Commentary Magazine


Two Fallen Stars

In 1961, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould canceled a scheduled appearance with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, claiming that he had developed a phobic reaction—in his words, “something approaching terror”—to the mere thought of playing in Philadelphia. He was replaced by a young virtuoso from Texas named Van Cliburn, who had himself become famous three years earlier after winning the Tchaikowsky Competition in Moscow. As Ormandy later wrote to Gould:

Perhaps it will give you a chuckle when I tell you that every time I talked to Van, for some psychological reason, I called him Glenn. The third time it happened, he said he didn’t mind at all because he loved Glenn and he considered it an honor and a pleasure to be called by that name.

The idea that anyone, especially anyone in the music business, might have confused these two pianists is indeed comical. Cliburn, a natural performer whom audiences found irresistibly charismatic, favored the work of such romantic composers as Tchaikowsky and Rachmaninoff, which he played in a warm and expansive style. By contrast, Gould, a Bach specialist who hated performing in public—his cancellation of the concert in Philadelphia was no isolated event—was noted for his crisp incisive touch and brisk tempos.

But a closer look does reveal a number of common threads in the lives of the two best-known piano virtuosos of the postwar era. Both men had been child prodigies; both briefly tried their hand at conducting; both showed early promise as composers but failed to develop their talents. Most importantly, both suffered from deep-seated emotional problems that made it difficult for them to function in the public eye. Gould abandoned the concert stage in 1964, at the height of his fame, thereafter playing only in the recording studio until his death eighteen years later; Cliburn quit playing altogether in 1978, and though he returned to the stage in 1989, he no longer makes records or appears regularly in concert.

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Born in 1934, Van Cliburn began playing piano at the age of three. Until he moved from Texas to New York in 1951 to study at the Juilliard School, his only teacher was his mother, Rildia Bee Cliburn, who had studied piano with Arthur Friedheim, a pupil of Franz Liszt. As a boy, then, Cliburn absorbed both the pianistic style and the musical tastes of the late 19th century, and his mature playing would reflect these early influences.

While at Juilliard, Cliburn studied with Rosina Lhévinne. This celebrated teacher was the widow of Josef Lhévinne, a Russian virtuoso whose few recordings are coveted by connoisseurs of Romantic piano playing. Under her tutelage, Cliburn perfected his distinctive style, in which the extravagant rhetoric of Russian Romanticism was subtly blended with American simplicity. Though he had a big technique, he favored relaxed tempos that allowed him to “sing” the melodies of the 19th-century works that made up the bulk of his repertoire. His tone was rich and resonant, and he played with a rubato that was flexible yet disciplined.

In 1954, Cliburn received the prestigious Leventritt award, given by a panel of judges that included the pianists Rudolf Serkin and Eugene Istomin, the conductors Leonard Bernstein and George Szell, and the violinist Alexander Schneider. “He is remarkable,” said the usually acerbic Szell in a note passed to one of his colleagues during Cliburn’s performance. “No philosopher, in spite of the soulful facial expressions, but he makes beautiful sounds. Extraordinary skill and projection.” It was an apt summing-up of the attributes that would make Van Cliburn a star.

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Winning the Leventritt launched Cliburn on his career as a major soloist, and he was already a fixture on the American concert circuit when he won the Tchaikowsky Competition in 1958. But it was the latter award that introduced him to the public at large, and set the tone for his subsequent career. Held at the height of the cold war, the Tchaikowsky Competition had given American musicians their first opportunity to perform in the Soviet Union. Cliburn’s sweepingly Romantic playing stunned his Soviet listeners, who for all their musical sophistication knew little of the United States. Though Soviet officials tried to fix the outcome in favor of a Russian contestant, the pianist Sviatoslav Richter insisted that Cliburn receive the first prize, and the then-premier Nikita Khrushchev personally gave his approval.

