Commentary Magazine


Gouldism

In Thomas Harris’s best-selling 1988 horror novel The Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter, a psychiatrist turned serial killer, tells his captors that he is willing to help them track down another murderer in return for certain privileges. Among them is music in his cell: “Glenn Gould, The Goldberg Variations? Would that be too much?” Lecter’s request is granted, and (both in the novel and in the 1991 Oscar-winning film version) Gould’s recording can be heard in the background as the good doctor slaughters his insufficiently wary guards and escapes into the night.

This passing reference in a novel and movie is noteworthy not merely because classical music usually plays so minor a role in American popular culture but also because it offers a glimpse of the extent to which the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, who died twenty years ago this October, succeeded in worming his way into that same culture. At first glance, Gould seems an unlikely pop-culture hero. A reluctant performer who suffered from chronic stage fright, he stopped giving public concerts in 1964, and few of his American admirers ever saw him play (though he appeared with some regularity on Canadian TV). His repertoire was narrow and determinedly intellectual, consisting mainly of the music of Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Hindemith, Mozart, and Schoenberg. No more uncompromising artist has ever lived—yet Gould was, and is, one of the best-known classical musicians of the 20th century.

From 1964 on, Gould’s reputation was sustained almost entirely through his recordings, and in particular through his first commercially released LP. This was the version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations done by the then twenty-two-year-old pianist for Columbia in 1955, five months after his American debut performances at Washington’s Phillips Collection and New York’s Town Hall. The album has never been out of print, and though Gould came to dislike the interpretation and re-recorded the work a year before his death, it is the earlier version with which he continues to be identified. In the words of the music critic Tim Page:

[I]t quickly became one of those rare classical recordings that were deemed bona-fide intellectual events by the public at large. If you were young in the 1950′s, and you attended the films of Bergman and Fellini, were hip to the existentialists in Paris and the “Beats” on the road, and followed the daunting stylistic twists and turns from John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and other modern jazz artists, it was more than likely that you were a Gould fan as well. . . . His playing had the same sort of tough/tender dichotomy exemplified by such cultural icons as Marlon Brando and James Dean.

This somewhat breathless but basically accurate tribute comes from the liner notes that Page has written for Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder, a new three-CD set containing remastered versions of the 1955 and 1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations, a 1982 radio broadcast in which Page interviewed the reclusive pianist about his decision to re-record the work, and twelve minutes’ worth of hitherto unreleased outtakes from the sessions for the 1955 version.1 Given the longstanding availability of both recordings, one would expect the market for so arcane a reissue to have been limited, but within days of its release in September, Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder became the fastest-selling classical album in the world.

What made Gould’s Goldbergs so popular that they could be plausibly incorporated into the cultural décor of The Silence of the Lambs? Why are they still so popular today? The answers, not surprisingly, have almost as much to do with extra-musical factors as with purely musical ones.

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As I have had occasion to note previously, Columbia Records seized upon Gould’s myriad eccentricities as fodder for a promotional campaign designed to publicize its newest artist.2 This campaign succeeded beyond the label’s wildest dreams. From 1955 on, Gould was as well known for his personal peculiarities—his chronic hypochondria, his insistence on singing along with his playing and sitting on a low-slung, homemade folding chair instead of a standard piano bench, his promiscuous use of tranquilizers and sleeping pills—as for his piano playing.

Over time, still another side of Gould emerged. He had always liked to write, and once he retired from the concert stage, his output of essays, articles, reviews, and radio and TV broadcasts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation increased sharply.3 Willy-nilly, he came to be seen as a kind of philosopher, a hermit (in the religious sense of the word) who espoused a homemade doctrine of noncompetition and spiritual quietism rooted in the belief that “technology possesses a mediative power which can minimize or even eliminate the competitive follies which absorb so large a share of human activity.” It was for this reason, he claimed, that he chose to withdraw from the artistically self-destructive arena of public performance and devote himself exclusively to recording and broadcasting.

Such ideas resonated perfectly with the communitarian Zeitgeist of the 1960′s. Three years after Gould’s retirement from the stage, the Beatles, the most influential rock band of the period, would record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, an album making use of studio-based techniques that could not be reproduced in live performance. With its release, the Beatles stopped giving concerts, thereafter appearing only on record, in films, and on TV Like Gould, they had opted out of the most frenzied aspects of pop-culture celebrity—in the process becoming, of course, even bigger celebrities.

