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:

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