Glenn Gould Explains Why Mozart Was a Bad Composer in a Controversial Public TV Show (1968)

No mat­ter how eccen­tric Glenn Gould’s inter­pre­ta­tions of major com­posers might have been, his friend and pro­mot­er Leonard Bern­stein found them wor­thy of per­for­mance, even if he didn’t quite agree. In “The Truth About a Leg­end,” his trib­ute essay to Gould after the pianist’s death, Bern­stein wrote, “Any dis­cov­ery of Glenn’s was wel­comed by me because I wor­shipped the way he played: I admired his intel­lec­tu­al approach, his ‘guts’ approach.”

Are these con­tra­dic­tions? Glenn Gould was a com­pli­cat­ed man, a bril­liant­ly abstract thinker who threw his full phys­i­cal being into his play­ing. When Gould slowed a Brahms con­cer­to to a crawl, so slow that “it was very tir­ing” for the orches­tra to play, he was con­vinced he had dis­cov­ered a secret key to the tem­po with­in the piece itself. Bern­stein had pro­found doubts, tried sev­er­al times to dis­suade Gould, and warned the orches­tra, “Now don’t give up, because this is a great man, whom we have to take very seri­ous­ly.”

Not all of Gould’s admir­ers were as tol­er­ant of Gould’s unortho­dox views. In 1968, Gould pre­sent­ed a seg­ment of the week­ly pub­lic tele­vi­sion series Pub­lic Broad­cast Library. His top­ic was “How Mozart Became a Bad Com­pos­er.” This was, per­haps suf­fice to say, a very unpop­u­lar opin­ion. “The pro­gram out­raged view­ers in both the Unit­ed States and Cana­da, includ­ing for­mer­ly sym­pa­thet­ic fans and crit­ics,” Kevin Baz­zana writes in Won­drous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. It would nev­er again air any­where and was only recent­ly dig­i­tized from 2‑inch tape found in the Library of Con­gress Nation­al Audio-Visu­al Con­ser­va­tion Cen­ter.

Gould opens the show with a selec­tion from Mozart’s Piano Con­cer­to in C Minor, then in his crit­i­cal com­men­tary, alleges the piece “has had a rather bet­ter press than it deserves, I think. Despite it’s gen­tly swoon­ing melodies, its metic­u­lous­ly bal­anced cadences, despite its sta­ble and archi­tec­tural­ly unex­cep­tion­able form, I’m going to sub­mit it as a good exam­ple of why I think Mozart, espe­cial­ly in his lat­er years, was not a very good com­pos­er.” Then Gould real­ly digs in, casu­al­ly com­par­ing Mozart’s “depend­able” crafts­man­ship to “the way that an accounts exec­u­tive dis­patch­es an interof­fice memo.”

It is a shock­ing thing to say, and Gould, of course, knows it. Is this hubris, or is he delib­er­ate­ly pro­vok­ing his audi­ence? “Glenn had strong ele­ments of sports­man­ship and teas­ing,” Bern­stein writes, “the kind of dar­ing which accounts for his fresh­ness.” His con­trari­ness might have inspired at least a few view­ers to lis­ten crit­i­cal­ly and care­ful­ly to Mozart for the first time, with­out hun­dreds of years of received opin­ion medi­at­ing the expe­ri­ence. This is the spir­it in which we should view Gould’s eru­dite icon­o­clasm, says Library of Con­gress Music Ref­er­ence Spe­cial­ist James Win­tle: to learn to lis­ten with new ears, “as a child,” to a com­pos­er we have “been con­di­tioned to revere.”

Gould’s unpop­u­lar opin­ions “did not always take a turn toward the neg­a­tive,” Win­tle writes. He cham­pi­oned the works of less-than-pop­u­lar com­posers like Paul Hin­demith and Jean Sibelius. And his “great sense of inquiry,” Bern­stein wrote, “made him sud­den­ly under­stand Schoen­berg and Liszt in the same cat­e­go­ry, or Pur­cell and Brahms, or Orlan­do Gib­bons and Petu­la Clark. He would sud­den­ly bring an unlike­ly pair of musi­cians togeth­er in some kind of star­tling com­par­a­tive essay.” Gould’s musi­cal inven­tive­ness, taste, and judg­ment were unpar­al­leled, Bern­stein main­tained, and for that rea­son, we should always be inclined to hear him out.

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

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

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Comments (13)
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  • Dionysos says:

    The two most famous music scam­mers reunit­ed

  • Francis says:

    Stop using click-bait. He nev­er said ‘WAS a bad com­pos­er’. He says ‘became’, and makes some good points to make us think. I per­son­al­ly am not a fan of the lat­er sonatas as well, but the C minor con­cer­to is pure gem. We need artists and thinkers who do more than sim­ply deify the big composers/creators.

  • Bill says:

    Great insight @ 19:00 to 21:00 about his def­i­n­i­tion of great com­po­si­tion includ­ing : “
    Sac­ri­fice imme­di­ate appeal to sup­port long range pro­jec­tion
    Psy­chol­o­gy of denial
    Inven­tor at odds with muse­um cura­tor
    Get free of cura­tors con­trol “

  • Moein says:

    🎶 Crazy Peo­ples like Gould or Prokofiev could­n’t see the great artists who lived at least two hun­dred years ago ! (Great artists whose pop­u­lar­i­ty is increas­ing every day !) Specif­i­cal­ly about Mozart & Beethoven (Gods of Music) . That’s why they tried to show them­selves in the media with these words . Because they could­n’t do any­thing else . It’s bet­ter to remove the names of peo­ple like Gould from his­to­ry. Of course, I think this is hap­pen­ing nat­u­ral­ly ! Art does­n’t need char­la­tans 👎

  • Moein says:

    I com­plete­ly dis­agree 👎 . The clos­er Mozart got to the end of his life, He made pur­er music . Gould just said some­thing stu­pid . Don’t take it seri­ous ! The Cana­di­an artist does­n’t get bet­ter than this . Mozart was tru­ly the god of music .

  • Enno barstadi says:

    Gould was prob­a­bly amongst the 100 most inter­est­ing pianists of the last cen­tu­ry, but cer­tain­ly not among the 10 best. His opin­ions aren’t hon­est­ly worth seri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion — the late Mozart con­cer­tos have long been recog­nised as right up there amongst the most per­fect musi­cal works of the mil­len­ni­um. Ok Glenn, you couldn’t play them very well, but doesn’t make them bad pieces!

  • Moein says:

    👍 I quite agree Enno barsta­di 👍

  • Daniel says:

    Not at all.

  • Daniel says:

    I dis­agrre with you. You can learn much from Gould.

  • Daniel says:

    Not “Scam­mers” at all. Just the oppo­site.

  • Daniel says:

    @Enno I don’t know why you have to “Rank” Pianists. There were
    so many, each Great in his/her way. I don’t think many would dis­pute
    Gould’s first Gold­berg Vari­a­tion Record­ing was the great­est, or one of the great­est.

  • Spencer Hill says:

    This is dumb cause like who even cares right? also my favwite musi­cal man is DaBa­by

  • Sal D'Agostino says:

    Gould did­n’t sud­den­ly “under­stand” Petu­la Clark. He wrote an entire essay about how she was in fact “bet­ter” than the Bea­t­les. And she nev­er wrote a song. He sim­ply despised the Bea­t­les and tapped Petu­la Clark to make the ridicu­lous “com­par­i­son”.

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