Saturday, October 4, 2014


A piece that I wrote in 2007 for Salem Press's Musicians and Composers of the Twentieth Century encyclopedia....
Musician's name as best known: Glenn Gould
Index name: Gould, Glenn
Pronunciation: glehn goold
Full name: Glenn Herbert Gould
Also known as: Glenn Gold
Nationality: Canadian
Musical identity: Classical pianist

Born: September 25, 1932; Toronto, Canada
Died: October 4, 1982; Toronto, Canada

Influence: Gould was one of the best-selling and most controversial solo classical instrumentalists of the twentieth century.  A prodigiously gifted pianist and multi-media communicator, he re-awoke interest in long-neglected composers and advanced aesthetic and philosophical theories that, while initially dismissed as eccentric, have come to be seen as prophetic of the potential for technology to enhance the performance of serious music.  

The Life: Glenn Gould (glehn goold) was born “Glenn Gold” to Russell and Florence Gold and was their only child.  (The most likely reason that the family changed “Gold” to “Gould” was to avoid being mistaken for Jews during a time of heightened anti-Semitism; the Golds were actually Scottish.)  His mother was a piano teacher who traced her lineage to the Romantic Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and whose efforts at acquainting young Gould with the piano identified him early on as the possessor of a photographic memory, superior digital dexterity, and perfect pitch.  

At seven, Gould won a competition sponsored by the Toronto Conservatory.  By the age of ten, he was studying with the Chilean pianist and conductor Alberto Guerrero and rapidly mastering a large body of compositions from the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic repertoires.  Three years later, he performed as a featured soloist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.  

In the decade that followed, his combination of talent and odd performance mannerisms (humming loudly, conducting himself, adopting odd performance postures) made him a musical celebrity in Canada.  It was, however, his January 11, 1955, concert at Town Hall in New York City on January 11, 1955, that earned him a contract with Columbia Records.  

Gould’s Columbia debut, a recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, was an immediate bestseller and launched him on a grueling, worldwide performing schedule.  Nine years and more than 250 concerts later, he stunned his audience by abandoning the concert stage altogether and devoting himself to perfecting his art in the recording studio where, he insisted, he could achieve ideal performances by splicing together the best of multiple takes.  

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Gould’s retreat from the stage did not negatively affect his record sales, in part because Gould used his newly acquired free time to embark upon a career in radio, television, and journalism that kept him in the public eye.  From 1967 to 1975, he recorded the three celebrated and influential “contrapuntal radio” documentaries that have come to be known collectively as The Solitude Trilogy.  

Such “extracurricular” projects notwithstanding, Gould continued to record music at an exhaustive pace, slowing down only during the mid-1970s to combat mysterious illnesses that hindered his playing.  A lifelong hypochondriac, Gould relied on a heavy regimen of prescription drugs that, along with his punishing work ethic, most likely contributed to the stroke that he suffered on September 27, 1982, and from which he died one week later, nine days after his fiftieth birthday.

Musical Career 
Although Gould’s musical career was by no means limited to his recordings and performances, it was as a pianist that he made his considerably charismatic presence most felt.  While he lived, he was nearly as infamous for his eccentricities and iconoclastic approach to venerated composers (particularly Mozart and Beethoven) as he was famous for his prolific and excellent musicianship.  Since his death, however, both his recordings and his bringing the works of neglected or misunderstood composers to his audience (which was the broadest of any classical solo instrumentalist) have emerged as not only his greatest contributions but also some of the greatest contributions of any classical performer of the twentieth century.  

Best known for his recordings of Johann Sebastian Bach and Arnold Schoenberg (the two composers whose intellectually rigorous and unromantic sensibilities, although chronological separated by two hundred years, best reflected his own), Gould also recorded music from the repertoires of Franz Joseph Haydn, Alban Berg, Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Sergei Prokofiev, Edvard Grieg, William Byrd, George Frideric Handel, Georges Bizet, Richard Wagner, Paul Hindemith, Robert Schumann, Jean Sibelius, Alexander Scriabin, Ernst Krenek, Jean Pieterszoon Sweelinck, and Barbara Pentland.  Somewhat surprisingly, given how little he recorded of his music, Gould claimed that his favorite composer was the Tudor composer Orlando Gibbons.  He also recorded on the organ (the instrument on which he first played in public at the age of twelve) and the harpsichord.

