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.
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