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.

A few years ago I asked Yehudi Menuhin what it was like to work with Gould. They had made a television programme together consisting of a Bach sonata, Beethoven’s Op. 96 and the Schoenberg Fantasie, interspersed with discussion between the two of them. Menuhin said that Gould was a truly fantastic musician but when it came to the filming of their discussion the pianist had insisted on writing not only his own part but his partner’s as well. ‘That way nothing can go wrong,’ he said by way of explanation to the equally adamant Menuhin. Gould gave way but it took a fair amount of time to persuade him to cede ‘control’ to someone else. He did the same kind of thing with the pieces and composers he played: only he knew what he was going to play, how it would sound, how fast (or slow) it would be taken. He confounded his public when, after a steady diet of Bach and Beethoven, he turned to composers like Richard Strauss, Sibelius, Grieg and Bizet, praising them to the skies and certainly above the pianistic romantics whom everyone else played. Even with Bach and Mozart, he chose tempi that defied convention and, since he played the same work differently on different occasions, it was as if to say: ‘I control this work and can render it the way I please.’ I heard him several times in the late Fifties and early Sixties before he quit playing concerts, and I believe I have heard nearly all of the dozens of recordings he made: he has never failed to grip me with his inventiveness and rhythmic vitality, although everything he played had an element of interpretative wilfulness in it. No wonder first-rate pianists like Alfred Brendel still cannot fully accept the liberties and often unmusical sounds that Gould forced on the classical compositions he favoured.

The latest biographical and interpretative analysis of Gould is by the psychiatrist Peter Ostwald, the author of interesting psycho-biographies of Nijinsky and Robert Schumann; a good amateur violinist, and a friend of the pianist, Ostwald died of cancer before his book was published, but was apparently able to finish his manuscript despite the travails of his final weeks. Ostwald’s is the first study that tries not only to account for Gould’s egregious behaviour as pianist and human being, but also to tie that behaviour specifically to the tragic personal cost of being the genius he was. Much of the anecdotal material in the book is also in Friedrich’s biography, though Ostwald has additional stories and insights of his own. The central theme in Gould’s life, according to Ostwald, was his unstilled anxiety, a narcissistic pattern of self-concern and self-immersion that was fed and accentuated by the life of the performer continuously under scrutiny. Gould’s peculiar antics on stage – playing with legs crossed, conducting himself and the orchestra, humming and singing, using a very low chair that brought his eyes and fingers to roughly the same level – were exhibitionistic, but they were also indications of his need for personal transfiguration – the ‘fusing of bodily display with musical intelligence’ – in the course of performing. Ostwald’s novel approach to Gould is premised on the notion that performers are subject to special stresses and that these are compounded (not relieved) by the unusual capacities a great musician like Gould possesses. Along with a group of doctors in Berkeley, Ostwald worked in the Health Group for Performing Artists, a relatively new medical sub-specialty devoted to the unique problems of musicians who spend most of their lives preparing and then displaying their accomplishments for an avid public.

Some years ago I described the rarefied and terrifying world of the concert artist by referring to the public ordeal that Gould tried to escape from as ‘an extreme occasion’. Quite apart from the sheer nervousness induced by exposure to a large number of people who have paid good money to watch a pianist, violinist or singer do things that almost by definition no one else can do, the performer’s isolation on stage dramatises the precariousness of a situation in which all kinds of dismaying things can happen – memory slips, fumbled passages, complete confusion, missed concentration, finger trouble and so on. Then there is the sense that the audience is waiting for you to fail, waiting for you not to come through; in this respect concert-going has an element of the blood sport. Lastly, as Gould felt, giving concerts involves the performer in a world of intense competition, a world filled with other musicians who are trying to get ahead at your expense, who have a stake in your decline or disastrous performance, who want your dates, your recording deal, your fee, your manager, your fame. To maintain a high level of polish and brilliance, which is what the business demands, is to live at an impossible pitch of intensity; one concert performed or record completed, and you must start thinking about the next. No wonder that a fair number of Gould’s contemporaries-Vladimir Horowitz, Gary Grafman, Leon Fleisher, John Ogdon, to mention a few of the most gifted – succumbed to mysterious illnesses and had to curtail appearances and whole careers. The extremity of being out there alone, day after day, sooner or later catches up with one, especially if, as in Gould’s case, the innate will to control life and body was constantly challenged – not just by the rigours of a performing life, but by mortality.

