Friday, April 22, 2011

Glenn Gould: Bach's Goldberg Variations

The Goldberg Variations, first published in 1741 as a work for harpsichord by Johann Sebastian Bach, consist of an aria and a set of 30 variations. The Variations are named after Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who may have been the first performer.

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The majority of the photos were taken during the recording sessions for Glenn Gould's 1955 debut recording of The Goldberg Variations (BMV 988) when he was twenty-two. The photos are drawn from Life magazine. 

The recordings were made at Columbia Records 30th Street studio in Manhattan, New York, during a period of four days between June 10 and June 16, 1955, a few weeks after Gould signed his contract. "Columbia Masterworks Records, the company's classical music division, released the album in January 1956. Bach: The Goldberg Variations became Columbia's bestselling classical album and earned Gould an international reputation. The record is now in the catalog of Sony Classical Records," Wikipedia says.

Bach: The Goldberg Variations: Album cover of Glenn Gould's 1956 Bach: The Goldberg Variations. Columbia Masterworks ML 5060. The original Columbia Masterworks album cover shows 30 photos of Gould in the studio, analogous to the 30 Goldberg variations.
Source: Wikipedia

Glenn Gould [1932-1982] was Canada's greatest pianist. His playing was not only technically brilliant but also marked by a courageous and free interpretation of famous musical scores. Instead of striking the keys from above, as is commonly done, Gould pulled down on the keys while sitting low to the keyboard on a chair his father built for him. It likely gave him more control. His father built the adjustable chair after Gould injured his back at age ten when he fell from a boat ramp on Lake Simcoe.

Gould, a native of Toronto, was a child prodigy. At age three, Gould showed that he had perfect pitch. He learned to read sheet music before he learned to read words, showing his musical aptitude. By age five, Gould was already working on his own compositions.

His first teacher, until the age of ten, was his mother, whose ancestry included the famous composer, Edvard Grieg. (Gould's great grandfather was Grieg's first cousin.) Gould stopped performing at live concerts at age 31 to focus on recordings and other projects. Gould performed fewer than 200 concerts, and no more than 40 overseas, in his short lifetime.

Much, perhaps too much, has been written about Gould's outward peculiarities, such as humming when he played, the need to sit fourteen inches above the floor and only perform in a chair built by his father. (You can see Gould performing here.) 

Then there was the matter of Gould's awkward social behavior, which was discussed too much. Gould was considered an eccentric for wearing gloves, a beret and an overcoat, even in warm weather. He also was adverse to being touched and later in life avoided most personal intercourse, communicating chiefly by phone and letters.

Yet, he was a man of deep habits, says a CBC documentary on Gould:  "Sometime between two and three every morning Gould would go to Fran's, a 24-hour diner a block away from his Toronto apartment, sit in the same booth and order the same meal of scrambled eggs."

Gould With His Dog, an English setter, Nick, in 1940. "By the time I was six," he confessed in a 1979 documentary Cities: Glenn Gould's Toronto, "I made an important discovery that I get along much better with animals than humans."
Photo Credit: Gordon W. Powley