How to play the piano

Nicholas Spice

  • Music Sounded Out by Alfred Brendel
    Robson, 258 pp, £16.95, September 1990, ISBN 0 86051 666 0
  • Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations by Otto Friedrich
    Lime Tree, 441 pp, £12.99, October 1990, ISBN 0 413 45231 X

It’s unfashionable these days to play Bach on the piano. This, plus the fact that the authentic piano repertoire is Classical and Romantic, makes it easy for us to forget that the piano is above all a polyphonic instrument. No other keyboard instrument permits such subtle differentiation of parts (voice-leading, as it is called) through variation in the intensity and tone colour separately allotted to them. Yet it was possible for Alfred Brendel to remark in 1976: ‘pianists are about to lose the skill of “polyphonic playing”, once held in high esteem, a loss that makes itself felt not only in Bach, and not only in dense contrapuntal structures.’ He was discussing ‘Bach and the Piano’ in a dialogue reprinted, with a short reflective coda written in 1989, in his most recent collection of essays, Music Sounded Out. It is typical of the slightly unfocused nature of Brendel’s thinking that he should make the telling observation that pianists are about to lose the skill of polyphonic playing, and then fail to register its true, indeed its devastating significance, allowing it to be a matter of taste (‘once held in high esteem’) and of only slight or partial misfortune (‘a loss that makes itself felt’). For if in 1976 pianists really were about to lose the skill of polyphonic piano-playing, then to all intents and purposes the skill of playing the piano was at an end.

Beneath the ambling civilities of ‘Bach and the Piano’ there lurks a surprising and troubling absence. Nowhere in these reflections does Brendel once mention Glenn Gould, whose creative life was devoted to the cause of polyphony on the piano. Not to mention Gould in an article about Bach and the piano written in 1976 is a considerable feat of omission. He was then at the height of his recording career and indisputably the most famous living interpreter of Bach on the piano, as he had been for the previous twenty years and was to remain until his tragically early death from a stroke in 1982 at the age of 50.

Glenn Gould was born in 1932 in Toronto, the only child of Bert Gould, a furrier, and Florence Greig (who liked to claim that Edvard Grieg was a distant relation). His musical education was neither high-powered nor high pressured: his mother taught him until he was ten, when he started lessons with Alberto Guerrero at the Toronto Conservatory. Guerrero is said to have remarked, ‘if Glenn feels he hasn’t learnt anything from me as a teacher, it’s the greatest compliment anyone could give me’ – and it appears that in most respects Gould was self-taught.

Despite his gifts, Gould wasn’t pushed as a child prodigy. His first serious concert engagement came in 1947, when, at the age of 14, he was asked to play Beethoven’s G major Concerto with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. It is typical of the way Gould liked to represent his abilities that he should later claim to have learnt this extremely difficult concerto on all of three hours’ practice a day (‘I don’t know how I stood it’) and without writing a single fingering or comment into the score he learnt it from. (He would also later assert that ‘everything there is to know about playing the piano can be taught in half an hour’.)

Gould didn’t play outside Canada until 1955. Then, at the age of 22, he suddenly became very famous. A recital in Washington brought ecstatic reviews (‘we know of no pianist like him at any age ... something more than extraordinary’). He played once in New York and Columbia Records offered him a contract on the spot – which was unheard of. His first recording with Columbia – Bach’s Goldberg Variations – was the best-selling classical record of 1956 and remained in the catalogue for over twenty-five years. This record established Gould as an international star, and in the public mind it forged a link between Glenn Gould and the Goldberg Variations which remains strong ten years after his death.

Gould’s sudden success plunged him into a life he never really enjoyed and soon came to hate. Although by the standards of the time his schedule was not excessively heavy (fifty concerts was the most he ever gave in a single year), he found it arduous and stressful. Virtually every aspect of playing in public was uncongenial to him: the disagreeable pianos he had to play on, the ignorant public who came to listen to him and who he felt were mainly interested in the mistakes a performer might make or the possibility of a spectacular public accident (he called concerts one of ‘the last blood sports’), the crassness of the critics who wrote about his playing, the discomfort of hotels, the terror of flying. The freak-show aspect of concert-giving was certainly well-focused in Gould’s case. His eccentricities were notorious. In the heat of summer he would turn up for rehearsals dressed like a supertramp kitted out for a Canadian winter. He played the piano more or less sitting on the floor and while he played he sang and conducted himself. The public loved this sort of stuff, but it sent the critics wild. Unlike jazz musicians, classical musicians are required to show restraint, deportment, high seriousness on stage – to put on a display of lapidary economy in their address to the keyboard. Gould infuriated critics with what seemed to them his chaotically uncontrolled stage appearance, despite the fact that his control of the music was fabulous.