What followed was unprecedented in the history of classical music: the twenty-three-year-old Cliburn became an international celebrity overnight. The New York Times had been publishing a series of front-page stories about the competition in progress; the climax was a four-column-wide article announcing Cliburn’s victory. The following week, the pianist was featured on the cover of Time, and later he appeared on the popular TV programs Person to Person, The Tonight Show, and What’s My Line? RCA signed him to an exclusive contract, rushing into print a recording of the Tchaikowsky First Concerto made within days of the pianist’s triumphant return to the United States. It sold a million copies within two years, the first classical album ever to do so.1

Cliburn would become the most successful classical musician of his generation, in large part because of the attention lavished on him by the mass media, which consistently portrayed him as an “ail-American virtuoso” (the title of Time’s cover story), a middlebrow hero whose unaffected modesty and gregarious demeanor made palatable the fact that he played piano instead of baseball. His physical appearance—he was 6-foot-4 and had a baby face and a shock of curly blond hair—enhanced the memorable impression he made on stage.

All this mass-media coverage had the effect of putting off many music critics, especially in New York. Cliburn’s reviews, which had initially been enthusiastic, soon turned sour: by the mid-60′s, it was commonplace to read that he was a shallow and superficial performer. This was deeply unfair. In fact, he ranked among the foremost pianists of the postwar era, and even in the late 70′s, when his playing had grown erratic, he remained capable of giving compelling performances. Nor were his gifts confined to pianism. He was also a talented amateur composer, and after his return from the Soviet Union he studied conducting with Bruno Walter, subsequently making well-received guest appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic.

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But the critics, though wrong-headed, were on to something, for Cliburn had come too far, too fast. His repertoire, though more wide-ranging than generally acknowledged, consisted mainly of the music he had learned as a student, and the list of concertos and solo works he played regularly grew smaller by the year. “In music, no matter how familiar, there are no twice-told tales,” he liked to say, but his ability to shed new light on such oft-played pieces as the Beethoven “Appassionata” Sonata or the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto was not unlimited, and his crowded schedule left little room for reflection or renewal. After 1964, significantly, he never again conducted in public, and so far as is known, he no longer composes.

Cliburn’s personal problems also cast a shadow over his triumphs. Much was made by the press of the fact that he was a devout churchgoer who lived with his mother until her death in 1994. But nothing was said of his homosexuality, which, though long known among musicians, did not become public information until just two years ago, when he was sued for palimony by a former lover. His inability to reconcile his squeaky-clean image with the realities of his offstage life undoubtedly contributed to his increasing artistic uncertainty.

By the early 70′s, Cliburn’s live performances had become inconsistent, and major orchestras were reluctant to hire him as a soloist. Exhausted by two decades of touring, he stopped accepting new engagements in 1974, playing his last concert four years later; not until 1989 would he begin performing again, and then only on a limited basis. A 1994 American tour proved that while the sixty-year-old pianist was still capable of playing excitingly, his musical horizons had shrunk still further; Cliburn’s repertoire for the seventeen-city tour consisted of the Tchaikowsky First and Rachmaninoff Third Concertos, plus a short group of solo pieces he had been playing since the mid-50′s. Even his staunchest admirers were forced at last to admit that something had gone terribly wrong with the man whom the formidable music critic B. H. Haggin had once described as “one of the outstandingly, supremely great pianist-musicians of today, and not only of today.”

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Glenn Gould, Cliburn’s senior by two years, also began playing piano at the age of three, and by 1945 he was performing regularly throughout Canada. Shunning the high-profile competition circuit, he made his American debut in 1955 in Washington, D.C., playing the Bach G-Major Partita, Beethoven’s E-Major Sonata, Op. 109, and works by the 17th-century composers Orlando Gibbons and Jan Sweelinck and the 20th-century modernists Alban Berg and Anton Webern. It was by any standard a highly unorthodox program, but Paul Hume, who reviewed the concert for the Washington Post, found it spellbinding:

Glenn Gould is a pianist with rare gifts for the world. It must not delay hearing [him] and according him the honor and audience he deserves. We know of no other pianist like him of any age.

