One short post about Glenn Gould
As I write this, I’m listening to my copy of The Goldberg Variations, as recorded by Glenn Gould in 1955. It was one of the first albums I made a point of buying for my new record player, which shouldn’t come as a surprise: it occupies something of the same position in classical music that Kind of Blue does in jazz, as the one album that you’ll find in the collections of people who aren’t otherwise aficionados of that kind of music. Gould’s original recording remains one of the bestselling classical releases of all time, and it has served a source of inspiration for everyone from Richard Powers to Hannibal Lecter. Oddly enough, though, this is my first time really listening to it. I’ve always loved Gould’s second version, which he did in 1981, and it’s been a part of my life ever since college: I chose a few of the variations for the pianist to play at my wedding, and my wife and I walked down the aisle to the wonderful closing Quodlibet. For various reasons, however, mostly because it wasn’t available on compact disc for a long time, I never got around to sampling the earlier recording. And listening to it now, I can’t help but reflect a little on what it really means to grow and change as an artist.
It helps that Gould himself is such a fascinating figure. He sometimes claimed that if he hadn’t been a pianist, he might have been an author, and although the critical response to his own writings has been mixed, he had something of a novelist’s attitude toward his materials. “The piano,” Gould once said, “is not an instrument for which I have any great love as such…[but] I have played it all my life, and it is the best vehicle I have to express my ideas.” That’s how I suspect a lot of authors feel toward writing itself: I’m acutely conscious of its limitations, at least in my own hands, but at this point, I’m more or less stuck with it. For a certain kind of artist, what counts is the expression of the idea, and Gould always seemed to regard the act of performing as an obstacle between the music and our understanding of it. Hence the endless hours he spent in the studio, splicing takes into something that reflected his conception of the piece rather than any one performance, and his tendency to think of music in terms of shapes and patterns: “[Bach] was first and last an architect, a constructor of sound, and what makes him so inestimably valuable to us is that he was beyond a doubt the greatest architect of sound who ever lived.”
As an unbelievably gifted prodigy and virtuoso, of course, Gould was particularly qualified to talk about the limitations of technique. It’s staggering to realize how young he was at his peak: he was only twenty-two when he recorded The Goldberg Variations for the first time, and he retired from public performance in his early thirties, after giving fewer than two hundred concerts. Much of his later career seems like a rebuke or renunciation of the early acclaim he received, and his decision to ultimately revisit his most famous recording was a statement in itself, an acknowledgment that cleverness and craft can take an artist only so far. It’s often said that there are just two kinds of prodigies, musical and mathematical, since these are the two fields of human excellence in which raw ability can triumph over inexperience. But there’s more to greatness than simple technical skill, and to listen to the two versions of the Variations is to sense an additional quarter century of experience coming through between the notes, along with the “groans and croons” of which the reviewer for The New Penguin Guide complained, as Gould quietly hummed to himself along with the music.
When I play Gould’s second recording just after the first one, the effect is something like the feeling I get from a documentary like Ballets Russes, which juxtaposes the image of a dancer at age twenty with the same man sixty years later—a combination that never fails to bring me to tears. Gould’s later Variations are slower, more contemplative, less concerned with impressing the listener than with teasing out every last drop of nuance. For someone who only dreams of such virtuosity, it’s a reminder of how much room there is for interpretation by a great performer, and how much can be added by three decades of experience. Gould died from a stroke at age fifty in 1982, shortly after recording his second version. If he’d lived, he’d be in his early eighties by now, and perhaps ready for one last run at his most famous work. It’s tempting to imagine what that final progression would have been like, using the first two recordings as a clue for the unknowable third, and although we’ll never hear it for ourselves, we can dream about it, and I’d like to think that we’ll get the answer in another life.