Larger controversies came to dog him. His extreme sensitivity to the conditions in which he had to perform led to frequent cancellations. After a bizarre incident at Steinway’s in New York in 1959, when one of the senior technicians (whom Gould disliked because of disagreements over piano regulation) greeted him with a rather too hard clap on the shoulder, Gould claimed major physical injury, cancelled all his engagements for six months and (unsuccessfully) sued Steinway’s for $300,000. In 1962, a performance of the Brahms D minor Concerto with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic caused a minor sensation. Gould played the first movement so slowly that Bernstein disowned the performance publicly before it began. The unspeakable Harold Schonberg, New York’s most powerful and least subtle music critic, implied that Gould couldn’t play the concerto at the conventional tempo. Gould stuck it out for another couple of years, giving fewer and fewer concerts (he gave only eight in 1963) and made his final public appearance on 10 April 1964. From then until his death in 1982 Gould never played in public again.

Gould’s presence in international musical life was hugely augmented by his absence from the stage. The legendary greatness of his public performances and the finality of his withdrawal from them were the stuff of myth, but this myth was given continual sustenance by the stream of fascinating and controversial recordings that Gould set about making, by his copious and exuberant musical journalism, his radio and TV performances, his interviews with the press. And, of course, by his death.

There have been several books about Gould and there are likely in time to be more. But Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations is the first full biography. It’s an admirably intelligent and readable account of a complex figure. Friedrich is especially good at balancing the public and private aspects of his subject. He suggests the possible psychological determinants of Gould’s behaviour with tact and just the right amount of surmise, and his book adequately poses, without trying to resolve, the question of how far Gould was mad as well as a genius. Gould was certainly a bag of psychological abnormalities: a self-confessed and florid hypochondriac, an insomniac, a deeply superstitious, compulsive, neurotic and obsessive man. A friend describes him in Friedrich’s book as a ‘paranoid psychotic’. About two things everyone is agreed: Gould was driven by a need for control and a need for love and approval, and these needs tended to collide with each another. Artistically. Gould achieved control by rejecting concert performances and supervising every last aspect of the records he made. His attempt to control his personal relationships was aptly symbolised by his preference for conducting them on the telephone (on a ‘don’t ring me, I’ll ring you’ basis). Closed friends – of whom he appears to have had few – describe how he would ‘burn people up’, overwhelming them with demands for attention and affection, beguiling them, and then, often without explanation or warning, cutting them off (he would do this quite literally in telephone conversations).

Yet when he died, three thousand people attended his funeral. His personality inspired inordinate devotion not just in those who got near him, but in those who knew him only from his records and his reputation. He caught people’s imagination, and continues to do so long after his death. This is partly explained by the existential romance of his life, by his appearing to have sacrificed himself to his art: a process of self-destruction painfully visible in the photographs taken at various stages in his career – the androgynously beautiful, ecstatic figure of the young Gould transformed by the end of his short life into a human wreck, hunched over the keyboard like an old vulture.

Within a year of his death, Glenn Gould had become the subject of a novel, Der Untergeher by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. Der Untergeher (literally ‘the sinker’ or ‘the one who goes, or is destined to go, under’ – perhaps ‘the loser’) describes the impact of Gould’s playing and personality on two exceptionally talented young Austrian pianists, who are imagined to have met Gould at a series of masterclasses given by Horowitz in Salzburg in 1953. After hearing Gould, both pianists abandon their careers (‘when we meet the first, we must give up’): one, the narrator, to write a book about Gould, the other – called Wertheimer, who is the Untergeher of the books title – to become a recluse and eventually to kill himself. One of the central insights of this short, obsessive novel is that Glenn Gould and Wertheimer – the genius and the Sackgassen-mensch (‘dead-end person’) – are twins: positive and negative of the same phenomenon. The idea that inside Gould there was a desperate loser threatening to creep out is, I think, psychologically) astute. Certainly, when news of Gould’s sudden death came through, there must have been many who wondered whether it had not in fact been suicide. There was an intensity and refusal to compromise in Gould’s lifelong behaviour that suggested deep inner hopelessness and a powerful sublimated anger. His withdrawal from the concert platform was itself in one sense a suicide and an act of revenge, and it makes one wonder who it was that he was trying to punish. Bernhard’s fictional portrait explores such ideas with compelling plausibility. In it Gould is described as going ‘to the most extreme point and beyond it’ – destroying himself in the process. It was this quality that transformed the real Gould from being simply a great pianist into an important one. Importance is an attribute which is almost never applicable to performing musicians. However great they may be, they have no importance. To understand why Gould was the exception to this rule, we need to look at what it was that he, as the Nichtakzeptierer (to use Bernhard’s word), did not accept.

An advertisement for Yamaha pianos has the headline ‘Performing Art’ and reads:

  A Yamaha piano is a high-performance instrument – and a work of art.

