Glenn Gould

The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius by Peter Oswald


A biography of the eccentric 20th-century pianist Glenn Gould. Gould was a well-spoken hypochondriac, who despised performing for audiences, yet craved their attention. If you're a fan of classical music, but aren't familiar with Glenn, get his recordings of the Goldberg Variations and the 5 Beethoven Piano concertos, and a copy of this book.

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pg 22

Besides, much of what Gould had to say was very funny. He had a fantastic sense of humor, which he used provocatively rather than spitefully. One of his most devastating quips was about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whom he described as a composer who died too late. Had he not lived so long (to age thirty-five) and thus escaped the influence of Viennese opera, Mozart would have been a far great composer. 

pg 40

“What was Glenn like as an infant anyway?” I asked him.“Was he a lusty child, crying loudly, or more of a quiet baby?”

“He was reasonably lusty,” Bert answered in his typically laconic, down to earth manner. “But something unusual about him struck us from the beginning. When you’d expect a child to cry, Glenn would always hum. I think it was something in his makeup that made him hum rather than cry.”

pg 47

On his hatred, and oversensitivity, to bright colors:

“I hate clear days; I hate the sunlight; I hate yellow… To long for a gray day was, for me, the ultimate that one could achieve in the world.”

pg 71

Central to Guerrero’s method of teaching, as Aide explains it, was “the art of finger-tapping.”

Finger-tapping is a lowly, obsessive, and cultish exercise for acquiring absolute evenness and ease in tricky passage work. It eliminates excess motion in the hand and ensures intimate tactile connection with the pattern in question. I will explain the practice in its simplest application. Take the notes D, E, F sharp, G, and A, for which the right hand fingering is thumb, 2, 3, 4, 5. The hand position is the natural one assumed when the arm and the hand hang from the shoulder; the second knuckle is seen to be the highest point. Rest the finger pads on the key surfaces of the D, E, F sharp, G, and A. The left hand taps the fingers successively to the room of the keys. The right fingers are boneless; they reflex from the keyed and return to their original position on the surface of the keys. The left hand should tap near the tips of the right-hand fingers, either on the fingernails or at the first joint. The motion of tapping should be as fast as possible. The second stage of this regimen is to play the notes with a quick staccato motion, one finger at a time, from the surface of the key, quick to the surface of the keybed and back to the surface of the key. This is slow practice, each note being separated by about two seconds of silence.”

pg 77

What had happened was the masking noise of the vacuum cleaner had shifted Glenn’s attention to the internal sensations of his body and away from the acoustical results of his playing. It was like a trip to the interior— and he enjoyed it. The interruption of auditory feedback let to a heightened awareness of how he moved his fingers while playing, a new tactile awareness of himself. Like forms of meditation, visualization, hypnosis, or other techniques for quickly changing one’s level of consciousness, this experience with increased external noise seems to have led Glenn to a revelation about the nature of musical performance. It was like an epiphany, the sort of emotional “high” that teenagers, and other people of course, have at vulnerable moments when a new experience overwhelms them and changes their lives forever.

pg 85

Glenn was committed beyond words, beyond any expression that he could make of it to us, to music…

This quality of self-confidence evidently amazed Fulford and the other students at Malvern Collegiate Institute. While none of the understood exactly what a genius is, they all seemed to know intuitively that Glenn belonged in that category. Fulford writes in Best Seat in the House:

When he walked home from school, waving his arms as he conducted an invisible symphony orchestra (“pa-puh, duh-pa”), the other students just assumed he was acting the was geniuses were supposed to act…His fellow students came to accept it as a given that he would be a world-famous virtuoso, even though few of us understood what that meant or could even name one of the great pianists of the day.

pg 88

For a while Glenn seems to have seriously considered becoming a professional writer. “If I had not turned out to be a musician, I think the thing I would most liked to have done would be to be a writer,” he said in his twenties. “I’ve always been wrongly tempted to try writing fiction…one of these times I’ll write my autobiography which will certainly be fiction.”

pg 91

His manager Walter Homburger was clearly aware of Glenn’s fundamental problem with audiences. “He always said to me, ‘I don’t like playing in public so much because I always feel there are three thousand pairs of eyes watching what I do rather than listening.’ And I think this was part fo Glenn.”

pg 92

I discovered that, in the privacy, the solitude and (if all Freudians will stand clear) the womb-like security of the studio, it was possible to make music in a direct, more personal manner than any concert hall would ever permit… I have not since then been able to think of the potential of music (or for that matter of my own potential as a musician) without some reference to the limitless possibilities of the broadcasting/recording medium.

pg 94

“Oh sure. But Glenn was very argumentative. He told me he doesn’t like Chopin because Chopin only wrote short pieces and didn’t know how to develop his ideas, and that all his colors are dependent on the pedal. He said ‘I use the pedal as little as possible, maybe just to emphasize a chord, but not to get the kind of overall crescendo, the type Franck and Liszt indicated.’

