From the Vaults: Glenn Gould on Bach's Goldberg Variations

Thursday, January 06, 2011

In 1982, the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould sat down with the critic and broadcaster Tim Page on WNYC’s “New, Old and Unexpected” to talk about the composition that came to define his career more than any other.

Gould’s recording debut in 1955 of Bach's Goldberg Variations took the world by storm – it was reported to have sold 40,000 copies by 1960, and had sold more than 100,000 by the time of Gould's death in 1982. His decidedly un-Romantic and highly personal approach elucidated Bach's music in a whole new way. In 1981, he revisited the Goldberg Variations and delivered a new interpretation far more introspective, with more calculated phrasing and ornamentation.

Here Gould explains how he re-listened to his 1955 account before recording the new version. "I was really curious about what I would find,” he tells Page. “I found it was a rather spooky experience. I listened to it with great pleasure. I found it had a real sense of humor, for instance – all sorts of perky, spiky accents and so on that gave it a certain buoyancy. I found that I recognized the fingerprints of the party concerned.

“But I couldn’t identify with the spirit of the person who made that recording. It really seemed like some other spirit involved and as a consequence I was really glad to be doing it again.”

He adds: “As I’ve grown older I find many performances – certainly a great majority of my own early performances – just to fast for comfort.”

Technical issues aside, the interview also offers insight into Gould's eccentric humor and unique outlook on music. The pianist died of a stroke later that same year.


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Comments [20]

Natalee Fogel from Ossining, NY

Coincidentally, New Hampshire State Poet Laureate Alice B Fogel, whose third book "Be That Empty" was a national poetry bestseller, won the Nicholas Schaffner award for Music in Literature for her book of poems "Interval, Poems Based on Bach's Goldberg Variations". It is due out from Schaffner Press in March 2015. She was inspired by Glenn Gould's recordings & the fact that he re-thought the piece and wanted to do it again. She liked the early recording best & just loved his obsession over it.

Nov. 04 2014 12:57 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

GLENN GOULD was as mentioned by many who have heard him as a PHENOMENON !!! His concern that performing in public would be as distraction to him is greatly at odds to the attitude of most performers, myself included. As LEE STRASBERG told me after my class presentation of OTHELLO'S DEATH SCENE in the original SHAKESPEARE version, not the VERDI opera, in one of his classes, that the venue and the audience and all the circumstances may add to the performance if the spontaneity of taking all the factors into consideration results in a brand new concept and its processing for thew audience. GLENN GOULD's personality and passion for getting to the essence of what he played whether that was the composer's intention or not, it was what GLENN determined it to be. Artists in the aural and pictorial fields often change what they feel about their subject matter. That does not mean that their earlier impressions were wrong, but onjy that they may be different. I am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"], teacher of voice production and coach big-voiced singers in the Wagner rep and actors in the Shakespeare oeuvre.

Nov. 01 2014 10:55 AM
Christopher Hosford from Bronx, NY

There might be an error in assigning this interview to 1982. Gould is asked when he last gave a public concert, and he replies, "It's been about four years now." It's well known that his last public concert was in 1964, so this may actually date the interview to the late 1960s. Unless, that is, Gould is referring to some CBC studio appearance, but that's not the context of this segment of the discussion.

Nov. 01 2014 04:55 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

I found this campy clip of Gould playing the piano (Bach naturally) in what looks like his home. He gives some extra gusto to his "humming."

Glenn Gould plays Bach home video

This is from a documentary.

The Art Of Piano - Great Pianists Of The 20Th Century

Jan. 27 2011 03:42 AM
dave from toronto

I prefer George Szell's tribute to Gould -

"that nut's a genius"

Jan. 14 2011 09:18 AM
Michael Meltzer

Heinrich Neuhaus having said those things about Gould is by far the strongest message on this page. Neuhaus is generally regarded as the father of modern Russian piano pedagogy and his name seems to evoke reverence among Russian pianists, who are always proud to be able to cite a teacher who was a Neuhaus student.
Neuhaus was one of three highly celebrated students of Felix Blumenfeld, who also taught Simon Barere, a piano wizard who died on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1951, and Vladimir Horowitz.

Jan. 13 2011 10:16 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

A commenter in the Dinnerstein CD thread includes Gould in the .. pre-Gould attitude regarding Bach and the Goldberg Variations. Whatever.