So delicate and refined is the great musical performer’s playing mechanism that it is difficult for an outsider to understand what goes on; the line separating even the gifted amateur from a pianist like Gould is a matter of total difference, not degree. To be able to sight-read and memorise anything, to translate one’s reading of notes on a page into an immediate sound on the instrument, using one’s fingers in mostly unnatural ways, to have the confidence (this is of capital importance) to know that one can do this at any time: these were all capacities that Gould possessed in the highest degree. Only someone like Barenboim – who conducts dozens of opera and symphonic works from memory, plays the piano and conducts at the same time, and seems never to practise – has comparable talents, although he does what he does as a matter of course, without the mad energies expended by Gould. Ostwald describes how Gould was nurtured into becoming an unusual musician by his mother, a dourly Protestant Toronto piano teacher, who thought she could induce musicality in her unborn child by constantly playing music on the gramophone and radio during her pregnancy and his infancy. By the time baby Glenn could sit up, she would put him on her lap, sit at the piano, encourage him to press down on the keys, all the while singing hymns, chorales, Canadian folk tunes. ‘Mother, child and the piano quickly became a unity,’ Ostwald writes, adding that this may be ‘the origin of Glenn’s future posture while playing. His need to be very close to the piano would recall the warm feelings and earlier proximity of both mother and instrument.’ Soon the child had perfect pitch, but he also developed peculiar aversions – to round objects like marbles, for example, to a red fire-truck – and ecstatic responses to some of the music he listened to: Tristan and Isolde brought him to tears at a very early age. Ostwald suggests that ‘a marked fear of certain physical objects, disturbances in empathy, social withdrawal, self-isolation and obsessive attention to ritualised behaviour’, all of which continued through his childhood and adolescence (and even later), ‘does resemble a condition called Asperger Disease, which is a variant of autism’, and is often found in unusually gifted people (Wittgenstein and Bartók are the examples Ostwald cites).

The virtue of Ostwald’s intelligently sympathetic account is that he does not reduce Gould’s phenomenal gifts and accomplishments to a set of psycho-pathological symptoms. There is joy and exultation in the descriptions of his Bach performances, and an almost circumspect admiration for his ability to elude the embrace of teachers and senior pianists (like Schnabel) whom he admired. His mother’s role in his life remained central and may have been the source of his obsessive drive for perfection; it was her habit of finding fault with him that he projected onto every audience. Which in turn was part of the reason he came to prefer the sterile atmosphere of the studio to the anxiety-filled excitement of the concert hall; the studio became ‘almost like retreating to those peaceful, isolated organ lofts where he liked practising as a child’. Mrs Gould saw a future Mozart in her son, though she very much guarded against his exploitation as a child prodigy. Strangely, however, Gould’s father – a prosperous, but not artistically inclined Toronto furrier – was never close to his son, although a special chair he made for the boy was the only one the pianist ever used. When its padded cushion was worn through, Gould continued to sit on it.

This meant that Glenn was now sitting directly on the wooden H-frame, which could only have been uncomfortable if not painful, since support had to come from a centrally placed board running the entire length of his crotch. The board was attached to the front and back of the frame, leaving two large empty spaces on either side where his buttocks were unsupported. Thus the weight of his body had to come down on his perineum and genitals ... He treated this chair, built by his father, almost as a sacred object and never complained about it.

It is strange that Ostwald says very little about Gould’s masochism in a context like this, since much of his later life, with its relentless self-observation and punishing routines of self-correction (many of them based on a frighteningly imperfect knowledge of how the human body works), suggests a musician disciplining himself for his supposed imperfections and imagined faults. Reams of his diaries contain blood-pressure and temperature readings taken on an hourly basis, plus endless comments on his dissatisfactions with his playing, speculations on which fingers, joints, knuckles, muscles were functioning badly, and descriptions of his volatile state of mind. Ostwald never treated Gould himself but he did put him in touch with a number of psychiatrists and neurologists whom he saw intermittently without conclusive results. He seemed not to tell one doctor what another physician had either suggested or prescribed for him. His mortal fear of infection and illness deepened over time, and because of it he never visited his mother as she lay dying in hospital. He consistently over-dressed, wearing heavy coats and woollen sweaters and hats in the warmest weather; he never exercised, and seems to have subsisted on one daily meal of scrambled eggs. When he visited Felicia and Leonard Bernstein at their house he was persuaded finally to take off his woollen cap; and Felicia somehow managed to wash his hair, which because of the cap and his wholly indoor life seemed never to have been washed before.

Despite the startling joy and pleasure that many of his recordings convey, Gould appears to have suffered constantly. He was sexually inhibited, even puritanical; his relationships with women were, with one exception (the wife of a well-known pianist, conductor and composer), short and for the most part abruptly terminated; he had an aversion to physical contact and seemed to have derived no solace or nourishment from the various friends whom he used opportunistically and then dropped. Ostwald’s book characterises his life alter his mother’s death in 1975 as hell; neither his piano-playing nor the radio and TV documentaries that he appeared to make with enthusiasm gave him much satisfaction. In part this was the result of ‘overuse disorder’ and ‘repetitive strain injury’, but surely the psychological strain of trying to achieve the highest standards of performance must have played a central role in his protracted misery. Only one other (equally troubled) musician seems to have earned Gould’s jealousy and perhaps envy – Horowitz. Gould was apparently convinced that he was a better pianist than the demonic Russian, that his octaves were more virtuosic, and that he was deserving of greater fame and attention; mostly it was the impossible desire to make his musical ambitions cohere that drove him to insane exertions. He never achieved much distinction as a composer, and at the age of 50 had only just begun to take up conducting seriously (hiring an orchestra miles away from Toronto in order to practise his baton technique in secret) before he died of a stroke in October 1982.

