by a British student showing the theme from Gould's String Quartet tattooed on her back. But this adulation also breeds its obverse: outrage, most recently expressed (in an uncharacteristically intemperate outburst) by Alfred Brendel, who stigmatises Gould's "maltreatment" of the works he plays as "disgraceful". Gould, thunders Brendel, "is the classic example of what a performer should not be".

Having spent a fortnight listening to Gould's recordings, - and reading writings by and about him - I'm gladly signing up to his fan-club (and also realising why Brendel can never be a member). My admiration is not only for his inimitable way with notes and words: it's also for the weird originality of his life, and for his extraordinarily prophetic ideas. Gould anticipated the way digital technology would transform recording - at a time when splicing was still being done with scissors and tape.

His love affair with the microphone prompted him, while at the height of his fame, to quit the concert hall - the site of "the last blood sport" - for the recording studio, where, armed with his stop-watch, he behaved like the musical equivalent of a film actor ("I insist on seeing all the rushes as they are shot"). This act was an affirmation of his belief in two things: that concert culture, with its quasi-religious atmosphere, was dying, and that a more equal listener-performer relationship would supersede it. "There is nothing to prevent a dedicated connoisseur from acting as his own tape-editor, and exercising such interpretative predilections as will permit him to create his own ideal performance." Gould wrote that in 1966, and we've just about got there now.

With what he termed his "contrapuntal radio" programmes - wittily convoluted tissues of words and music - Gould anticipated postmodernism; he was also a satirist, impersonating his joke characters as Barry Humphries does his. Those included a silly-ass English conductor called Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite, and a pompous German musicologist, Dr Karlheinz Klopweisser, whose special interest lay in "the resonance of silence" and, in particular, "German silence, which is of course organic, as opposed to French silence, which is ornamental". These figures haven't dated at all.

Gould's mischief had more direct uses too. "There, that'll bug the critics!" he commented, after laying down a glacially slow Mozart recording. He had no time for critics, once issuing an LP with its own ready-made reviews: one was ecstatically pro ("freshness, innocence, and freedom from tradition"), one was respectfully anti ("regrettably, a performance that has not yet jelled"), and one deftly conflated the two, "for those who prefer to remain on the fence". As Bazzana points out: "There's a bad-boy knowingness in the way he sends up tradition - people like Brendel feel he's mocking what they do. But those Mozart interpretations are so well played that they become compelling in their own way - they work. And that's what drives people mad." Even Brendel admits that Gould was prodigiously gifted.

By his own admission, Gould was not a child prodigy, but his father, Bert, did recall that, when a few days old, he would "flex his fingers almost as if playing a scale", and that as a toddler he would instinctively guard his hands from injury. His mother, a frustrated musician, willed him to become a pianist, zealously presiding over his first attempts: her refusal to let him get away with a wrong note, and her encouragement of his singing along, seem to have laid the foundations for his adult style, with its vocal accompaniment and preternatural accuracy.

The piano became, as he put it, his Shangri-La, with the original piano-chair Bert made for him being carried round the world in adult life, like a metaphorical bit of blue blanket. The posture in which he liked to play - with the chair so low he was almost sitting on the floor - was another way of replicating his infant relationship with the piano, as was his humming and clucking, stamping his feet, and his swaying or flailing whenever a hand was free. These quirks drew the crowd, but finally led him to turn his back on them - and their "cheap applause" - as being a "vaudevillian" degradation.

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That was when he was 33, after nine years of superstardom ushered in by the phenomenal sales of his first Goldbergs LP. CBS gave him carte blanche, and they even traded on his eccentricities, their first press release describing his advent thus: "It was a balmy June day, but Gould arrived in coat, beret, muffler, and gloves. 'Equipment' consisted of the customary music portfolio, also a batch of towels, two large bottles of spring water, five small bottles of pills (all different colours and prescriptions), and his own special piano chair." As a teetotaller who never risked a handshake, he nonetheless made a triumphant Russian tour at the height of the Cold War; but his phobias caused trouble at Steinways, where an employee dared to pat him approvingly on the shoulder. Gould decided he'd been injured, spent a month in a body-cast, and sued Steinways for grievous bodily harm.

His retreat into the studio was paralleled by a paranoid retreat in daily life: widely fancied as a sex-object but never sexually active, he felt happier conducting his friendships by phone, and when he did venture out of his shuttered apartment, he dressed like a tramp. His last years were darkened by sadness at his mother's death, and clouded by his addiction to pills. But his creativity went on at a furious pace, right up until the stroke that felled him at 50. As he'd long since quit the stage, however, his posthumous career as a recording star was by then in full swing.

Gould had a unique sound. His playing could be as fleet and joyous as the wind, while still preserving needle-sharp clarity; the slow movements of his Bach and Haydn have the sort of analytical focus he once described as "X-ray". His Scriabine is mistily suggestive, his Brahms ineffably tender. He did have blind spots: unable to surrender to the magic of Chopin, he was therefore unable to pass it on. But it was his view of Beethoven that really set the cat among the pigeons. He loved the "unheroic" early work, but simply couldn't understand why the "Pathétique" and "Appassionata" sonatas - and the "Emperor" Concerto - were such firm public favourites: for him these were bombast, an ego-trip, and that was how he played them. His "Appassionata" sounds like a send-up: you feel as though your feet are stuck in treacle, and that the journey will never end.

In the last interview Gould gave - republished in The Glenn Gould Reader - he comprehensively rubbished the early Romantic repertoire. "I have always felt that the whole centre core of the piano repertoire is a colossal waste of time... This generalization includes Chopin, Liszt, Schumann... I don't think any of the early Romantic composers knew how to write for the piano... The music of that era is full of empty theatrical gestures, full of exhibitionism, and it has a worldly, hedonistic quality that simply turns me off." Yes, that negates just about everything poor old Brendel stands for. But for others, it represents the most bracing provocation from the ultimate aesthete. Long live Glenn Gould; long may he continue to provoke.

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