  Yamaha combines a century of craftmanship with the most innovative technology. To create a piano in which every note is pure and true. Every key sensitive to the lightest touch. Every component part crafted from the finest materials.

  This is the quality of workmanship found in every piano in the Yamaha range, including the unique Disklavier – the piano that plays itself. And this is why Yamaha pianos are found on concert platforms all over the world.

Change a few words and this could be an advertisement for a car or a washing machine. The end here is to sell pianos, but the means is a hymn of praise to technology and the god which technology incarnates: performance.

Advertisements often use images from classical music to talk about performance. Abbey National, for example, recently advertised a new high performing financial instrument – the Sterling Asset Account – with posters illustrating a bar chart in the form of a flight of crystal stairs with, at the top, a man in tails playing a concert grand. The pun is obvious, but the Yamaha advertisement shows that more than a pun is involved. Pianos, it appears, can be seen to embody the highest aspirations of capitalist, technological society.

In the 1770s, when harpsichord makers began to turn their attention to the construction of fortepianos, no one could have guessed the scale and significance of the developments that would follow. The technological advances that the new instrument would incorporate, the numbers which would eventually be sold, the role it would acquire as an indicator of social status, the money that was going to be made out of it: all of this would have been beyond the imagining of an 18th-century instrument-maker, and it makes the history of the piano a paradigm for the interaction of social, technological, commercial and artistic forces in music. This history is usually told from the point of view of stylistic development: composers dictating to the manufacturers the terms of technological advance (typically symbolised by the image of Beethoven sitting amid the ruins of a piano unable to take the strain of his klavier- hammering). But we can be sure that if there’d been no money in it – and, increasingly, manufacturers realised that the money was big – the piano would have been left on the shelf together with the gas organ and the glass harmonica. Moreover, its development was only possible because of advances in industrial technology. In these respects, the piano is unique among classical musical instruments, as the direct product of modern commercial and industrial processes – as, in short, a product.

The history of the piano as product follows an orthodox commercial pattern: first a phase of product innovation and development in which a number of different technical standards compete for supremacy; next, a period of consolidation in which one standard becomes the norm to which all producers conform; then a period in which product maturity and market saturation see the elimination of smaller commercial players and the concentration of power in the hands of a few giants. (In the case of the piano, the monopolists – Steinway, Yamaha – have emerged unsurprisingly from the two leading industrial countries.)

In the monopoly stage of the product growth cycle, technical energies are diverted from innovation and development to cosmetic improvements: to ensuring that the product can be mass-produced to a reliable and predictable technical standard, and to streamlining its performance. For the customer this is fine if the product is a car or a washing machine, but when the product is a musical instrument it’s a downer. The enormous variety and variability of instruments in the first hundred and fifty years or so of the piano’s history have given place in the last fifty to increasing standardisation and uniformity. Piano sound is now rarely one of the elements of surprise and beauty in concert or recorded performances.

Yamaha makes it a virtue that its pianos should be perfect. But a piano ‘in which every note is pure and true’ would be the most boring piano in the world (as it would also be a contradiction in terms, since, tuned as they are according to the rules of equal temperament, pianos are, by their nature, instruments in which every note is impure and false). But technology isn’t about interest, it’s about performance. To overcome the unseemliness of declaring this too bluntly in the case of a product which is meant to be cultural, the Yamaha advertisement simply elides performance with art – ‘performing art’. It also contrives to hint that the very best piano would be one that played itself, the piano that eliminated the only remaining variable outside the control of the piano manufacturer – the pianist. The history of piano technique can be seen as an attempt to achieve this technocratic ideal, delivering to the piano manufacturers – and to the other interested commercial parties, the concert agents and record companies – the nearest thing to the piano without a pianist: the pianist as automaton, the pianist as high performer.

The history of piano technique, like the history of piano manufacture, is about the elimination of variability in the product and about the perfection of a uniform, standardised, predictable and therefore marketable commodity. This process began, interestingly, right at the beginning of piano history. From Clementi’s Gradus ad Parnassum onwards, the development of piano technique concentrated on equalising the strength of the pianist’s fingers. Chopin, it is true, had a different, refreshingly different, view of the matter, recommending that piano technique should take account of the different strengths of individual fingers and exploit these in the interests of beauty and variety (he also suggested that life was too short to waste spending more than three hours a day at a piano keyboard). But it was the finger-equalisation school that won the day, and through the experiments of composers like Liszt, this became the basis of modern piano technique.