Long credited with discovering and perfecting his meticulously tactile approach to the piano, Gould actually adapted techniques that he had absorbed from the recordings of the pianists Artur Schnabel and Rosalyn Tureck and from his years as a student of Alberto Guerrero.  That he remained frustrated in his often stated intention to become a great composer and conductor was apparently of consequence only to himself.

Bach, Goldberg Variations.  Gould’s debut, recorded in 1955 and released in 1956, caused an instant sensation and rapidly became a best-seller.  Perpetually in print, it was re-released several times by Sony Classical in the years following Gould’s death, both alone and paired with Gould’s 1981 re-recording.  In 2006 it became the template for the first of the Zenph Studios’ “re-creations” when, before an audience of Gould’s friends and colleagues, a specially prepared Yamaha piano “performed” the piece in response to a computerized encoding of Gould’s original performance.    

Brahms, 10 Intermezzi.  For all of his deeply rooted anti-Romanticism, Gould was surprisingly receptive to these pieces by Brahms, which he recorded in 1959 and 1960 with a sensitivity born of a genuine and intimate affection. 

Brahms, Piano Concerto No. 1 in D-minor, Op. 15.  On April 5, 1962, Gould performed this staple of the Romantic repertoire with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein.  Gould’s radically un-Romantic re-interpretations of Brahms’ well-known tempi, although hesitantly agreed to by Bernstein (who admired Gould’s intelligence and respected his instincts), provoked considerable turmoil among critics and audience members alike and became for years the most cited example of Gould’s audacity.  

Gould, String Quartet, Op. 1.  What was to be the first of what Gould hoped would be many of his original compositions turned out to be his last as well.  Recorded in 1960 with the Symphonia String Quartet, it elicited kind if generally unenthusiastic reviews.  The most common complaint was that its multitude of musical ideas was ultimately unfocused.   

Bach, The Art of Fugue, Vol. 1: Contrapunctus 1-9.  Gould made the majority of this recording in 1962 on a Casavant organ housed in Toronto’s All Saints’ Church.  Like the twelve piano recordings that preceded it, his sole organ recording was miked so as to emphasize both the precision of his playing and his objection to the typical organ record’s reverberant sonorities.  In part because the Casavant, whose Baroque-sensitive registration he loved, was destroyed in a fire, he never recorded The Art of the Fugue, Vol. 2.

Bach, The Well-Tempered Clavier.  Gould recorded both books of Bach’s monumentally influential keyboard work in six volumes between 1962 and 1971.  Together with his two recordings of the Goldberg Variations, they represent the fullest musical articulation of Gould’s deeply rooted appreciation for the composer whose compositions he recorded more than any other.  

Beethoven, Concerto No. 5 in E-flat Major ("Emperor").  This 1966 recording would prove to be unique in Gould’s oeuvre for two main reasons.  First, it found him giving an eccentricity-free performance of a well-known composition.  Second, it would be his only performance with an orchestra under the baton of his hero, the conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Schoenberg: The Complete Music for Solo Piano: Opp. 11, 19, 23, 25, and 33. Released in 1966, Gould’s recordings of these profoundly influential twentieth-century “twelve-tone” pieces reinvigorated the always-tenuous willingness of listeners to give them a fair hearing. 

A Consort of Musicke Bye William Byrde and Orlando Gibbons.  This Tudor-music album, recorded in 1967-1968 and 1971, represents Gould’s only documented excursion into the music of his “favorite composer,” Orlando Gibbons.

Schoenberg: Complete Songs for Voice and Piano, Opp. 3, 6, 12, 14, 48, and Op. posth.  Together with his recording of Hindemith’s Das Marienleben with Roxolana Roslak, these performances, recorded between 1964 and 1971, capture not only Gould’s sympathetic love of Schoenberg but also his capacity for providing sympathetic accompaniment (in this case to the singers Helen Vanni, soprano; Cornelius Opthof, baritone; and Donald Gramm, bass-baritone). 

Handel, Suites, Nos. 1-4.  For someone who loved the harpsichord so much that he insisted his pianos be tuned to replicate its dry precision as closely as possible (a demand that drove Steinway’s, and later Yamaha’s, tuners nearly mad), Gould recorded very little on the instrument.  He also recorded very little Handel, a fact that makes this 1972 recording doubly valuable. 

