Character: Glenn Gould


On October 4, 1982, the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould died in a Toronto hospital  only eight days after his fiftieth birthday.  According to his ex-girlfriend, Cornelia Foss, Gould had maintained emphatically that he would die when he was fifty.  Well, the day after his birthday he suffered a stroke, which by itself need not be fatal.  He was taken to the hospital, where he suffered one stroke after another until he lapsed into a coma and died. 

How did he know he would die at fifty?

Gould’s prescience is just one of many fascinating details about him and his life in the documentary film Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould which was broadcast recently on PBS’ American Masters series. Last fall, when this documentary was in theaters, I missed it and despaired that maybe I’d never see it.  I’ve read a great deal about Gould and a collection of Gould’s own writing, but this documentary ranged deeper and wider through his life than any biography I’d seen before.  He was a real character, full of eccentricities and compelled by some inner force (his soul?) to play music, specifically the piano, from a very young age.  A child prodigy.  An acknowledged genius.  And how did he know he’d die at fifty? 

Gould, in the film, talks about the artist’s distance from people and the ordinary world, an idea he explored in his writing and radio documentaries.  He was trying to figure out if it was the natural order of life on this planet, or if it was an artificial construct imposed on artists by society.  As the film progresses, we see evidence that Gould himself chose to maintain a certain distance in order to pursue his music, his art.  But he also had difficulties with social interaction which could have arisen from a sheltered childhood spent focused on music.  Did he choose music, or did music choose him?  From the documentary’s evidence, it looks like music pulled him into it at a very, very young age.  Then, he simply followed it to remain true to himself and his “bliss,” as Joseph Campbell would say, that inner driving force. 

Flaws?  One flaw supported his brilliant musicianship but alienated him from others: his uncompromising approach to music and life.  He was truly a hypochondriac.  And we see a flash of his hubris in one story about him working with a composer on a new work from the composer.  In rehearsal, the composer tried to tell Gould that he’d been playing the music wrong.  Gould, to the composer’s face, told him that the composer didn’t know his own music, and that he, Gould, knew it better and how to play it. 

The friction between composer and musician/performer is the friction between creator and re-creator.  Gould had done some composing in his youth while in school, but he was essentially a re-creator, whether performing on stage or in the recording studio.  Since he’d composed music himself, it’s surprising that he had so little respect for the living composer in front of him and his intent within the music.  This attitude (hubris?) bubbled up in his infamous performance of the Brahms First Piano Concerto with the NY Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein.  He and Bernstein clashed over tempos, and Bernstein, in deference to Gould’s genius (Bernstein explained to the audience at the performance), he was going along with Gould’s tempos (which were not Brahms’ tempos). Gould’s explanation?  He was constantly looking for a new way to see the music, a new approach, and a new performance, rather than doing it like everyone else.  Never mind that every re-creator has a specific guide from the composer: the music score.  In literature, a comparable situation exists between playwright and director or actor, screenwriter and director or actor, and between author and audiobook actor (but rarely between a good, competent editor and an author).

Maybe Gould’s “foreknowledge” of his death at age fifty was just another side of this attitude — that he knew his life better than the creator. 

Gould tried to bridge the distance between himself as an artist and the rest of the world through friendships, in music and outside it, and relationships with women, but found that he could not sustain it.  His true world, in the end, was planet Music and we are all the better for it…..

Glenn Gould

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2 responses to “Character: Glenn Gould

  1. You said on Saturday that musicians are not so much creators as other artists. I didn’t want to bring up Gould, because time was late and it is nearly a cliche how he created his own music from Bach’s “suggestions”. I sympathize with Gould’s viewpoint to play it as he likes it for often played pieces, because we don’t need another perfomance slavishly following the composer’s whim. As long as it is clearly announced “music after composer A” or similar and not “music by composer A”, I don’t see a problem with changing tempi or even notes in a piece. For every collaborative work, of course, the question remains who decides what should be changed, like here Bernstein or Gould?

    • Thanks, Peter, for your comment! You sound like you’re a huge jazz fusion fan! It’s the only music I know of that utilizes improvisation, i.e. takes a suggested motif, rhythm, harmony, series of intervals, and the musicians improvise off it. This is really the only time performing musicians create. Otherwise, they are re-creators, that is, they take something that’s already been created and re-create it for the listening audience. Sometimes, a soloist will compose a cadenza ahead of time for the concerto he’s playing with an orchestra, especially if the composer indicated that’s what he wanted — very common during the Classic period — but probably wouldn’t improvise in performance for the cadenza.

      Gould never created his own music from Bach “suggestions.” Gould changed nothing that was in the score, not one note. He was an extraordinary musician and pianist who was deeply knowledgeable of Baroque performance conventions as well as the syntax, structure and vocabulary of music. What blows pianists and musicians away about his performances is the clarity — it’s possible to hear every single note, each line, perfectly in balance with the whole. Also, Bach did not make suggestions. What he composed, he did so with intelligence and intent, following the compositional rules of his day, expanding on them to give his music his own distinctive voice. This is what the creator does. No matter who plays Bach’s music, his voice is always there. Performers are interpreters, giving sound to what’s written on paper and following the score as they would follow instructions on how to build something.

      …”we don’t need another performance slavishly following the composer’s whim.” First of all, composer’s write with intent, not by whim. There are rules to composition just as there are rules to German or English that must be followed. A composer assesses how the notes form intervals to produce the sound that he hears in his mind. In this way, for the music to be true, the performer DOES need to slavishly follow what the composer has written in the score. Some composers are more specific than others. Bach did not use metronome markings to indicate the speed of the music, Beethoven did very specifically. Some composers indicate the character of the movement only at the beginning (allegro, andante, etc.), but not Gustav Mahler, who wrote notes nearly everywhere in his scores. I think you’d find Leonard Bernstein’s Harvard lectures on the language of music very interesting — I wonder if the library has a copy? Bernstein explains music as language beautifully, thoughtfully, with examples.

      In a classical music concert, a work is never “Music after composer A” but by a composer. Sometimes the composer will take a theme that he particularly likes and write a piece of music using the theme as its foundation, e.g. Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini by Sergei Rachmaninoff (a theme and variations piano concerto) or Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughn Williams (a favorite of your wife’s). These types of works tend to be like homages to the themes and by inference, their composers, by the composers who write them. But I know of no instance of a composer or performer taking an entire work of another and calling it his own. As in literature, that’s plagiarism.

      So, while performance is a collaboration when it involves more than one musician, composers work alone (like writers). They create. Performers re-create what has already been created. Variations in tempi within the composer’s indications, (allegro, for example, has a range of speed that falls within fast) is expected just as it’s expected that no two live performances will ever be the same. For the Brahms 1st Piano Concerto, Gould had indicated tempos that were OUTSIDE the range indicated by the composer — and the composer will have reasons for those tempos in the sound he wants achieved — so that was the reason Bernstein objected. What was rare is that Bernstein, because of his great respect and admiration for Gould, deferred to him. Ordinarily, the conductor would have the final say. But it’s also very rare that a conductor would need to have a final say — soloists want to work with the orchestra and conductor to achieve the sound the composer intended for them to achieve.

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