Finger equalisation is about strengthening weak fingers (notably the fourth and fifth) and training all the fingers up to the highest possible athletic standard. This is done by exercises and studies and hours of practice, and in the early days of finger equalisation, when nobody seemed particularly ashamed of the mindlessness that was entailed, some pretty dreadful expedients were recommended: Liszt suggested reading a book while practising, and a contraption called the ‘chiroplast’ was developed so that pianists could rest their arms while the fingers did their exercises. Schumann is said to have broken his fingers trying to strengthen them with weights.

I have sometimes thought that the history of piano technique would make an amusing subject for Marxist analysis: the subjugation of the fingers in the finger-equalisation process, the turning of them into workers in a musical factory performing hour upon hour of mindless mechanical tasks in the interests of making money for someone, the anomie of the pianist, alienated from the music he is producing, no longer in control of the means of production as his body is turned into a machine and his mind put to sleep. Be that as it may, the problem with piano technique based on finger equalisation is that it encourages a thoughtless approach to music.

From the start, pianists have an uphill battle to become good musicians, because of the essentially mechanical nature of their instrument. Where string players, wind players and singers are obliged to involve their bodies and their breathing in their technique, pianists can sit at their keyboards like computer operators. The piano is a kind of mechanical percussion instrument and to make it into a musical percussion instrument requires above all and in a high degree the capacity for inner hearing, for hearing what is to be played before playing it. Inner hearing is the fundamental prerequisite of all true musicality, but its importance for pianists is paramount. Modern piano technique and piano education, based as they are on developing athleticism in the fingers, can very easily bypass the need to develop inner hearing. And it is for this reason that the piano’s dominant influence in musical culture and education has been such a mixed blessing.

The perfecting of piano-playing product is the goal of the musical educational system which prevails in every Western country. This is a system which is geared up at every level to the production of efficient, marketable performers – from the first piano lessons that a child receives to the piano competitions which ultimately determine which of the fittest shall survive. Such are the rigours of this selection process and such the relentlessness of the professional pianist’s life that it is scarcely a matter for surprise that many of the players who make it are less interesting and sensitive than many of those that don’t.

So, for the listener, the perfecting of piano product has resulted in boredom: boring interpretations on boring pianos. Not that the boredom of modern classical music performance is confined to piano music: it is just that piano-playing offers a particularly acute case of a disease which has blighted large areas of the classical music repertoire, with the exceptions perhaps of contemporary and early music, where the stultifying effects of repetition have not as yet set in. Criticism of this state of affairs has come mainly from theorists of the Left – from the likes of Adorno and his followers – or from composers, who have had good reason to be dissatisfied with a system that places so little emphasis on the performance of music that is alive, so much on the importance of maintaining a vast musical museum. Meanwhile the performers have tended to keep quiet. As employees of the museum, they have had most at stake and have understandably, if regrettably felt themselves badly placed to undermine it. Glenn Gould’s career was a startling exception. In everything he did as a musician, he presented the established system with a challenge. The narrator of Der Untergeher calls this Gould’s Klavierradikalismus.

The most obvious expression of Gould’s Klavierradikalismus, his piano radicalism, was his abandonment of the concert platform. Not that he was the first or last great pianist to stop giving concerts: Horowitz and Michelangeli retreated for long stretches, Eileen Joyce gave up altogether. But Gould didn’t retire only to make a triumphant return at some later point, nor did he give up merely for personal reasons and disappear into private life. His refusal to play in public was an expression of principle, a rejection of what he felt to be a false and dead form of music-making in favour of a higher artistic mission which he believed could better be pursued in the recording studio. In this respect, Gould fully understood the problems of his historical position. Any interpreter approaching the classical music canon in the late 20th century is faced with an interpretative language distended with cliché: the result of the same works having been repeated for decades, if not centuries. The concert platform is the scene of these repetitions, the place where the classical music canon is done to death night after night and year after year. In the course of his own concert career Glenn Gould found that he was in danger of becoming one of the murderers: gradually, by dint of having to play the same works on numerous occasions and through having to project these works to thousands of listeners in inappropriately large concert halls, his interpretations lost edge, started – to his ears – to become cheapened and coarsened. His reaction to this was to stop playing in public.

Gould believed that recorded music would eventually kill off public concerts, but he also understood the way that recordings had themselves contributed to the saturation of the acoustic environment with musical cliché, and he knew that in this environment ‘to gain our attention any musical experience must be of a quite exceptional nature.’ To Gould it followed from this that one should only record a work if one had something genuinely new – exceptional, therefore – to say: ‘if there’s any excuse at all for making a record, it’s to do it differently ... to approach the work from a totally recreative point of view ... to perform that particular work as it has never been performed before. And if one can’t do that, I should say, abandon it, forget about it, move on to something else.’ True to his own theories, Gould rarely recorded the same work twice, and all his recordings are stamped with the individuality he brought to everything he did.