Gould was a "phenomenon." That his personality restricted his interaction with the people interested in his music, at least on a personal, physical, non-tele.., level is part of life. You've got to take the good with the not-so-good. There was a passage in something I read about Gould recently which described how there was much more to appreciate when you could see Gould play. I saw this a the film on the 1981 recording. The music possessed him and he possessed the music. Sad that he didn't seem to realize this appeal. He'd have made great music videos, without the need for magical circumstances and effects. Though he'd probably have liked that. :P

Something about the first concert in Moscow (1957 Russian tour) -

Alongside Moshevich's article, GlennGould [a magazine] runs one of the most striking reviews ever written about Gould. The writer, Heinrich Neuhaus, then 69, was a great piano teacher whose students included Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels. In the summer of 1957, Neuhaus wrote in the journal Culture and Life, "I tell you quite frankly that Gould is not a pianist, he is a phenomenon." Neuhaus immediately understood something that much of the musical world didn't fully grasp until years later--that Gould was building a new bridge to Bach. His interpretations were so convincing, Neuhaus said, that he might have been a pupil of Bach himself; he could imagine Gould sharing Bach's meals and inflating the organ bellows for the master. "In this sense Gould is not 24, he is nearly 300," Neuhaus wrote, and the possessor of "great talent, great mastery, high spirit, and deep soul." Ever since Gould's visit, says Sofia Moshevich, the playing of Bach in Russia has been divided into two periods, before Gould and after Gould. As Neuhaus wrote, "Gould's appearance was quite an event in our life."

The first concert in Russia was only half full till the intermission. Then it was packed, as was the rest of his tour there. That impressive, without single note editing.

A young Sviatoslav Richter, considered by many the greatest living pianist, watched in awe. "I could play Bach that well," Richter later said to a friend, "but I would have to practice very hard. That is the genius of Glenn Gould." Composer Dimitry Tolstoy declared that "Gould was an alien on this Earth. People simply cannot play the piano like that!"

Jan. 12 2011 07:05 PM
Michael Meltzer

As another tribute to Gould, many people who were around back then seem to have forgotten, and younger people may not know, how the Goldberg Variations were regarded by the community of pianists.
It was a piece to stay away from, it was regarded as a harpsichord piece that required two keyboards to execute, too hazardous for recital and requiring too many takes for recording, except for perhaps a goddess like Tureck. On top of that, it really wasn't very well known.
Gould wowed the whole world, made the piece into an icon, and really raised the bar for what young pianists were to expect from themselves. He absolutely changed the piano landscape, and generated with controversy a widespread reexamination of performance practices in Bach and early music. We started seeing local all-Bach concerts, something very new.
-All this without any particularly organized public relations effort. Think about it!

Jan. 12 2011 11:59 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

I've done some very amateur attempts at fix ups of digital audio files using a digital editor program and working at the individual note level would seem to be very problematic, to say the least. Avoiding some sort of "hiccup" at both sides of the edit would require a pretty good isolation of the particular note. There seem to be many areas within Bach (I'm listening to the Goldberg Variations as a check) where this might be possible. Many of the variations start with a single abrupt note but the idea of picking out a single note from within the "dtruuum" that starts the 14th var - that would be something to see. Doing that with effectively Edward R. Murrow's cut and splice tape editing method - I can't see it.

I'm listening to Ms. Dinnerstein's rendition along with Gould's and there are distinct similarities though the Dinnerstein version sounds like it was made in an echo chamber compared to Gould's. Listening to the high speed var 26 renderings shows the "clarity" of the treble approach, though there was no special treble piano for 1955.

Anyway, I was mistaken in my initial disinterest in Ms. Dinnerstein's Goldberg vars. They are beautiful.

Jan. 11 2011 02:40 PM
dave from toronto

Gould certainly did transport his favorite piano - that's how it was dropped and damaged beyond
repair. he began recording in toronto in the 70's and had it shipped from new york.

Gould did edit individual notes - read the book by his last producer andrew kazdin called "creative lying - kazdin describes his recording method in detail.

i don't believe Gould ever recorded on his harpsi-piano. i have a live recording of the brandenburg concerto played on it and there are some television performances that he used it for -

Jan. 11 2011 01:06 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

There were two Steinways that were personal favorites (favourites?) in Gould's career. When the first one could no longer continue another was found. Both though were probably Canada based. 1955 was before the Steinway mentioned in the quote, so it couldn't have been used for that recording. The liner notes refer to a CD of mostly Canadian recordings. Gould probably didn't transport his favorite piano very far.

