Glenn Gould Plays Bach on His U.S. TV Debut … After Leonard Bernstein Explains What Makes His Playing So Great (1960)

Why, 35 years after his death, do so many music lovers still respect Glenn Gould above all oth­er pianists? One might assume that, since he played the work of such well-known com­posers as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, and Brahms, he would have accept­able sub­sti­tutes among the most high­ly skilled pianists of each suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tion. But none have ever tak­en Gould’s place, and quite pos­si­bly none ever will. His dis­tinc­tive­ness owes both to sheer apti­tude, and to some­thing else besides: Leonard Bern­stein attempts an expla­na­tion of that some­thing in the clip above, from the CBS Ford Presents broad­cast of Jan­u­ary 31, 1960.

“Gould and Bach have become a kind of leg­endary com­bi­na­tion, in spite of Gould’s extreme youth and Bach’s extreme age,” says Bern­stein just before a 28-year-old Gould makes his Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion debut play­ing Bach’s Key­board Con­cer­to No. 1 in D minor. He goes on to explain the spe­cial chal­lenge of play­ing Bach, who “belonged to a time when com­posers weren’t being very gen­er­ous with infor­ma­tion about how to play their notes.”

Sim­ply play­ing the notes on the page would result in an “unut­ter­ably dull” per­for­mance, but “to what extent can the pianist sup­ply dynam­ic vari­ety?” Gould imbued the pieces he played with vari­ety, dynam­ic and oth­er­wise, all of it reflect­ing his own “judg­ments, instincts, and high­ly indi­vid­ual per­son­al­i­ty.”

In the years after this broad­cast (which you can see in full here), Gould’s per­son­al­i­ty would grow even more high­ly indi­vid­ual. Just two years lat­er, Gould and the New York Phil­har­mon­ic’s per­for­mance of Brahms’ First Piano Con­cer­to came pre­ced­ed by Bern­stein’s infa­mous dis­claimer: he found him­self not in “total agree­ment” Gould’s per­for­mance, one “dis­tinct­ly dif­fer­ent from any I’ve ever heard, or even dreamt of for that mat­ter, in its remark­ably broad tem­pi and its fre­quent depar­tures from Brahms’ dynam­ic indi­ca­tions.” Two years after that, Gould would retire from live per­for­mance entire­ly, keep­ing a safe dis­tance from his audi­ence in the stu­dio instead. We now remem­ber him as the first clas­si­cal pianist to tru­ly inhab­it the age of record­ing and broad­cast­ing; did that habi­ta­tion begin, in some sense, in the tele­vi­sion stu­dio with Bern­stein?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear the Famous­ly Con­tro­ver­sial Con­cert Where Leonard Bern­stein Intro­duces Glenn Gould & His Idio­syn­crat­ic Per­for­mance of Brahms’ First Piano Con­cer­to (1962)

Watch a 27-Year-Old Glenn Gould Play Bach & Put His Musi­cal Genius on Dis­play (1959)

Watch Glenn Gould Per­form His Last Great Stu­dio Record­ing of Bach’s Gold­berg Vari­a­tions (1981)

Glenn Gould Explains the Genius of Johann Sebas­t­ian Bach (1962)

The Art of Fugue: Gould Plays Bach

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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