Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Glenn Gould: Bach Partita No. 2



Glenn Gould performs J.S. Bach's Partita No. 2 in C minor (BWV 826), in a video clip from the documentary, "The Art of Piano: Great Pianists of 20th Century" (1999). There is another informative clip here on Gould's thoughts on the relationship between performer and audience, and on reducing the mental, emotional and, most important, the spiritual distance between them.

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Glenn Gould [1932-1982] was arguably the greatest pianist that ever came out of Canada, and we are naturally proud of him. (Gould would argue that he was not a pianist but a musician and composer.) His playing was not only technically brilliant but also marked by a courageous and free interpretation of famous musical scores.

His interpretation of Bach is how his reputation will forever be established. At times, perhaps more often than with other soloists, however, his style and interpretation provoked the consternation of many, including Leonard Bernstein, in April 1962, who here was highly critical of Gould's conception of a Brahms piece despite eventually trying to smooth things over by calling Gould's playing "a spirit of adventure."

If Gould was considered anti-traditional, it was done so in a spirit of adventure wrapped up in imagination. What this scenario between Gould and Bernstein reveals is a classical power struggle between the conductor and soloist, both great in their own right. But Gould might have been greater, a genius. One of the marks of genius is being your own man, not dogmatic but sure and unafraid of comments or criticisms.

Gould stuck to his convictions about music and interpretation, and that is one of the things that many found appealing, even if they disliked his interpretation. Today, there are few if any known soloists who have such convictions, many becoming perfectly technical and bland carbon copies of each other, their performances and playing unremarkable, spiritless and quickly forgotten after leaving the concert hall. Such says much about the tenor of our times, a palpable fear of individuality.

Even then, Gould distinguished himself as an individual, by playing differently than his contemporaries. 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.

Here
I cite from an earlier post of mine:
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 or singing when he played (as he does here), 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
Source: Archives Ontario

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