Hindemith, Das Marienleben,  Gould’s 1976-1977 recording of the original 1923 version of Hindemith‘s song cycle based on the life of Mary was released in 1978 and featured not only the exquisite soprano singing of Roxolana Roslak but also Gould‘s extensive and critically acute liner notes, which concluded with his declaration that Das Marienleben was the finest song cycle ever composed. 

Posthumous releases.  Sony Classical (formerly Columbia, later CBS, Masterworks) went to great lengths to keep Gould’s recordings in circulation after his death, repackaging them mainly in the Glenn Gould Edition and the Glenn Gould Anniversary Edition series.  The most conceptually original and consistent compilation was 2003’s Glenn Gould: ... and Serenity, which brought together the most “serene” recordings from the entire spectrum of Gould’s discography. 

Musical Legacy 
It has been said that Gould was more popular after his death than he was while he lived.  Unlike many artists of whom such a statement has been made, however, Gould also enjoyed immense popularity during his lifetime.  Indeed, the escalating sales of his many posthumously repackaged recordings were merely a continuation of a long-established trend among lovers of Gould’s music.

Gould’s notoriously reclusive tendencies notwithstanding, he was open to collaborations with musicians (the Julliard Quartet, the Philadelphia Brass Ensemble, the violinists Yehudi Menuhin and Israel Baker, the cellist Leonard Rose), singers (the operatic sopranos Helen Vanni and Roxolana Roslak), and conductors (Leonard Bernstein, Vladimir Golschmann) who shared, or at least tolerated, his often unorthodox interpretations.  Gould demonstrated his generosity in other ways as well, most notably and endearingly in his championing of Leopold Stokowski as the greatest conductor of the twentieth century and one of its most visionary musical geniuses. 

In the years after his death, Gould became the subject not only of several well-written biographies but also of video documentaries and the impressionistic biopic Thirty-two Short Films About Glenn Gould (the segments of which were structured along the lines of the thirty-two Goldberg Variations).  In 1988, the National Library of Canada mounted Glenn Gould 1988, a major exhibition made possible by the library’s having acquired a staggeringly vast amount of Gould memorabilia in 1983.  Like every other presentation of practically anything having to do with Gould’s life and music, it attracted a large, enthusiastic, and diverse audience.      

Further Reading
Angilette, Elizabeth.  Philosopher at the Keyboard: Glenn Gould.  Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.  A fascinating attempt to construct a coherent philosophy of both art and life from Gould’s many writings and otherwise-documented statements.

Bazzana, Kevin.  Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006.  The most authoritative Gould biography to date, benefiting from the author’s scholarly understanding of Gould’s repertoire and the subtleties of Gould’s interpretations and from Bazzana's access to people and documents heretofore either inaccessible or under-explored.  Thoroughly examines Gould’s public accomplishments and what is known of his private life, fairly assessing his strengths and weaknesses and convincingly concluding not only that the former outweigh the latter but also that the more sensationalized aspects of Gould’s life have been exaggerated to the detriment of a sober appreciation of his work, its importance, and its enduring popularity.  

Cott, Jonathan; Glenn Gould. Conversations with Glenn Gould. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.  Of value both for the incisiveness of Cott’s questions and for the fact that, unlike many of Gould’s other widely circulated “interviews,” Cott’s were not “ghost scripted” by Gould in advance.  Includes photos and detailed listings of Gould’s recordings and radio and television projects.

Friedrich, Otto.  Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations.  New York: Vintage, 1989.  The first full-scale Gould biography, it remains valuable for the accuracy and detail of its interview-enriched narrative and its painstakingly documented listings of Gould’s concert, studio, radio, and television performances.

McGreevy, John, Ed. Variations: Glenn Gould by Himself and His Friends. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.  A handsome and skillfully edited combination of career-spanning photos and essays, combining the best of Gould’s own writings (“Glenn Gould Interviews Glenn Gould About Glenn Gould,” “Stokowski in Six Scenes,” “Toronto”) with eloquent, humorous, and touching reminiscences written by Gould’s closest friends and colleagues (Leonard Bernstein, Yehudi Menuhin, Bruno Monsaingeon). 

Payzant, Geoffrey. Glenn Gould, Music and Mind. Toronto, Ontario: Key Porter, 2005.  The latest edition of Payzant’s Gould-approved exploration of the aesthetic and philosophical ramifications of his abandonment of the concert stage for the studio and his utilization of “creative cheating” to construct the best musical performances possible in an era of increasing technological sophistication.  

No comments:

Post a Comment