Sometimes it seemed as though Gould was bent on saying something new for its own sake. One might object – and many did – that his recordings of Mozart and Beethoven, especially Mozart, sometimes stretch interpretative revisionism to its limits (one critic called a Gould Mozart disc ‘the most loathsome record ever made’). But it is exactly at such moments that one can hear most clearly the radical purposes of Gould the musician. For it is at the points in the musical canon where fresh hearing has become most difficult (in middle Beethoven, for example, or in the Mozart sonatas) that Gould subjects the music to his most extreme interpretative scrutiny.

In his approach to the history of music as well as to musical interpretation Glenn Gould was able, like no other musician of his age, to think radically and for himself. To a quite unusual degree he had what Furtwängler in his notebooks complained was so rare in modern musicians: he could confront the pieces of music themselves, instead of through the preconceptions and musical clichés of his time. This led him to reject almost all 19th-ccntury piano music after Beethoven, to view Beethoven himself with distrust and to admit to his personal canon only a fraction of the output of Mozart. Gould argued for his aesthetic from a number of directions, but it is best understood as the aesthetic of a dedicated and passionate polyphonist. For Gould, music was polyphony, and to the extent that a musical style developed away from polyphonic values he rejected it. Hence his ‘blind spot’ for music between Bach and Wagner, his championing of pre-Classical composers like Sweelinck, Gibbons and Byrd, his love of the late Romantics (especially Strauss) and his love of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern.

Auden said of Rimbaud that verse was a special illness of his ear, and one could say of Gould that polyphony was a special illness of his inner ear, an almost pathological specialisation in his way of thinking, perhaps even a condition of his psyche. Concentrating on several things at the same time was something he seems almost to have needed to do. He would learn a score while listening to music on one radio and the news on another, or while holding a conversation with someone. In his journalistic work – whether for magazines or radio – he was always splitting himself into different voices. All the interviews he gave were written by himself – questions and answers – and his creative work in radio (of which he did a lot) was notable for his invention of a new polyphonic form of documentary in which a number of interviews with different people were superimposed on one another.

Gould’s passionate commitment to musical polyphony was bound to set him at odds with the culture of the concert hall and the piano business. The musical repertoire best suited to that culture, because specifically written for it, is one in which polyphonic values are suppressed in favour of drama and virtuoso display. Gould found this music uninteresting and aesthetically corrupted by the functions it was designed to fulfil. Nothing better embodied this corruption than the piano concerto. Here we touch on the political dimension of Gould’s musical aesthetic. For in the piano concerto he saw not only crudeness of form (he thought the sonata allegro overrated) but a dramatisation of the aspect of human behaviour he hated most – competitiveness: the piano competing with the orchestra, the pianist strutting the stage as artist hero, vanquisher of orchestras and audiences, master not of musical control but of crowd control. By contrast, the polyphonic music which Gould so loved presented an image of equality in formal relations and democracy among participating voices, an image, if you like, of a human set-up in which the competitive stress of the piano business (symbolised by the virtuoso piano concerto) would have no part.

Gould’s love of polyphony was a love of musical thinking (the pianist, he once said, plays the piano, not with his fingers, but with his mind), and if he rejected music of low polyphonic content this was because such music requires of the player a lower level of mental attention. This brought him into direct conflict with the main tradition of piano-playing as it had developed since the end of the 18th century, a tradition in which mechanical – reflex – virtuosity has been the chief technical goal.

Here then was a pianistic genius who was in collision with the mainstream values of his art. Gould acknowledged this contradiction without batting an eyelid and resolved it in a ruthlessly consistent way. Since the concert hall was no place to nurture the subtleties of polyphony, either acoustically or ideologically, he abandoned it for the recording studio where technology was friendly to voice-leading. Since the piano repertoire was mainly full of anti-polyphonic music, he abandoned it for Bach, Schoenberg and Sweelinck. And since the conventions of piano technique were musically mindless, he abandoned them for a technique based on thinking.

In a sense, Gould abandoned the piano, in so far as this was possible without actually stopping playing it. His distaste for traditional pianistic virtues – beautiful sound, sensuous texturing, subtle or not so subtle tone-colouring – led him to cultivate an austere, bright, ‘unpianistic’ sound in his own playing. He sought out instruments that would maximise the clarity of voicing within polyphonic structures (his last instrument, ironically, was a Yamaha), and insisted on regulating these instruments in ways that turned piano technicians grey. He hated the sustaining pedal.

In 1981, Gould decided to re-record the Goldberg Variations, the work which had made his reputation twenty-five years earlier. Listening again to the earlier recording, he now found much to criticise in it. When an interviewer defended the first version. Gould replied: ‘There’s quite a bit of piano-playing going on there – and I mean that as the most derogatory comment possible.’

