A casual fan of classical music often has a typical collection of greatest hits that they delve into when they are in the mood for a little introspective listening. The performances are often attached to movies, such as the musical interlude Hannibal Lector listens to for solace in jail in “Silence of the Lambs“, the Goldberg Variations – Aria, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Few would realize that the musical expression that so entrances Lector is performed by Glenn Gould, an equally eccentric genius who changed the way we listen to Bach forever.
Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was a Canadian pianist with completely unique stylings, performance concepts, and interpretations of music. He had a special ability to pull melody and emotion out of the mathematical structures of Bach that brought a modern sense of enlightenment to what often was felt to be the flaw of Baroque music, its relative detachment from human emotional reflexes. At the same time he brought a prodigious technique to his play, in which the musical melody would soar over but not vanquish the individual notes of the composition, regardless of the speed of play. This created a Glenn Gould sound that is immediately apparent in his recordings. With many outstanding performers over the years having put their stamp on Bach, no one sounds like Glenn Gould, and none quite make you feel that you have heard what Bach himself was trying to express, until you have heard Glenn Gould perform it.
The zenith of Glenn Gould’s contributions are Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Gould made two completely different interpretations of the composition, the “young” Gould in 1955 and the “old” Gould in 1981, both of which are legendary performances, available today, and both requiring separate and complete immersion. Gould stated that he rarely practiced in the formal sense, tending to “play” in his mind the music directly off the score for hours before physically performing it on the piano. This technique allowed him to bring out the amazing waves of sub-melodies, different timbres, and counterposed rhythms, all while maintaining the a perfect musical metronome demanded by Bach’s passion for musical structure. It also lead to the irritating habit in his performances of humming over his play as he reconstructed in real time the many layers of the piece, a practice that worsened as he got older. He became more eccentric as he got older, refusing to publicly perform, cantankerous in the recording studio, and notorious for unrehearsed spontaneous conversions of performances that would often leave the orchestra and conductor completely mystified. Leonard Bernstein, who loved Gould and his singular creativity, took to warning audiences ahead of Gould and New York Philharmonic performances that Bernstein “could assume no responsibility for what they were about to hear”. What they were about to hear more often then not , was wondrous magic.
Gould died of a stroke at the two young age of 50 years, but he left us a tremendous collection of music and film to digest forever. Enjoy an excellent presentation of Gould in the video below, The Art of the Piano, then, revel in the incredible technique and musicality Gould brings to bear in one of the Goldberg Variations, No. 5.