CM Archive
CM Archive Book Review line

Edited by John McGreevy.

Toronto, Doubleday, c1983.
319pp, cloth, $28.00.
ISBN 0-385-18995-8.

Grades 12 and up.
Reviewed by Robert E. Wheeler.

Volume 12 Number 1
1984 January

Admirers of the famous Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould, who died October 4, 1982, will welcome this lavishly illustrated memorial. His critics, however, may not be quite so enthusiastic.

John McGreevy, television writer and producer, has assembled a choice collection of articles and reminiscences by friends and associates of Gould pertaining to various aspects of his art and personality. Among the internationally renowned contributors are Leonard Bernstein, Richard Kostelanetz, Denis Dutton, Robert Fulford, and the composer, John Beckwith. A final tribute by Yehudi Menuhin, whose hagiolatrous eloquence teeters on the verge of bathos, is guaranteed to make carping detractors squirm with distaste. Regrettably, there are only a few pieces by Gould himself relating to Baroque counterpoint and what the invincible purists call the proper interpretation of the masters. In addition, there are excerpts from his popular radio and television documentaries and a brief foreword by the noted conductor, Herbert von Karajan.

Over the years, since the beginning of his meteoric career in 1955 with the celebrated recording of Bach's Goldberg Variations, Gould has been a controversial figure. His platform antics and notorious eccentricities have provoked widespread comment. Critics have been outraged by his obdurate refusal to be intimidated by the usual pedantic piffle regarding hallowed tradition and the so-called correct way of performing the classics. Gould's art was based on the conviction that completely different and equally valid performances of the same work are possible (an opinion shared by that arch-romantic, Franz Liszt). The fact remains, however, that creative freedom as stressed by Gould must be supported by mature insight and broad historical knowledge. As Samuel Lipman says in his Music After Modernism, there are formidable difficulties that lie in the way of the perfect recapture of original performance styles. "The written note," observes Casals, "is like a strait jacket, whereas music is, like life itself, in constant movement." Every age has a set of conventions in musical performance; to apply these conventions uncritically and without imagination, is tantamount to aesthetic vandalism. Gould, spurning a timorous conformity, often went to extremes, taking questionable liberties with the music, introducing idiosyncratic distortions, seemingly striving for an electrifying effect at the expense of musical coherence. But whatever his shortcomings, we are spared piously embalmed renditions of Bach and other composers, whose music is all too frequently emasculated by Procrustean canons of criticism.

Uncomfortable in the concert hall, Gould preferred the ambience of the recording studio. He courted solitude and seemed to believe with Emerson that "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." He valued technology for its many benefits but recoiled from the pandemonium of modern civilization. His unique personality offered a refreshing contrast to the modern civilization. His unique personality offered a refreshing contrast to the stereotyped uniformity of mass culture.

Variations makes enjoyable reading and even manages to raise some significant questions about the role of music in an increasingly dehumanized society. Gould is placed within a historical context and compared to illustrious performers of the past. His iconoclastic pianism represents a cerebral approach influenced by the constructivism of the Vienna atonalists. Gould's aversion to the histrionics of the Romantics is well known. Regarding the nagging question of interpretation, perhaps a frustrated creativity prompted him to distort unduly the work of other composers. The most notorious example is his performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto in D minor with Bernstein conducting in 1962, which Harold Schonberg, the New York music critic, regarded as a "travesty."

Mindful of the vagaries of fashion, it would be rash to prognosticate how people in the future will respond to his playing or his musical conceptions. If performers of today were to emulate the metrical freedom of Beethoven (as confirmed by Schindler, Carl Czerny, and others), they would be dismissed as incompetent. Gould was erudite enough to avoid being trapped by aesthetic absolutes.

The book contains many interesting details concerning Gould's life and the development of his career from the early years in Toronto to his retirement from the concert stage in 1964. Most of the narratives are fairly unassuming; others, like the effusive piece by sculptor John Dann, seek to place the pianist within a numinous aura that has far less appeal than the more mundane encounters described by those who knew him best. Includes a discography and bibliography and forty-eight black-and-white photos.

Robert E. Wheeler, Gananoque, ON.
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