Glenn Gould’s views on the role of polyphony in Western classical music would cut a lot less ice had he not himself possessed in such a high degree ‘the skill of polyphonic playing’, as Brendel puts it, the skill, as Gould would have put it, of playing the piano. Gould, says Andras Schiff, ‘could control Five voices more intelligently than most others can control two’. But it is the presence of Gould’s personality in his playing, the note of total commitment that is to be heard in it, which is what gives it its special power. Gould’s aesthetic was uncompromisingly puritanical and severe, yet his playing is never cold or dispassionate: it is dynamised by an exultant energy and conveys to the listener the tactility of the music as it is produced by fingers that are thinking. Then there is the accident of Gould’s singing, which can be heard on every recording he made. To hear that curious crooning voice, accompanying the Aria or Variation 15 of the second Goldberg recording is like hearing some ancient Japanese crone accompanying her Koto. It’s a bizarre, profoundly moving effect, bringing us into contact with Gould the human being as though we were intruding on his private musical thoughts.

People who heard Gould play in the flesh (especially at unscheduled moments, after recording sessions or rehearsals) speak of something beyond comprehension: ‘it was absolutely astounding,’ ‘unbelievable’. His playing forces anyone who tries to describe it into a rhetoric of outdoing, a zone of superlative babbling which one is helpless to avoid. There are innumerable places in Gould’s recorded archive where one can only either prattle or remain silent. If pressed to name chapter and verse, I should be inclined to point to the recording of Gould’s recital in Salzburg on 25 August 1959, and to the last recording he made, which was also his first as a conductor – his performance of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. The latter demonstrates beyond any doubt the universality of Gould’s musical insight, which could as well redeem Wagner as commune with Bach, and it is like a tantalising glimpse of some promised land: the place of those orchestral interpretations which Gould planned but death prevented. The Salzburg recital (in which he plays the Sweelinck Organ Fantasy, Schoenberg Opus 25, Mozart K 330 and the Goldberg Variations) is as complete a summation of Gould’s musical abilities as I could imagine within the space of 70 minutes’ playing, and it seems to me to explain conclusively why Gould could not long continue to perform onstage. His playing here shares with the much later Siegfried Idyll interpretation an exquisite fragility. He delivers the music to us as someone might place in our hands a fragile and priceless object which he loved beyond anything else. The idea that he should have been expected to repeat the performance over and over again is cruel and grotesque.

In 1959 Thomas Bernhard was just finishing as a student at the Salzburg Mozarteum. It is possible that he was present at Gould’s 25 August recital, and I should like to think that it was this experience, and in particular the experience of that Goldberg performance, that provided Bernhard with the ne plus ultra from which Der Untergeher takes shape. The rhetoric of outdoing, of superlative assertion, permeates Thomas Bernhard’s late style, and Der Untergeher is no exception. He once said – in the context of one of the many uproars his work caused – that ‘without exaggeration one can say nothing.’ Glenn Gould provided Bernhard with a rare occasion for positive rather than negative reinforcement and a subject which for once needed no exaggeration.

At one point in Der Untergeher the narrator’s invective turns to the worthlessness of contemporary musical institutions:

Every year ten thousand music students go the way of music academy mindlessness and are wrecked by their unqualified teachers, I thought. Become in some cases famous and still haven’t grasped anything ... Become Gulda or Brendel and are still nothing. Become Gilels and are still nothing.

By forcing an extreme contrast between Gould and most other professional pianists, Bernhard’s novel asks us to abandon for a moment the comfort of our gradualist assumptions about the performance of classical music (our belief that there are just more or less good musicians and that Brendel, like Gulda and Gilels, sits somewhere on this continuum), and to consider the possibility that most of what we listen to these days and call good is, despite all its apparent virtues, boring, repetitive and lifeless, or as Furtwängler put it in a rather Bernhardian moment, ‘sham, mediocrity and insufficiency’.

Music Sounded Out is the book of a musician who, one feels, could never, entertain such a thought with any seriousness. The book amply justifies Thomas Bernhard’s choice of Brendel as a leading representative of the establishment camp which Glenn Gould stands against. For in Der Untergeher Bernhard did not just want to oppose Gould to any old virtuoso pianist, but to pianists thought by the establishment to be the best, to pianists, above all, highly regarded by the thoughtful for their thoughtful approach to playing and interpretation. Brendel’s status in this respect is well conveyed by Frank Kermode, writing in the London Review of Books around the time that Bernhard published Der Untergeher:

When Op. 111 came to an end amid great enthusiasm ... it was obvious that it had become the real right thing to catch this series. During the interval I stood in line for the men’s room with the philosopher Tom Nagel, the sociologist Richard Sennett, the poet Fred Seidel and the conservative sage William Buckley. I suppose Brendel’s intellectual and technical mastery is about the only kind to which sensible people of almost every description want to pay tribute, even if to do so involves a degree of ostentation of which the pianist is as it were divinely free ... He is the greatest living performer.