Nine days later, the twenty-two-year-old pianist repeated the program at New York’s Town Hall for a tiny audience consisting mainly of other musicians who had heard about his Washington recital. David Oppenheim, a Columbia Records executive, attended the concert and immediately signed him to an exclusive contract; in June, he recorded Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations, and the performance, which was released the following year, became a best-seller.2

The sheer originality of Gould’s youthful playing, preserved on his 1955 version of the “Goldbergs” and the many other performances he recorded for Columbia while still in his twenties, continues to this day to astonish listeners. Unlike most pianists, he used a bare minimum of pedal, relying instead on his precise fingerwork to produce a clean, nonlegato sound reminiscent of a harpsichord. Though his tempos tended to be on the quick side, he was capable of playing slow movements with a sustained, trance-like intensity, the 25th variation of the “Goldbergs” is a particularly striking example of this quality of inwardness. Whether fast or slow, he played with an exhilarating forward thrust that was as irresistible in its way as Van Cliburn’s expansive warmth.

But Gould, unlike his younger colleague, was idiosyncratic to the point of eccentricity, both on and off stage. He sang aloud to himself as he played, swayed in time to the music, “conducted” himself whenever he had a free hand, and used a specially-built folding chair that allowed him to sit much lower relative to the keyboard than other pianists. A lifelong hypochondriac, he wore gloves and heavy outer garments the year ’round, made regular use of sedatives and tranquilizers, and constantly consulted various doctors about a diverse assortment of symptoms, some real and others imagined.

These same mannerisms, however, were what was largely responsible for bringing Gould to the attention of the broader public, for Columbia’s publicists used them to entice journalists into writing feature stories about him. Such stories led audiences to expect strange behavior from the pianist when he appeared in concert, and his neurotic temperament became as central to his media image as Cliburn’s “all-American” persona was to his.

Paradoxically, Gould’s bizarre mannerisms worked to conceal the agonizing discomfort that he experienced whenever he played in public. As I have already noted, he canceled concerts often, and nine years after his American debut he withdrew altogether from public performance, convinced that he could make a living solely by making records and playing on radio and TV. His decision provided still more grist for the media mill, and by the early 70′s the pianist had acquired a cult-like following of admirers, especially in his native Canada, where he was virtually the only resident classical musician to have a major career.

An intellectual manqué who (in the words again of B. H. Haggin) preferred “talking nonsense on anything anywhere to playing the piano marvelously in the concert hall,” Gould published numerous articles in which he constructed an elaborate skein of philosophical rationalizations for what essentially amounted to a paralyzing case of stage fright. He insisted that performing before audiences forced him to distort the music in order to “try to project it to that man up there in the top balcony.” Actually, though, recordings made at his concerts suggest the opposite. “In a way,” the pianist Andràs Schiff has said, “they are infinitely more beautiful than his studio recordings, wonderful.”3

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The self-imposed isolation of Gould’s later years heightened the stylistic eccentricities already evident in his recordings, the most common being the weirdly arbitrary extremes of tempo in which he regularly indulged. Some of these eccentricities can be explained by the narrowness of his musical tastes. As he himself said, he disliked most piano music composed in the late 18th and early 19th centuries:

I don’t think any of the early Romantic composers knew how to write for the piano. Oh, they knew how to use the pedal, and how to make dramatic effects, splashing notes in every direction, but there’s very little real composing going on. The music of that era is full of empty theatrical gestures, full of exhibitionism, and it has a worldly, hedonistic quality that simply turns me off.

But once Gould had finished recording Bach’s keyboard music for Columbia, he was faced with the problem of finding new works to commit to disk. Since his post-retirement income derived principally from album sales, he was under considerable pressure to perform a repertoire more accessible than the modern music that he loved. This seems to have been the main reason why he devoted so much time and energy to the piano sonatas of Mozart and Beethoven, most of which he played with brutal insensitivity.

Perhaps inevitably, Gould began to lose interest in the piano and its literature as he grew older. As a young man, he had briefly sought to express himself through composing, producing an uneven but interesting string quartet. In middle age, he considered taking up conducting, making a fascinating recording of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll in which he led a group of players drawn from the Toronto Symphony.4 But the second career he envisioned never came to pass: in 1982 he died of a stroke, three weeks after recording the Siegfried Idyll and nine days after his fiftieth birthday.

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Historically speaking, perhaps the chief significance of Van Cliburn and Glenn Gould was that they were the first postwar classical instrumentalists to achieve international celebrity via the mass media. Already successful in their mid-twenties, they soon became full-fledged superstars whose names were known not only to musicians and music lovers but also to the general public. It is, of course, impossible to know whether they might have had more normal careers had they become famous later in their lives. But there can be little doubt that their existing psychological problems were exacerbated by the pressure of early acclaim driven by the imperatives of mass-media publicity.

