Glenn Gould’s Manipulations

The beaver makes an indelible mark, devastating the forest, polluting the water and leaving a bleak, moribund, albeit often fascinating landscape. Yet for a Canadian to utter anti-beaver sentiments would be close to treasonous. The symbol of our country, standing for zealous devotion to hard work (no unemployment at his dam-sites…), innovative engineering abilities, hardiness and rugged individuality carries something akin to parliamentary immunity.

Even worse than lamenting the legacies of the beaver would be to disparage Glenn Gould, the symbol of Canada’s conquest of the international musical world; the hero who awed music-lovers from Moscow and Berlin to London and San Francisco; who made Bach’s longest and most abstract keyboard work a bestseller, who sold 7,000,000 records, created stimulating radio and TV programs and became an inspiration and a legend to hundreds of thousands, many of whom had not previously paid much attention to ‘classical’ music.

Indeed, an Elvis-type cult has grown up around Glenn Gould. There are more books in the Metro Toronto library about him (15) than about Ignazy Paderewski, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maria Callas or Pablo Casals, etc., to name some of the greatest and most colourful artists of our century. Arthur Rubinstein, Vladimir Horowitz and Claudio Arrau have only three or four books devoted to them, and Rudolf Serkin none. Even in his homeland, isn’t this getting a bit out of proportion? In addition to this cascade of books, there have been international conferences, plays, symposia, solid weeks of radio performances, and most recently, the much-lauded 32 Short Films About Glenn Gould by Francois Girard. Most of this material is pure hagiography; nobody has ever played the piano that well. Even Horowitz, quite a vain man, once confessed his surprise at the adulation and financial rewards he received, saying something like ‘after all, how well is it really possible to play the piano?’ One would have to go back to Liszt and Paganini to find a similar degree of adulation.

There can be few people in a worse position than myself to question this Glenn Gould Worship Syndrome. I have every reason to be insanely jealous of Glenn’s achievements. Though I have not kept count, probably not even 70,000 recorded Kuerti recordings have ever been sold; I have not been asked to do a TV show for the CBC in at least a decade; Karajan never recorded with me; and though I play my good share of concerts, Kuerti has never become a household name, even in Canada. The fact that Gould died so prematurely and was at one time a friend of mine makes it even more touchy to take issue with his artistry. But a new release of Gould playing the Beethoven Sonata in F# Major, Op. 78 struck me as so scandalously offensive that I determined to make my views known without worrying how my motives might be impugned. (If I hasten to add that there are also many astounding and, in their way, absolutely wondrous Gould performances, let that not be interpreted as a rhetorical device to appear fair-minded; it just happens to be the case.)

Gould starts the Beethoven F# Major Sonata with an incorrect rhythm in the first bar, and continues —as in countless other works, especially by Beethoven and Mozart—by disobeying just about every instruction given by the composer, even introducing spurious notes in places. The groups of slurred chords are poked out, completely separated; where the harmony becomes poignant, the left hand chords hop incongruously; the brief dolce second theme, caressed by Beethoven with a long slur, is tinkled with a silly mixture of slurred and staccato notes. The development’s slurred dotted figure is treated with haphazard inconsistency, sometimes slurred (correct), more often detached. In the second (and last) movement, affected arpeggios debilitate many chords obviously meant to be strong. Bizarre, choppy accents are introduced into flowing left hand lines. Indicated contrasts are ignored.

This wonderful gem (it was a favourite of the composer’s) emerges both emasculated and raped — which is quite a trick. Not a hint of its tender; melodic warmth remains, nor of the playful, jocular mood of the second (and final) movement. In fairness, this release was not issued during Gould’s lifetime, and he might not have approved it; but there are enough others that are equally grotesque. A similar nausea overcame me listening to the slow movement of his recording of Beethoven’s first Piano Sonata; a profoundly noble movement overflowing with heartfelt emotion is reduced to a dry, contrived caricature of itself.

The other offering on this CD is Beethoven’s most complex and difficult piano sonata, the famous Hammerklavier, Op. 106 (recorded for the CBC in 1970). Although full of many similar anomalies and provocations, I found it only slightly less offensive; it even had a few fine redeeming moments. Surprisingly, most of it is severely overpedalled. The first movement is played at just slightly more than one half of Beethoven’s own metronome marking. Now it happens that I do not believe, for various reasons, that Beethoven’s metronome markings should be taken literally —but a 45% discount? The slow tempo and the general lethargy of the rhythm turns one of Beethoven’s most heroic utterances into something willfully anti-heroic. Trills, used by Beethoven to amplify and animate the non-sustaining deadness of the piano, are sometimes played as simple, lazy eighth notes. The ominous low rumbling notes in the accompaniment near the end of the movement are articulated in a trivial and incongruous manner.