Music Sounded Out brings with it a strong whiff of that men’s room queue. Acknowledgments to Sir Isaiah Berlin, Sir Ernst Gombrich and to Sir Frank himself, the provenance of the essays in the New York Review of Books, Die Zeit and the TLS, the obligatory gesture of self-depreciation (‘the pieces assembled here are informed by self-doubt’), firmly signal to the reader that this is no ordinary pianist, but one of the few who have been accepted by the intellectual establishment: the rare example of a musician who doesn’t just play well, but is fully cultivated to boot. There’d be no harm in this, if the mild vanity of it, the faint sense of airs affected, didn’t carry over into the fabric of the book itself, and if at the same time the intellectual substance of the book qualified it for the company it seeks to keep. But Music Sounded Out consistently fails to deliver anything substantial. Whether he is discussing motivic continuities in Schubert’s late piano sonatas or pulse and tempo in Beethoven’s concertos, the conducting style of Wilhelm Furtwängler or the interpretative universe of Artur Schnabel, Brendel never does more than offer incidental insights which add as much to the great pre-existing mass of classical musical culture as snowflakes falling on an alp.

Nothing is more indicative of Brendel’s inconsequential cast of musical mind than his compulsion to reduce pieces of music to literary paraphrase. The Andantino of Schubert’s late A major Sonata expresses ‘desolate grace behind which madness lies, from which it erupts, into which it sinks back quivering’, the Rondo is a ‘big daydream of bliss, with thunderstorm development’, the Allegro of the C minor Sonata depicts a ‘dancing dervish; or death gallop, with Cerberus barking, and the B major lure of the Erl King’. Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations are turned into a set of sentimental nursery pictures with titles like ‘march: gladiator, flexing his muscles’, ‘snowflakes’, ‘tamed goblin’, ‘giggling and neighing’, ‘maniac and moaner’. To describe works in this way reduces them to a series of mannerisms and it suggests that Brendel can only understand music as something less precise than itself. ‘Why is it so irritating when real music is verbally reproduced as moods?’ wonders Wilhelm Furtwängler in his 1938 Notebook, and he concludes that music simply ‘is, it does not represent.’ Brendel praises Furtwängler for a performance of Leonore No 3 in which the music ‘is never burdened by “expression” from outside’. Yet this is precisely (or, perhaps one should say, imprecisely) what Brendel, when writing about music, does all the time. Gould called this way of thinking ‘nonsense’.

Brendel’s understanding of music as mannerism is related to his view of it as a dramatisation of manners. His writing is full of the language of etiquette. A piece called ‘A Mozart player gives himself advice’ reads like an essay on deportment, on how to be just so and not de trop when playing Mozart: ‘finding a balance between freshness and urbanity’, avoiding ‘the cute Mozart’, ‘the perfumed Mozart’, the ‘touch-me-not Mozart’, not being ‘seduced into overdoing it or into living too much for the moment’. When playing Beethoven, the player may take liberties, but ‘must be able to answer to the composer’ for them.

The scene where all this obedience and deportment goes on show is the concert hall: a place where good manners are respected and people behave themselves, a place which Brendel has the highest regard for. In a concert, ‘not only must the player perform an entire work ... but the audience must sit still ... until it is finished.’ ‘People,’ Brendel continues primly, ‘rarely leave a concert during a performance. Such respect for the concentration of both musicians and audience is one of the tacit agreements of a cultured public.’ The only occasion on which a cultured public may relax this rigid posture of respect is when the music itself signals it by being self-consciously funny. In ‘Must classical music be entirely serious?’ (reprinted in a recent festschrift for Isaiah Berlin) Brendel’s view of music as mannerism and good manners achieves its fullest expression. References to Plato, Diderot and Schiller lend the discussion an air of proper intellectual depth as Brendel sets out his understanding of musical jokes against various definitions of humour. Jokes are ‘breaches of order’ within ‘a framework of order’, laughter ‘poses a danger to state and religion’ and is ‘incompatible with the holy and absolute’, humour ‘relates to the dark undercurrent of life’, it is where ‘the dark forces in man’ surface and where artists show themselves to be ‘like great criminals’. Powerful stuff, this musical humour, but when it comes to particular instances Brendel is back in the nursery, where humour is about tittering at misdemeanours performed behind nanny’s back. The intrusion of a B major chord into a C major passage by Haydn is called an ‘offence’ – Haydn ‘provokes the listener’s sense of humour’ by ‘misbehaving’. The beginning of Beethoven’s Op. 31 No 1 Sonata shows a ‘delicious disregard of rules’, and a piano B flat near the start of the Op. 35 Variations seems to Brendel ‘like an actor putting a finger to his lips, and going “shhhh” ’. Several of the Diabelli Variations are described as ‘giggling’, and the theme is said to lose control over ‘its unruly offspring’. When a composer writes music such as this, he is behaving like ‘a naughty child, or a very, very innocent child’, to amuse us. In case, as listeners, we miss the point, it’s important for the player to perform comic music comically, to let us know ‘that something amusing is going on’. For example, before the start of Haydn’s C major Sonata ‘a discreet signal has to pass from the performer to the audience: “Caution! We are out for mischief.” ’