Still, the sheer productivity of his career is breathtaking: Friedrich lists 100 closely printed pages of concerts, recordings, radio documentaries, and many hours of television films. Listening to him over the years, seeing his films, reading his essays, one is struck by his undiminished capacity for a remarkably contrapuntal, many-voiced self-articulation. Ostwald is right to say that for Gould music and speech were two versions of the same thing; even when he was perverse and contrary (‘Mozart,’ he would say, ‘died too late, not too early’) you could at least argue with his views and challenge his readings. For him every performance was a reading in the literal sense: the work he played seemed to be advancing an argument, making points, creating a percipient form that unfolded deliberately and self-consciously before the listener. There is always a sense of superb organisation in Gould’s performances, an organisation that completely eschews ‘pianistic’ effects, colour, rubato, great washes of sound, but relies instead on articulation, clarity of voice, mastery and control of each sound, down to the lowliest bass. I have heard a few major pianists disparage Gould’s lack of ‘musicality’ or ‘phrasing’ without at the time realising that he was in effect opposed to the traditional rhetoric that every amateur or professional pianist has had to learn. He was never allied either to a pedagogical tradition or to a national school (Polish, Austrian, Russian or French). Without ever saying it explicitly, he was, I think, interested in creating himself anew with each performance of a Bach fugue or Wagner transcription. And yet the effect of his playing is that it always recalls something, whether a harpsichord, or a pianoforte, or the human voice, in the process of telling-itself (as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it) with originality and inventiveness.

From his survey of Gould’s later diaries and notebooks Ostwald surmises that he was a musician in trouble, his hunger for control unappeasable, his loneliness and unsupported efforts making greater and greater claims on him, his health deteriorating and his body abused beyond resistance as a result. In his last years, Gould’s search for perfection intensified as a result of

the recent loos of his mother, who in his conscious and unconscious memory was the incessant corrector of mistakes and prodder toward improved perfection. Now that she was gone, these critical functions were entirely within himself. Disconnected from the balancing influence of his mother, he was tackling the problems of his keyboard performances with the same compulsive fury that he applied to everything else he ever touched: his conversations, his writings, his recordings, his radio programmes and television shows.

Another difficulty was his inability to bring together his identities as pianist, intellectual, composer, conductor; inevitably it was the pianist in him who dominated the others, but that role alone did not give him the fulfilment his polymorphous drives demanded. Ostwald wonders whether the sense of diffusion that assailed him, compounded by his cloistral isolation, dissipated the primary image of himself as pianist which ‘had been built up in childhood under his mother’s guidance’. He consulted a great many doctors but never exposed himself to a full psychoanalysis. Ostwald is too discreet to imply that there was something wrong with that reluctance, but some such charge hangs over the book.

Clearly the costly distortions of personality and behaviour in the man were directly connected to his sense of purpose as a performing interpreter of classical music. Does this make him typical and somehow exemplary, or eccentric and merely solitary? He was scathing about the competitiveness, superficiality, greed and show-business aspects of the concert scene (exposed remorselessly by Norman Lebrecht) but he was a prosperous man who made considerable amounts of money. (In a Swiftian touch, he left most of his estate to the Salvation Army and to the Toronto Humane Society for animal welfare; the most interesting photograph in Ostwald’s book is of Gould singing to a group of Canadian cows.) His skilfully manipulated alliance with Columbia Records indicates a worldliness we do not often associate with him. After all, say his biographers, his first phone call of the day was always to his stockbroker, so on one level at least he was a good manager of his own affairs. But Gould’s tragedy was that of the performer divorced from music-making as a matter of contemporary social and cultural practice. Even so stupendously endowed a talent as Liszt played his own music and that of his friends; today’s pianists play the music of the past, despite Gould’s fanciful belief that every performer and every listener could be ‘creative’ by jiggling the dials of an amplifier.

The trouble with Lebrecht’s laborious jeremiad against the classical music business is that he attacks its excesses without being sufficiently aware that it is itself an excess. Once playing the piano or violin, or singing, become professional, i.e. paying activities, it is hard to fault exceptionally gifted individuals for demanding a lot for their performances. Gould knew all that perfectly well, but tried always to give the impression that he was really all about something else – an ideal of perfected articulation regardless of cost, a self-awareness that defied convention, a manner of life premised not on healthy well-being but on unnatural self-projection. His saving virtue wasn’t just his incredible talent but also his irony, a very rare quality in today’s music world, with its overpaid stars, fawning public relations flacks, monomaniacal impresarios all picking over an inert, hopelessly unimaginative repertoire. Gould took himself seriously, but was always ready to mock himself in impersonations of the boxer Dominico Patrono, the actor Myron Chianti, the musicologist Sir Humphrey Price-Davies, the conductor Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite. Part of his very expensive self-consciousness was a way of keeping an eye on his own tics and foibles and somehow indulging the volatility of his usually contradictory impulses. Everything about him was disturbingly antithetical and perverse in some way, but what a rich experience he provides.