pg 102

Glenn always insisted that his “mannerisms” helped improve the quality of his musical performance. For instance, when playing on a piano whose sound he disliked, his singing and humming would get louder, like a masking tone (the vacuum cleaner) to enhance his internal perception of the music. And the undulations of his trunk as well as the conducting movements of his arms were geared to the experience of ecstasy while playing. 

pg 105

Homburger: “You know what my answer always was if Glenn was criticized for the way he behaved on stage? I’d say, ‘I assume you go to concerts to hear the music. So close your eyes, and listen. If you don’t like to see him, eliminate it from the front of your face.’”

pg 107

The practice of not using a score while performing music grew out of the era of virtuosity beginning at the end of the eighteenth century. Mozart seldom looked at music when he played his own compositions; indeed, often he hadn’t even put the solo part on paper. In the nineteenth century, playing “by heart” without the music became standard procedure, despite the fact that this terrorized those musicians whose memory was not totally reliable or who felt more comfortable with the score infant of them. Clara Schumann adhered bravely to the custom of playing from memory until advanced age forced her to abandon it. Franz Liszt was famous for his impromptu performances without looking at the music. Before the turn of the century the Meiningen Orchestra conducted by Hans von Bülow played entire symphonies from memory, and it has become almost routine for soloists, especially when performing with orchestras, to do so. A number of string ensembles, including the famous Kolisch Quartet, which in the 1920’s and 1930’s introduced much modern chamber music, almost never played with the music in front of them.

pg 122

“Even on the hottest days of midsummer he’d show up in the office dressed in an overcoat, sweater, muffler, woolen cap, and sometimes rubbers. As far as I could tell, this wasn’t just a matter of artistic eccentricity. He really believed that he needed all that heavy clothing to protect him against the cold, and that without it he was sure to ‘catch a chill’ as he always called it. It was a purely mental attitude, a conviction that something terrible was going to happen to him if he didn’t dress that way. He joked about it at times, but the problem was really very serious.”

pg 138

Revered by music lovers everywhere, Beethoven’s late piano sonatas, like his final string quartets and the great “Choral” symphony in D minor, opus 125, epitomize the pinnacle of musical development. They reveal the grandeur of his achievements toward the end of his life, when he broke away from the traditional rules governing his earlier works to create a wholly new style that reflected not only a remarkable degree of originality but his personal struggle with deafness and social isolation. Beethoven’s late works are uniquely abstract, contrapuntal, and occasionally harsh in texture. They can also display heartbreaking degrees of lyricism and celestial serenity.

pg 154

In his article “Let’s Ban Applause!”, published in 1962, he [Gould] expressed his true faith, that the best way to listen to music is in private, and with the “total elimination of audience response”:

I am disposed toward this view because 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 is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.

The best way to achieve this utopia was to do away with concert halls and rely exclusively on the electronic media.

pg 197

“He was such a maniac in search of praise and attention,” says Joe Stephens. “Yet he couldn’t see that the very things that he did were giving him that. The best example possible [from the perspective of music making] is that he would play things at a speed which was absolutely remarkable, but [to him] this was not to gain attention in any way. This was the way he perceived the music. Whereas to me it was, ‘I can play faster than anybody else, and with great accuracy, and so I’m going to be a show-off.’ he was the consummate show-off, and he couldn’t see it at all. He was always talking about the purity of music, and how he hated virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity. He didn’t have the insight to know that he was the supernarcissist who wallowed in attention.”

pg 252

In his panoramic view of Western musical history, Glenn seems to have had blind spots for most of the accomplishments of nineteenth-century composers. He tended to dismiss their work, or worse yet, to denigrate and ridicule it, especially the piano compositions of that so-called Romantic period.

I have always felt [he told Tim Page] that the whole core of the piano recital repertoire is a colossal waste of time. The whole first half of the nineteenth century—excluding Beethoven to some degree—it’s much a washout as far as solo instrumental music is concerned. This generalization includes Chopin, Liszt, Schumann—I’m tempted not to say Mendelssohn, because I have a tremendous affection for his choral and chamber works, but most of his piano writing is pretty bad. You see, 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.

pg. 311

Since Bach does not indicate a preferred instrument for the Art of the Fugue, his last and unfinished composition, it provide an ideal opening for Glenn’s impassioned debate with Monsaingeon about whether Bach’s music should be played on the piano, an instrument that did not exist in the composer’s time. Glenn asserts that Bach was less interested in the texture than the structure of his music. He demonstrates this by playing Bach’s own transcription for the keyboard of his Violin Concerto in E Major. And he cites Bach’s Italian Concerto as an example of a work in which the composer indicates dynamic contrasts that cannot be successfully carried out on the type of keyboard instruments, harpsichords and clavichords, then available. Glenn’s final word on the subject is that “the piano can get you a lot closer to Bach’s conceptual notions than the harpsichord ever can.”