A Lifetime of Variations: Glenn Gould’s “Genius Within”

Had he lived to experience it, the pianist Glenn Gould would have loved the internet. In his lifetime, Gould loved to be connected to people technologically without having to actually be present physically. Perhaps the most controversial concert pianist in recent memory, Gould eventually gave up public performing entirely in favor of recording music. Part of this isolating urge was a product of his severe and lifelong hypochondria; as revealed in the new documentary, Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould, Gould talked to his dying mother on the phone, but he couldn’t visit her in the hospital because he was afraid of germs.

His idiosyncrasies on the concert platform became legendary, but Gould was canny enough to work his own neurotic needs into an attractive public image. For years, he dragged around the same raggedy-ass chair that had been specifically sawed down to his specifications. He sang when he played, and he lived in deathly fear of cold drafts, so that he usually wore a heavy overcoat and gloves to protect his hands. In one of Gould’s last concerts in the early 1960s, conductor Leonard Bernstein announced to a packed house that he did not at all agree with Gould’s eccentric interpretation of the Brahms D minor concerto they were about to play, but Bernstein respected Gould’s right as an artist to play it as he saw fit.

For years, there was mystery surrounding Gould’s private life. Was he gay? Asexual? Recent books on Gould were still cloudy on this topic, but this documentary reveals a very ordinary love life with several women. For a while he was involved with painter Cornelia Foss, who left her husband for him and lived with Gould and her two children from 1968 to 1972. Though Foss loved him, she finally could not deal with his growing paranoia and his dependence on pills, and so she went back to her husband. In the documentary, Foss relates the first time she heard Gould’s name-making 1955 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations; she and her husband were driving and had to pull over when they started listening to it so that they could concentrate on what he was doing (and the liberties he was taking). “It’s not what Mr. Bach wanted,” Foss says forthrightly, but she acknowledges that Gould was like a man taking apart a watch and then putting it back together for us in order to see how it worked. A musical modernist and savant who became easily bored, Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations again in 1981, and these two radically different recordings have become two of the best-selling classical music albums of all time. Here’s a comparison of the opening “Aria” section, first the 1955 and then the 1981:

The youthful, cascading brio of the 1955 recording gives way to the percussive, autumnal, almost ugly spirit of the later interpretation, which was played not long before Gould’s death from a stroke at age 50. Foss says that Gould always claimed he would die at 50. Was this a premonition, or a self-fulfilling prophecy? In so many ways Gould lived in fear, yet he loved life, or the life he lived in music. He could be awfully silly and prankish, making films and radio broadcasts as made-up characters and alter egos with names like Sir Nigel Twitt-Thornwaite. His detractors can point to his performances as pranks, or at least performances that have a prankish side, such as this still notorious Gould version of Mozart’s Sonata in A Major.

If you know this Mozart sonata, Gould’s playing seems at first agonizingly slow, as if it were being plucked out on a piano by a disturbed patient in a mental ward, but as his interpretation goes on, it’s possible to see the formal logic behind his deconstruction of the sonata. And he wasn’t attracted only to slowness in these deconstructions, for he played Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” briskly, without the lugubrious hesitations we’re all so familiar with when most pianists play that piece.

“For Gould, a musical work was an abstract entity that could be fully comprehended in the mind in the absence of performance, without even the recollection of sounds or of the physical means of production,” writes Kevin Bazzana in his fine book on Gould, The Performer in the Work. This meant that Gould was often termed a brainy pianist, emphasizing the exercise of the intellect over indulgent or schmaltzy romantic playing, which is still ever-popular in our concert halls. Gould scorned Franz Liszt and tried to avoid Chopin; he loved the modernism of Richard Strauss, the experimentalism of Alban Berg and Anton Webern. His teacher Alberto Guerrero taught him to never press the piano keys but activate their sounds with the merest touch of the tips of his fingers, and so his hands flew across the piano, never missing a note or leaving a phrase uninvestigated. We’re still trying to catch up with him.


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