I regret to say that I think Brendel’s notion of musical jokes is entirely accurate. His evocation of concert hall humour as a nudge-nudge-wink-wink complicity between performer and public brings back with unwelcome vividness the countless times one has had to sit cringing in the back of some concert hall while this embarrassing and silly form of cultural bonding runs its course. The polite simpering and giggling that goes on when a ‘funny’ piece of music is being played has nothing to do with genuine humour, nor is it an expression, as Brendel likes to think, of concert hall society taking itself less than seriously: on the contrary, it is a simulation of these things, a self-conscious irreverence that confirms for the performer and concertgoer the genuineness of their reverence for the holy things of art. Both the reverence, and the irreverence which validates it, are ways of avoiding the very things they claim to comprehend, of confining the disturbing power and freedoms of art within the comfortable prison of a respectable, polite and fundamentally unserious social rite.

‘Someone who cannot laugh isn’t to be taken seriously,’ says the narrator of Der Untergeher, and ‘someone who cannot laugh as Glenn can laugh is not to be taken as seriously as Glenn.’ Gould’s capacity for laughter is said to have been considerable, and one imagines the same was true of Thomas Bernhard. Beneath the dogged pessimism of Der Untergeher there bubbles a wild stream of hilarity, which has nothing to do with making self-conscious jokes, everything to do with the sense the book gives of a passionate taking of life and music seriously. Likewise, the presence of the fool (der Hellsichtigste aller Narren – ‘the most clear-sighted of all fools’, as Bernhard calls him) not far below the surface of Gould’s playing gives it an exhilarating ambiguity, in which total commitment and peals of laughter, extraordinary beauty and hilarity, seem to alternate. Both Gould and Bernhard understood that humour is not about responding to self-consciously funny things, but about laughing at those aspects of life and art which are deadly serious. Humour arises when the things we most love or fear are tested to the limit, when we allow ourselves to consider for a moment that what we regard as everything is in fact nothing. In this sense, humour is the capacity to be radical, to pull up settled things and look at their roots. Gould exercised this capacity in a high degree. I am not sure that Brendel even possesses it.

Without the ability to be radical, to call into question the established certainties of the classical music canon and its institutions, a performer of this music in the late 20th century cannot properly interpret it. Unfamiliar music (Medieval and Renaissance music and contemporary works) does not demand this kind of radicalism, but the classics of the concert hall can easily become a gruesome bore without it. Put another way, a performer who does not, as Glenn Gould did, question the purpose of playing the classical music canon, who is not aware of how these pieces can lose their meaning in the process of constant repetition, who does not entertain the possibility that the commercial institutions of music-making create a context in which he can no longer effectively communicate – such a performer cannot develop an aesthetic through which the familiar can once again be heard as new.

Brendel describes himself as a performer ‘whose trust in the composer’s infallibility’ is ‘counterbalanced by critical scrutiny’, but in practice he never dispenses with the idea of ‘the composer’s infallibility’. ‘Even a composer like Mozart could make a mistake’ is about as far as Brendel can go in the direction of calling the classics into question, of considering that they might not always be all that they are cracked up to be, not, at any rate, for us now. Where Gould could approach Mozart through his unique Gouldian perspective, and find, according to his own lights, much that was wanting in much of Mozart and therefore a beauty in what pleased him, Brendel’s trust in the composer’s infallibility leaves him little room for manoeuvre between the familiar rites of Mozart worship: Mozart as fresh but urbane, unaffected but ironic, aloof but intimate, and so on. Where Gould could write sleeve notes for his recording of the Appassionata dismissing the work as pompous and overrated, or could sigh wistfully that he had ‘tried very, very hard to develop a convincing rationale for the Emperor Concerto’, Brendel only intones of these works that they have ‘spacious grandeur’. While Gould could contemplate the possibility that the concert hall was destroying his capacity to be the musician he wanted to be, Brendel can only fuss about the etiquette of programme-planning. Few pianists playing the classical music canon today interpret it in the light of a coherent aesthetic, which is why most (with the notable exception of survivors from an earlier generation, like Artur Balsam or Mieczyslaw Horszowski) sound as though they are simply repeating, rather than re-creating, the pieces they play, and doing so in a language of decorous, well-mannered cliché.