Astonishingly, the celebrated Emperor of articulation makes a quasi-impressionistic wash out of the fugue (the last movement). The highly characteristic leap that starts the theme, always separated by Beethoven with an eighth rest, connected by Gould. (Perhaps this was to balance the motive of the Scherzo, which Beethoven slurred and Gould ostentatiously detaches?) The equally significant sforzatos are almost always ignored. The slow movement has some authentic moments, but much of it is marred by the constant, mannered arpeggiating of chords, sometimes so slowly that an intrusive and spurious rhythm is generated, and by square accentuation of every second 16th note. Near the end, Beethoven asks for a hushed, intimate mood for the last appearance of the main theme, even indicating that the soft pedal is to be used. Gould smashes this theme out full blast.

These performances exemplify the perversity and moral turpitude of much of Gould’s artistry. He makes a point of disobeying just about every instruction given by the composer. Where Beethoven writes short, Glenn plays long; where the composer demands legato, Glenn plays staccato; where loud is indicated, soft is played, and so on. Come on, Glenn, just once in a long while these guys must have got it right, if only by chance! If they are so consistently wrong in every indication made in their manuscripts, why the hell do you find them worth playing? A composer of genius and integrity like Mozart, or Beethoven must be approached with some humility, and with the wish to enter his spirit, not exploit or mock it.

Music-making needs to be either inspired or responsible, and preferably both. These performances are neither. I am open to extravagant, outrageous interpretations (some even feel that I indulge in them myself); I am even willing to countenance modifying some of the composer’s markings. But the further afield the performer wanders from the known style and intentions of the composer, the more crucial it becomes for him to overwhelm us with the depth and sincerity of his convictions. He must persuade us that he is totally committed, both emotionally and intellectually, to his approach. The intensity of his feelings must convince us, at least in the heat of the moment, that his devious course has been chosen out of artistic necessity, not willful manipulation.

I find it blatantly obvious that the motivation here is not any deep, unchangeable conviction, but the shallowest possible instinct: ‘What can I contrive here, there and everywhere to make it ‘interesting’? What inane inner voice can I blast out that has never been noticed before? How can I demonstrate once more that my genius is so overwhelming that I am entitled to disregard all rules and traditions? How can I attract attention to myself by doing some genetic surgery on this piece?’

Still, one cannot help admire the courage, indeed the brazen arrogance, of such a perversely idiosyncratic approach, and the fact that it is not influenced by tradition or collective opinions, both of which sway with their times and are patently unreliable. One might even find it really interesting and amusing, and still recognize the artistic result as a destructive forgery.

In the special case of Bach and earlier composers, the intended manner of performance is not so clear as it is in later composers. Aside from the bare notes; there are hardly any other indications in the manuscripts. This deprived Glenn of anything to deliberately contradict, and for this reason it is easier to appreciate the highly colourful characterization with which he imbues his Bach performances. It certainly forces one to listen, and apparently has helped many appreciate Bach for the first time.

Yet in all its individuality and daring, it gradually becomes predictable, and eventually, tedious: detached, staccato accompaniments that tend to overshadow what they are accompanying; a motoristic drive that excludes not only sentimentality but also any warm emotion; an exaggerated clarity and precision which never allows the precious ambiguity essential to much artistic expression; a relentlessly accented dynamic linearity, which may strongly support the structure of the counterpoint yet undermine its essential poetic message; and of course bizarre extremes of tempo.

Curiously enough, in the late romantic music which he did not value quite so highly, Gould’s recordings of Strauss, Scriabin and Prokofiev, among others, are wonderful, convincing piano playing, good music-making — and not remarkably different from what other great pianists might do with them! He believed, strangely, that romantic music should be played ‘straight’.

Among the recent additions to the crowded field of books on Gould is a selection of his letters, edited and compiled by John P. L. Roberts and Gyslaine Guertin. The vast majority are concerned with the planning of TV programs; recording projects, and especially of the extra-musical radio programs Glenn took enormous joy in producing; others deal with piano problems, his various ailments, articles, interviews etc. There is considerable musical substance buried here, and one can peruse his defense of various controversial performances (such as his recording of late Beethoven Sonatas and the famous Brahms Concerto performance with Bernstein), his celebrated views on the demise of live concerts, and his opinionated (and often absurd) thoughts on a multitude of composers:

I either do not play, or do not play with enthusiasm, the music of the so-called romantic composer – music of Chopin and Schubert and Schumann…the piano music written in the first half of the 19th century [is] distasteful. I find it mechanistic…cloyingly sentimental, full of parlor tricks.

What shallow nonsense; one might as convincingly accuse Mother Teresa of genocide as imply that, of all people, Schubert’s music is full of parlor tricks.