Gould eventually began to attract admirers whose interest in his work and thought had cult-like aspects. In 1978, a Canadian professor of philosophy named Geoffrey Payzant published Glenn Gould: Music and Mind, a book whose animating premise seemed to be that Gould’s philosophy, were it to be widely adopted, might redeem the world:

Glenn Gould’s writings and recordings are evidences of his intention to separate music from cruelty, to show that competitiveness is not a law of civilized life. Nature may be red in tooth and claw, and competition in the struggle for survival may be a law of nature, but technology (Gould says) intervenes in human culture between man and nature, between man and the beastliness that is in men (at least in the hearts of men such as sit in audiences at concerts and bullfights).

Since his death, Canadian cultists have also produced such articles of worship as Northern Music: Poems About and Inspired by Glenn Gould (2001), an anthology whose contents are adequately described by its title, and Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993), a pretentious feature film directed by François Girard in which Gould’s oft-catalogued oddities are dramatized with a cloying affection that makes them seem like nothing so much as the characteristic behavior of a higher form of life.

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It is no accident that Gould’s homeland should have become a center of “Gouldism.” He is, after all, the only indisputably major classical instrumentalist to have been born and trained in Canada, a country whose provincial culture is widely felt, not least by expatriate Canadians themselves, to be inimical to world-class achievement in the arts. Very often, ambitious Canadian artists who feel stifled by their society’s comfortable and self-consciously noncompetitive atmosphere go elsewhere—generally to the United States—in order to advance their careers, a decision for which they are invariably resented by those who stay behind. By contrast, Gould not only chose to live in Canada but glorified its cultural values, of which he plainly considered himself a shining exemplar.

In fact, Gould’s philosophy of noncompetition was nothing more than a rationalization of his fear of public performance—or, indeed, of anything that might threaten his deep-seated need for rigid control over every detail of his life. (In a rare unguarded moment, he told the violinist Yehudi Menuhin that “what technology is all about is the elimination of risk and danger.”) Accordingly, he shunned physical contact with other people and lived largely as a recluse. When he gave “interviews” to the press, he wrote out the questions and answers in advance. His “friendships” consisted of endless late-night monologues conducted by telephone, and the surest way to lose him as a friend, by most accounts, was to contradict or correct him. Most disturbingly, he was a lifelong prescription-drug abuser who refused psychiatric treatment even when his emotional problems effloresced into psychotic episodes.4

The radio interview included in Glenn Gould: A Sense of Wonder offers an unintentionally revealing look at how Gould chose to present himself to the world. His stilted exchanges with Tim Page bear no resemblance to the informal give-and-take of an actual conversation; even if one did not know that the interview was fully scripted, it must be plain to the most naive listener that at the very least it was carefully rehearsed. Nor is it possible for Gould to conceal his obvious discomfort at the necessity of interacting with another human being. Instead, he sounds like a humorless, self-obsessed man attempting without success to simulate wit and warmth.

It is no less revealing to turn from this interview to Page’s recollections of the circumstances under which the event took place:

Glenn was dressed in his usual summer wear—two sweaters, a woolen shirt, scarf, gloves, a long black coat, and a slouch hat. Moreover, he looked decidedly unwell: his face a mask of bleached parchment, his hair coming out in clumps. Gone was the extraordinary-looking youngster—ethereally beautiful rather than traditionally handsome—who had once dazzled audiences throughout the world with the brilliance and audacity of his playing. In his place was a wise, gentle, stooped man who seemed much older than his 49 years, with the air of a delicate visitor ready to cast off his wasted body and metamorphose as pure spirit.

Tim Page, it should be noted, is a music critic of high distinction, not given to inappropriate enthusiasms or easily dazzled by mere charisma. Yet he writes about Gould (who was, to be sure, a personal friend) less as a cool-headed observer than as a wholehearted celebrant of the cult of Gouldism, confident that his idol is not as other men.

