Glenn Gould From A To Z (by Michael Stegemann)

Don Hunstein / Mar 1966


“Admit It, Mr. Gould, You Do Have Doubts About Beethoven!” In 1970 the Toronto Globe and Mail published a piece under this title to mark the bicentenary of the German composer’s birth. It took the form of an insane conversation between the pianist “G.G.” and the psychiatrist “g.g.” and detailed a love-hate relationship with Beethoven. Extreme interpretations such as the breakneck speed of the opening movement of the C minor Piano Sonata op. 111 that Gould recorded in 1956 or the torturously slow opening Allegro assai of the Appassionata op. 57 create the impression of a deconstructive dismantling of the piece and prompted Gould’s critics to dip their pens in vitriol, and yet these performances are evidence of his entirely serious engagement with this music. Time and again Gould expressed his “doubts about Beethoven”. In February 1961, his very first television broadcast for CBC was titled “The Subject Is Beethoven”, and many of his writings are designed to be deliberately provocative and to mock masterpieces such as the Fifth Piano Concerto and Ninth Symphony. In spite of this, Beethoven was the second most frequently recorded composer after Bach in Gould’s discography – he recorded not only the five piano concertos but also 25½ sonatas (only two hitherto unreleased movements of the Piano Sonata in B flat major op. 22 are known to exist), two collections of Bagatelles, three sets of variations, a few chamber works and the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in transcriptions by Liszt. Gould was evidently fascinated by what he called “that impossible mixture of naïveté and sophistication that makes Beethoven the imponderable that he is”. For many of the contradictions inherent in this music he found interpretative solutions that continue to surprise and convince us today.


Bach and Gould, Gould and Bach – they are almost always mentioned in the same breath, the greatest composer and in the words of the Austrian dramatist Thomas Bernhard “the greatest pianist of all time”. Bach’s music was certainly the one great constant in Gould’s life. Indeed, it is possible to identify the pianist after only a couple of bars thanks not only to his consistent use of non-legato that dispenses almost entirely with the use of the pedal but also to the transparency of the polyphonic textures and the sprung rhythms. Nothing characterizes Gould’s uniqueness as a pianist better than the 153 pieces by Bach that he recorded, some of them several times. There were no precedents for this particular way of playing Bach’s music, just as there is no one who has ever dethroned Gould in this respect. His art has always been exemplary, and so it will always remain. There were some works that he tackled almost reluctantly, notably the Italian Concerto BWV 971 and the Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue BWV 903 – in the case of the latter, he told Bruno Monsaingeon that “I quite cordially hate it”. Evidently he missed the contrapuntal procedures that are so typical of Bach’s fugal writing: “Bach was forever writing fugues. No pursuit was better fitted to his temperament, and there is none by which the development of his art can be so precisely evaluated.” The only music that interested Gould, he admitted, was contrapuntal. He was only seven when, together with his mother, he worked through the first twenty-four preludes and fugues of The Well-Tempered Clavier. It was with no. 22 in B flat minor BWV 867 that the eleven-year-old Gould won the only competition that he ever entered – the Kiwanis Music Festival in February 1944. Once his first Columbia recording of the Goldberg Variations catapulted him overnight to the forefront of the world’s attention and guaranteed him a place in the pantheon of great pianists, Bach became the cornerstone of his discography, marking its beginning and its end.