Today, four decades after Cliburn appeared on the cover of Time, those imperatives have become more compelling than ever. The classical-recording industry, undermined by years of shrinking market share, is in the process of reinventing itself along media-driven lines. Young artists are being signed not for the excellence of their musicianship but for having personalities regarded as “marketable” to young listeners. Whether or not this will yield the profits necessary to turn around an ailing industry—I personally doubt it—the broken careers of Cliburn and Gould powerfully suggest the price to be paid by such practices in terms of artistic health and seriousness.

In the meantime, however, the legacy of these two virtuosos also reminds us of the great potential that inhered in North American piano playing in the early postwar decades. It is true that Cliburn’s near-complete lack of curiosity about the piano literature proved to be the weak link in his artistry, and his influence on the next generation of American concert pianists, many of whom drew from his career the understandable conclusion that the road to riches lay in playing Rachmaninoff and Tchaikowsky on the competition circuit, has been quite negative. Gould, by contrast, did far less to shape the tastes of younger artists, though the fact that so many pianists now program Bach as a matter of course, in spite of the increasingly powerful influence of the period-instrument movement, is due almost entirely to his example.

With all their flaws, however, and despite their tragic inability to cope with the insatiable demands of the publicity machine that made them famous, Cliburn and Gould remain indisputably major artists who in the long run will be remembered for one reason only: because they played so individually and so compellingly. And since both men made commercial recordings of virtually the whole of their working repertoires, it will remain possible for listeners of the future to hear at their best—and at their worst—these two outstanding figures of a gifted generation.

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Footnotes

1 Cliburn’s 1958 recording of the Tchaikowsky Piano Concerto has remained continuously in print ever since its initial release (RCA 07863-55912-2). Among the best of his other recordings are a live performance of the Rachmaninoff Third Concerto from a Carnegie Hall concert given immediately after his return from the Soviet Union (RCA 6209-2-RC); the Rachmaninoff Second Sonata, recorded live in 1960 at a Moscow concert (RCA 7941-2-RG); My Favorite Chopin, a 1961 solo recital including the F-Minor Fantasie, Op. 49 (RCA 09026-68813-2); Beethoven’s Fourth and Fifth Concertos, recorded in 1961 and 1963 with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony (RCA 7943-2-RG); Chopin’s Second and Third Sonatas, recorded in 1967 (RCA 09026-60417-2); a group of solo pieces by Brahms recorded in 1970 and 1971, including the Op. 79 Rhapsodies (RCA 09026-60419-2); and a mixed recital consisting of the Barber Sonata, Op. 26, the Mozart C-Major Sonata, K. 330, and six pieces by Debussy (RCA 60415-2-RG).

2 Gould’s 1955 recording of the “Goldberg” Variations, like Cliburn’s 1958 recording of the Tchaikowsky First Concerto, has never been out of print (Sony SMK 52594). A selection of his early recordings, including performances of Beethoven’s first two piano concertos and last three piano sonatas, Mozart’s C-Major Sonata, K. 330, and Haydn’s E-Flat Major Sonata, Hob. XVI:49, can be heard on The Glenn Gould Legacy, Vol. 2 (Sony M3K 39036, three CD’s). Of comparable interest are the six Bach Partitas (Sony SM2K 52597, two CD’s); a collection of solo pieces by Byrd, Gibbons, and Sweelinck (Sony SMK 52589); the Mozart C-Minor Piano Concerto, K. 491, with Walter Susskind and the CBC Symphony (Sony SMK 52626); and a collection of solo pieces by Brahms (Sony SM2K 52651).

3 The Glenn Gould Legacy, Vol. 2, contains a live performance of the Beethoven Second Concerto from Gould’s 1957 tour of Russia; this performance, coupled with the Bach D-Minor Concerto taped at the same concert, is also available on Sony SMK 52686.

4 Gould’s String Quartet, Op. 1, is available in a recording by the Symphonia Quartet (Sony SMK 52679); his 1982 recording of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll can be heard on Sony SMK 52650.

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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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