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That there was, however, far more to Gould than Gouldism is made incontrovertibly evident by listening to the 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, the first CD in Glenn Gould: A State of Wonder. No matter how thoroughly one knows this miraculous performance—and I have listened to it any number of times—the textural clarity and rhythmic propulsion of Gould’s playing never cease to come as a surprise. In Page’s words:

[I]t was unprecedentedly aggressive on one level, searching and achingly vulnerable on another. The recording heralded a new approach to Bach’s keyboard music—it combined the stark, separate contrapuntal voicings so easily delineated on the harpsichord with the tone color and dynamic calibration available from the modern piano. Never before had this music been played with such dazzling and incisive virtuosity. . . . Gould’s Bach swung like mad.5

Gould’s Bach did indeed represent a new approach, one that had little in common with any existing Bach performance tradition—though to call it anti-romantic, as many have done, is to miss the point. For while he broke with older styles of Bach interpretation, playing with a lightness and crispness of articulation unheard-of in the 1930′s and 1940′s, he did so not as a baroque-music specialist seeking to reconstruct “authentic” 18th-century performance practice but as a radical individualist beholden only to his own musical ideas—in other words, as a romantic.

To hear Gould’s hushed, inward playing of the intensely chromatic minor-key Variation 25, the emotional center of the Goldbergs, is to recognize the truth of his own claim that his playing aspired to the condition of religious ecstasy:

I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.

Paradoxically, Gould’s repudiation of then-current ideas about how to play Bach was made easier by the provincialism of the musical culture in which he was reared. Had he studied at New York’s Juilliard School or Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute, like most of the well-known American pianists of his generation, he would have been indoctrinated in the “international style” that dominated classical-music performance after World War II, one in which regional idiosyncrasies of style were largely suppressed. While there was nothing specifically Canadian about his style, which was wholly of his own making, it must have owed something to his having grown up in a country that was off the beaten path of musical modernity.

But what worked to Gould’s advantage in his youth became problematic later on. After 1964, he never again performed with other musicians except from a position of absolute artistic control. Nor did the producers of his records dare to challenge his artistic decisions, however bizarre they might be—and some of his later recordings of the music of Mozart and Beethoven are quite comprehensively bizarre. Having cut himself off from the exterior stimuli that most artists require in order to grow, he could draw only on his interior resources, and in the end these proved unequal to the task of self-renewal. His last significant recording, the 1981 remake of the Goldberg Variations, is not an improvement on its predecessor but an arbitrarily alternative interpretation, more studied and less spontaneous (especially in the opening aria, which he plays almost exactly half as fast in 1981 as he did in 1955).

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In the end, and despite all the problems posed by his life and work, Glenn Gould is as central to the culture of classical music today as he was a half-century ago—not because of the triumph of his half-baked ideas, or because he has become a pop-culture icon, but solely on account of the enduring fascination exerted by his records. For in an age of homogenized interpretation, and at a time when the classical recording industry is all but dead, Gould’s best recordings are making a powerful impression on a new generation of listeners. In that most important of senses, he is as alive in 2002 as he was in 1981, or 1955.

One may quarrel with much of what he wrote about music, just as one may dismiss many of his recordings as misbegotten and unconvincing. Above all, one may take the strongest possible issue with the cult of Gouldism, whose appeal is essentially nonmusical. But even at his most obstinately perverse, Gould never failed to be interesting, and when he was good, as he was in the incomparable 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, no pianist—and no classical performer of any kind—has ever been better.

This is why he is still remembered, and will continue to be remembered long after most of his contemporaries have been relegated to footnotes in the history of musical performance. Apocryphal though it no doubt is, the remark attributed to the conductor George Szell after his first encounter with Glenn Gould is nonetheless the exact truth: “That nut’s a genius.”

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Footnotes

1 Sony Classical Legacy S3K 87703.

2 See my essay, “Two Fallen Stars” (COMMENTARY, July 1998), which also contains a selected discography of other important Gould performances currently available on CD.

3 Gould’s prose writings are collected in The Glenn Gould Reader (1984), edited by Tim Page.

4 Disturbing descriptions of Gould’s behavior can be found in Andrew Kazdin’s Glenn Gould at Work: Creative Lying (1989), a memoir by the producer of most of Gould’s recordings, and Peter F. Ostwald’s Glenn Gould; The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius (1997), a biography-memoir by a professor of psychiatry and amateur musician who was friendly with Gould from 1957 to 1977.

5 “He had time like a jazz musician,” the jazz critic Gene Lees (who also knew Gould) has similarly observed.

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About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.




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