In the Chair

Edward Said

  • Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and the Tragedy of Genius by Peter Ostwald
    Norton, 368 pp, $29.95, May 1997, ISBN 0 393 04077 1
  • When the Music Stops: Managers, Maestros and the Corporate Murder of Classical Music by Norman Lebrecht
    Simon and Schuster, 400 pp, £7.99, July 1997, ISBN 0 671 01025 5

One of the most talked and written about musicians after World War Two, Glenn Gould quite consciously set about making himself interesting and eccentric. Most performers do, but Gould went beyond anyone. It helped a great deal that he had a phenomenal digital gift, a perfect memory, a very high intelligence, but in addition he was self-conscious and self-observant to an extent most other performers would scarcely be able to imagine. This was not just a matter of takes and re-takes of everything he played, but also of imagining and thinking about himself playing in the greatest detail. In 1964, when he was 34, he deserted the concert stage and retired into an appallingly claustrophobic world of his own making: he never woke up before three in the afternoon, rarely left his hotel room in Toronto, worked all night with his own tape-recorders and splicing-machines, and with a few exceptions, confined his social life to long phone calls after midnight. He was very secretive, despite his loquacity, and hated any criticism, even though his playing was so original and compelling that he became a cult figure among other musicians and the general public when he was still in his twenties.

His reputation outside Canada was made with his first recording, the fabulous Goldberg Variations issued in 1955 by Columbia Records. The first in a long series of Bach recordings that he made all through his life, Gould’s first Goldberg (he re-recorded it in 1981) is still his best known, still his most astonishingly vibrant and fluent recorded performance. Part of its impact came from the fact that it had no competitors or predecessors (only Wanda Landowska had done it on harpsichord and Rosalyn Tureck, little known outside New York, on piano): the piano music of Beethoven, Chopin, Rachmaninoff dominated the landscape. Gould instantly transformed the geography of pianism and with his capacity to deploy an almost verbal intelligence through his fingers – each knowing how to act independently of the rest – set standards that no one has been able to emulate or match. The art of the piano was thus redefined; romanticism was displaced by a lean, preternaturally clear contrapuntal skill in which the alliance of Gould’s extraordinary gifts with Bach’s great keyboard masterpieces – the Partitas, Toccatas, French and English Suites, Inventions, both books of the Well-Tempered Clavier, most of the Art of Fugue – became almost the core of the repertoire. Brendel, Pollini, Barenboim and Martha Ageriach were consolidating their presence at the same time but none of them had a common border with Gould’s Bach. It was as if he had re-invented the idea of what it meant to be a pianist, but had done it in such a way as to become the idea’s only representative.

Testimony to Gould’s genius is the growing literature about him. Early studies like Geoffrey Payzant’s Glenn Gould: Music and Mind focused on the aesthetic views which Gould had expressed in all sorts of writings, but which Payzant, a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, pulled together for the first time into coherent, if not entirely complete form. Later books and studies were first-person accounts of knowing, working and conversing with Gould, which revealed a good deal about his attitudes to various composers, to recording, aspects of his life and so forth. Not until Otto Friedrich’s Glenn Gould: A Lift and Variations (reviewed in the LRB, 26 March 1992) was published with the co-operation of Gould’s estate was there enough raw information about the details of the pianist’s quite amazing eccentricities. Friedrich had the tact to present the material in all its often puzzling, and even sordid, detail without trying to make too much of Gould’s psychology. Clearly, however, Gould was severely hypochondriac and, given his addiction to all sorts of medicines, spent most of his adult life more or less poisoning himself with the assistance of his various doctors. Friedrich puts it this way:

And the doctors kept prescribing drugs. Aldomet for the high blood pressure, Nembutal for sleep, tetracyline and Chloromycetin for his constant colds and infections. And Serpasil and Largostil and Stelazine and Resteclin and Librax and Clonidine and Fiorinal and Inderal and Inocid and Aristocort cream and Neocortez and Zyloprim and Butazolidin and Bactra and Septra and phenylbutazone and methyldopa and allopurinal and hydrochlorothiazide. And always, in addition to everything else, lots and lots of Valium.

He was also a control fanatic who tried (often successfully) to dominate every situation. Friedrich again:

Control – the word kept reappearing in almost everyone’s recollections of Gould. He had always wanted to control all the circumstances of his life and over the years it became a passion, an obsession. It was the need to be in control, really, that drove him from the concert stage to the recording studio. And in the recording studio, he had to control all the engineering, where the mikes were placed and how they were used, to make the recording companies come to his native city, to his own studio, where his own equipment would be the only equipment, with everything under his control.

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