One reels in awe, however, at the incredible breadth of his musical knowledge and interests, as he recommends works like Krenek’s 4th Piano Concerto, Charles Ruggles’s Suntreaders, the 2nd Piano Sonata by Fartein Valen, and the symphonies of Hans Werner Henze, to name just a few; most musicians are not even aware of the existence of such works. Equally impressive is his knowledge of English Tudor music, and of scholarly works. He probably knew more about Schoenberg and Strauss than anyone.

Most of the letters have a laconic, lecturing tone, much tongue-in-cheek mockery and dense, complex wording, making them sound rather contrived and manufactured, more like articles than one-on-one conversations. Gould’s personality often hides behind various personae he had constructed. Shining through, much of the time, is a tendency to self-glorification, which he sometimes tries to disguise as self-mockery:

It would be a gesture entirely worthy of the noble dedication of your company if, during the October visit of your most celebrated artist and your most glorious instrument….a bronze plaque might be unveiled on the lyre of #266 [a particular Steinway piano] bearing the inscription ‘this instrument maintained for the exclusive use of our favourite son, Vladimir Gouldowsky’ (one of Glenn’s pseudonyms).

The most natural letters, on the whole, are those written to fans; he descends from his pulpit and patiently answers many questions, often at considerable length, and sometimes with genuine warmth. Three letters stand out as particularly human documents. The very first letter in the collection, written when Glenn was just 7, is a poem of love to his mother, purportedly from their family dog. Already then, it would seem, Glenn preferred to express his feelings via a fictitious entity; indeed, a surprising percentage of the letters is signed with one of his many pseudonyms. Another letter to his family, written on his first European tour, sounds genuine and enthusiastic; he tries to calm his parents’ worries about his driving and other hazards just as any other young man might do.

The third is a love letter, probably written near the end of his life, where for once we feel that the real inner Glenn is speaking, without rhetoric, without pretense, without the smokescreen of humour; it is not written to the object of his affections, but to a third person; the identity of neither is known:

I am deeply in love with a certain beautiful girl. I asked her to marry me but she turned me down but I still love her more than anything in the world and every minute I can spend with her is pure heaven.

The difference in tone from the other letters stems not only from the emotions involved, but from the fact that these are in his own hand; almost all the others were dictated, or one rather imagines, orated to tape. Symptomatic of Glenn Gould Worship Syndrome, every obvious misprint and misspelling has been faithfully reproduced in this volume, as though it were a precious literary treasure whose every detail, like a Shakespeare text, needs to be available to scholars for painstaking analysis and research. (The secretary who transcribed them made copious typos and suffered obvious misunderstandings; ‘fued’ for ‘feud’, ‘excessible’ for ‘accessible’, ‘Schonbergoan’ for ‘Schoenbergian’, etc.)

Another Gould spin-off is the play Glenn, by David Young. I unfortunately missed the opportunity of seeing if but certainly find it hard to recommend for reading. Gould is dissected into 4 components, all starting with the letter P – the Prodigy, the Performer, the Perfectionist and the Puritan, who converse with each other. The form is rather too cutely modelled after the Goldberg Variations: ‘if the Variation [has] two voices there are two characters in the scene; if the Vanatiort is a canon then the two voices play a game of chase, and so on.’ Music from the Goldberg Variations is to be used during many of the analogous scenes. I found it Perplexing and often Painful to keep track of who was who. There are doubtless references to obscure details of Glenn’s life, and the author must assume that the reader or viewer is fully initiated into the cult and knows all these details, otherwise many episodes would remain unclear. So for the devoted Gould connoisseur, reading the play may be fascinating; I doubt that others would Persevere to the end.

More interesting, and definitely not hagiographic, is Andrew Kazdin’s Glenn Gould at Work; Creative Lying. Kazdin was Gould’s recording engineer — and apparently much more — for no less than 15 years. No style of writing could be more opposite to Gould’s then Kazdin’s colloquial, easy-going manner; he speaks to us very simply and unpretentiously, and often naively, as in an epilogue which dwells on the irony of Gould’s death being caused by a stroke: ‘His …. brain, his greatest asset, is what killed him.’

He displays a convincing mixture of adulation and resentment toward Glenn. It seems that he outdid himself on Glenn’s behalf, far beyond the course of duty, and was suddenly discarded, as he learned during a phone conversation on the very eve of a planned recording session:

‘Does this mean our association is over?’ He answered in a very hurried fashion: ‘ Yes. Now don ‘t be a stranger…. Maybe I’ll see you if I ever get down to New York. Look, I’ve really got to go. Good bye.’… I never heard from him again. Thus ended our fifteen-year relationship. No regrets, no emotion, no thank yous.

According to Kazdin, suddenly relegating friends to the dustbin was characteristic of Glenn; Menuhin, it seems, was excommunicated after a joke Glenn didn’t appreciate (the same happened to me, by the way), and Vern Edquist, his faithful tuner, was also discarded.

