Glenn Gould’s Heavily Marked-Up Score for the Goldberg Variations Surfaces, Letting Us Look Inside His Creative Process

Does it make sense to call Glenn Gould, that most prodi­gious and unusu­al inter­preter of clas­si­cal piano, a com­pos­er? While his radio doc­u­men­tary tril­o­gy should earn him the title, his clas­si­cal per­for­mances and record­ings remain bound—albeit some­times mad­den­ing­ly loose­ly for cer­tain tastes—to the work of oth­ers, whether Mozart, Schoen­berg, Strauss, Sibelius, Beethoven, Brahms, or J.S. Bach, who pro­vid­ed Gould with the mate­r­i­al that would launch his career, the “Gold­berg” Vari­a­tions, which he first record­ed at 22 in 1955 to wide­spread acclaim and admi­ra­tion. His debut became one of the best-sell­ing clas­si­cal albums of all time.

Famous­ly Gould made anoth­er record­ing of the “Gold­berg” in 1981, the year before his ear­ly death at 50, “leav­ing the two Bach state­ments as book­ends to his career,” writes Michael Coop­er at The New York Times. Gould revered the com­posers he record­ed and expound­ed on their virtues at length in writ­ten, tele­vised, and broad­cast com­men­taries. This was espe­cial­ly the case with Bach, whom he described as “first and last an archi­tect, a con­struc­tor of sound, and what makes him so ines­timably valu­able to us is that he was beyond a doubt the great­est archi­tect of sound who ever lived.”

The Cana­di­an pianist was more than con­tent to devote his life to oth­ers’ con­struc­tions of sound, rather than try­ing his hand at writ­ing them him­self, but if Bach was an archi­tect of sound, we might com­pare Gould to a director—a metic­u­lous auteur with a sin­gu­lar and soli­tary vision. Take his heav­i­ly marked up score for the 1981 “Gold­berg,” above, recent­ly resur­faced and des­tined for auc­tion on Decem­ber 5th at Bon­hams in New York. “I would call this the equiv­a­lent of a shoot­ing script of a movie,” com­ments crit­ic and Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia pro­fes­sor Tim Page.

Gould chose the stu­dio over live per­for­mance ear­ly in his career, find­ing that the con­trolled expe­ri­ence of recording—the abil­i­ty to do mul­ti­ple takes and edit them togeth­er in a kind of nar­ra­tive dynamic—provided him with max­i­mum cre­ative free­dom. His 1981 “Gold­berg,” “elec­tri­fied the clas­si­cal music world near­ly as much as his clas­sic 1955 record­ing had,” writes pianist Antho­ny Tom­masi­ni. His record­ings res­onate far out­side the clas­si­cal world, such that a Toron­to hip-hop pro­duc­er has even remixed his work.

There is anoth­er case for think­ing of Gould him­self as some­thing of a mod­ern producer/remixer—of oth­er com­posers’ works and of his own per­for­mances. Page, who knew Gould well, spec­u­lates that he would have loved the inter­net. “I bet, with­out any inter­fer­ence,” he says, “Glenn would have record­ed three or four dif­fer­ent ver­sions of the same piece and put them all out there for peo­ple to lis­ten to and even chose from.” He took to mod­ern tech­niques and tech­nolo­gies with­out reser­va­tion.

Gould’s friend­li­ness to moder­ni­ty, and its enthu­si­as­tic embrace of him, makes him seem like so much more than a pianist, and of course, he was. But we should also con­sid­er him—and all great clas­si­cal interpreters—as at least a co-com­pos­er, a role as old as clas­si­cal music itself. As pianist Jere­my Denk writes, each score is “at once a book and a book wait­ing to be writ­ten.” (Tom­masi­ni points out that “Bach’s scores leave much to the choic­es and tastes of per­form­ers,” and in the case of “Gold­berg,” we have only recon­struc­tions of the orig­i­nal.) The Vari­a­tions, after all, are not named for Bach, but for vir­tu­oso harp­si­chordist Johann Got­tlieb Gold­berg, like­ly the orig­i­nal per­former of the piece.

The par­tic­u­lar­ly idio­syn­crat­ic approach of a pianist like Gould, writes Denk, with much ambiva­lence, “found per­ver­si­ty in the music and teased it out, but most­ly he just slathered it on; piece after piece, he made bril­liant but deeply unin­tu­itive, ‘unnat­ur­al’ choic­es, and made them work through sheer force of will.” Now, in his 1981 “Gold­berg” score, fans and schol­ars can see for them­selves how much delib­er­a­tion was involved in his appar­ent will­ful­ness.

In Gould’s inter­pre­ta­tions, we can­not sep­a­rate the play­er from the work. “He immor­tal­ized his pho­bias,” his pas­sions, and his per­son­al eccen­tric­i­ties, Denk writes, “by graft­ing them onto Bach,” with the effect that his record­ings “erase the dis­tance of cen­turies; they dis­solve the var­nish that has piled up, and make Bach one with the anx­i­eties of the present.” See Gould record­ing his 1981 “Gold­berg” Vari­a­tions fur­ther up, and read about the 2015 tran­scrip­tion of the record­ing by Nicholas Hop­kins here.

via NYTimes/@stevesilberman

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How Glenn Gould’s Eccen­tric­i­ties Became Essen­tial to His Play­ing & Per­son­al Style: From Hum­ming Aloud While Play­ing to Per­form­ing with His Child­hood Piano Chair

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

Glenn Gould: Off and On the Record: Two Short Films About the Life & Music of the Eccen­tric Musi­cian

Lis­ten to Glenn Gould’s Shock­ing­ly Exper­i­men­tal Radio Doc­u­men­tary, The Idea of North (1967)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Phoebe Linden says:

    It’s inter­est­ing that the mark-ups on the score aren’t per­for­mance notes, but edit­ing notes — what Gould want­ed to accom­plish in the mix­ing process. A time-span­ning genius who left us over 90 hours of bril­liant record­ings, Gould would have worked enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly with today’s tech­nol­o­gy. He said his radio doc­u­men­taries are “as close to an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal state­ment” as [he was] like­ly to make” and the third one, The Qui­et in the Land, is an insight­ful and pierc­ing com­men­tary on moder­ni­ty and indi­vid­u­al­i­ty.

  • Lyle Waller says:

    Does any­body have any idea what those mark­ings mean?

  • Ndaba Gcwabaza says:

    Well, what kind of weed could Glen Gould have smo­ken to sug­gest that Mozart was a bad com­pos­er?

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