It was impossible to have a relationship based on equality with Glenn. He loved to tease and make seemingly jocular yet none the less sarcastic remarks, but woe to anyone who reciprocated. Also immediately ostracized, according to Kazdin, was anyone who dared even hint at or ask about any relationships Glenn might have with women.

The ‘Creative Lying’ subtitle of Kazdin’s book does not refer, as one might suspect, to his editing practices (which however are discussed in great detail), and refers only marginally to his practice of fabricating phony interviews (by writing out a script in advance for both parties — also well described in the book); it is mainly related to his way of dealing with others. While purporting to believe in absolute equality and honesty between people, even to the point that

…he didn’t believe in the concept of ‘intelligence’; there was no such thing as a stupid man…everyone was equally intelligent: it was just a matter of each one finding his niche…

He actually treated many people in a most manipulative and utilitarian manner:

Over the years, I listened to Glenn plan how he was going to avoid talking to someone…. I saw him concoct elaborate schemes to help bring a personal relationship to an end….Every time Gould cancelled a recording session at the last minute I came to suspect that I was being treated to an exhibition of creative lying. If the process can be summarized as telling whatever story is expedient in order to get your ‘opponent’ to do what you want, then it surely is one of the most powerful tools in the process of control.

Kazdin confesses, in effect, to manipulating Gould himself, but in a totally different manner. He knew that to be able to work productively with Gould, he must absolutely prevent any bad feelings from developing between them, so he gritted his teeth and refrained from reacting when Glenn, in a rare visit to his home, violated his privacy by picking up and inspecting his private date book, and tried to insist, quite seriously and adamantly, that Kazdin must make his wife stop reading Cosmopolitan.

We don’t expect our great artists to be without flaws; Wagner’s music, for example, is as glorious as he was devious. But there is a parallel between Gould’s way of manipulating people and the way he manipulated the music of the great masters which cannot be overlooked.

Three of Glenn’s radio documentaries, to which he attached such great importance and devoted enormous effort, have been released in a 3-CD package. I listened to The Idea of North, and enough of ‘The Quiet in the Land’ (on the Mennonites) to perceive that it was very similar in concept; then I lost patience.

`North’ is a contrapuntal collage made up of the patter of low-key comments by ‘ordinary people’ with very commonplace and largely unpoetic sentiments about the isolation (and associated communality) of the north, the sort of comments one might expect to hear eavesdropping on conversations in a taxi. Some of the voices tend to drone on soporifically, others sound rather artificial; and despite all the forced analogies with counterpoint, I find listening to two or more people talking at the same time frustrating and annoying. The documentary he did on Richard Strauss left a similar impression; and the use of Strauss’s music as a background under the voices of a panel of no less than 12 people is-demeaning.

While there is considerable talk about nature in The Idea of North, there is not one sound effect of wind, waves, birds or animals. Almost throughout all we hear in the background is the incessant clicking of wheels on rails and other train noises. Indeed, find it remarkable that the CBC was willing to invest hundreds of hours of editing time on each of these bizarre documentaries.

The response of musicians to Glenn Gould is sharply divided. Either they think he was a genius, a musical saint, or they think he was not really a deep artist but one who played with the public and made his name by challenging every norm of the profession, being controversial and parading his well-known eccentricities in front of the public (but not, in his later years, in the concert hall, of course). Many were exasperated by his distracting gestures and noises, but these were peripheral and minor transgressions compared to the more important artistic issues at stake.

Glenn was very aware of the great career value of his patented eccentricities. He did have an ample sufficiency of genuine phobias but genuine or not, he knew how to exploit them quite nicely. He once even volunteered to help me think of a gimmick that would help advance my career, and suggested: ‘Why don’t you insist that you have two guards with machine guns posted on stage with you at every concert?’

In every facet of his life, Glenn Gould was bursting with powerful, compulsive creativity: too much of it, indeed, to carry out responsibly the role of a mere performer accountable to the supremacy of the composer. His originality and creativity is what must have led him to so many artistic excesses. One need only listen to his So You Want to Write a Fugue to realize that he was an immensely gifted composer; but as is true of many musicians today, he found it hard to find a style he could be comfortable with that was congruous with our century — this despite his affinity for Schoenberg and his school. And though he was in many respects a recluse, his love affair with the mass media, with audio technology and with his own notoriety diverted him from the tortuous task of developing his composing talents beyond the handful of works he created early in his career.

Perhaps Glenn intended one day, to return to composition (just as he turned to conducting in his last year). If so, music may have been robbed of a major composer; for it is exactly in this sphere that his steaming originality, his disdain for tradition, his phenomenal knowledge, and his impeccable craft are indeed the ideal qualifications.