I saw a comment on the web about some recent book on Gould's methods that supposedly gives insight into his piano tuning and recording methods. There was a suggestion that Gould edited individual notes. I didn't see that in the film on the 1981 recording. He would choose passages he preferred, but not down to the level of notes. At the note level, sound editing would be little different from sound sampling used in the best electonic instruments.

Certainly the piano tuning was there to enhance an aspect that Gould perferred but it wasn't the key to his clarity and virtuosity. The other day WQXR played a Gould piece using a harpsichord. It sounded more like a toy piano but obviously had the Gould qualities of note separation within the stream of notes - clarity. Another CD has liner notes describing a Gould harpsi-piano - a piano modified to produce harpsichord like sound. I was wondering if that harpsi-piano was used in the WQXR piece.

Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II, Prelude and Fugue No. 14 in F-sharp Minor, BWV 883

It is a CBC recording.

The CD liner notes:

A note on Gould's piano. The cantata performance (as well as the Brandenburg Concerto and an Art of the Fugue excerpt from from [sic] the same 1962 program) makes use of an instrument which, as Gould puts it in the telecast, "is not exactly a piano and not exactly a harpsichord: it's a neurotic piano that thinks it's a harpsichord." In other words, a "harpsi-piano", a small Steinway grand piano with steel T-pins embedded in the hammers, intended to imitate the bright metallic timbre and characteristic twang of the harpsichord without sacrificing the piano's dynamic control. To a German friend, the harpsichordist Silvia Kind, Gould wrote of this telecast: "The continuo is supplied by my half-harpsichord, half-piano. It really produces quite a lovely effect but by no means as subtle a quality as a harpsichord. It does, however, project beautifully." If a little disorienting, this hybrid still makes for interesting experiment, though not one to recommend for broad use; and yet, Gould at one time toyed with the notion of recording all of the Well-Tempered Clavier on a harpsi-piano. We may be glad that he didn't, though perhaps we needn't be as vitriolic as Canadian composer John Beckwith, who, in a review of a Gould Bach concert at the 1961 Stratford Festival, referred to "that offensive bastard, the Gould tack-piano"!

Jan. 11 2011 10:29 AM
dave from toronto

his favorite steinway was dropped during shipping and could not be restored. he went to a piano
dealer in new york and tried the yamaha and loved it. he speaks about it in interviews so no need to
speculate, the first hand info is available.

Jan. 11 2011 10:09 AM
Michael Meltzer

Silversalty's info on Gould's customizing of his Steinway is interesting, but when he re-recorded the Goldberg Variations, he switched to a Yamaha concert grand. His first recording had been on a Steinway.
We have to speculate about the reasons, but the Yamaha does have a more rapid decay (no one else would consider that an asset) and is probably less sensitive to weather changes from day to day, which can figure in to the process of re-takes and splicing, editorial follow-ups that could take a few days.

Jan. 11 2011 03:56 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

My personal, uninformed view is that Gould was very sensitive to melody. That is, overt rather than hidden or masked melody. What do I base this on? Watching a film of Gould playing one of the atonal composers he liked. He was singing along with the music, except to me the music sounded almost like random notes. Gould was filling in the blanks with full orchestration. Image the effect a Mozart melody would have had. A thousand orchestras spewing sugared honey from the instruments?

In that film he also snickered about Chopin, who he apparently never played.

But how does that explain his being a fan of Barbra Streisand and Petula Clark? Musical slumming?


Looking at the liner notes of a Gould CD I found this passage -

A note on Gould's piano. Astute listeners will notice the piano's tendency to "hiccup" occasionally in the middle register, especially in slow, quiet passages. (Listen to the first two chords of Opus 78). Gould was aware of this flaw, and while he did not intentionally create it he chose to put up with it, for reasons that require some explanation. In the early 1960s, Gould acquired a pre-World War II Steinway that became his favorite piano, the instrument he used in his recordings and broadcasts throughout the 1960s and 70s. When he first acquired it, Gould had its action tinkered with to suit his needs. Being interested mostly in Bach at that time, Gould wanted an instrument that more resembled a fortepiano than a modern piano, with a clean, dry tone, a light, hair-trigger response and instant damping. He also moved the hammers closer to the strings, giving him more immediate grab and control of the sound. For the first few years following this surgery, one of the accidental byproducts was the hiccuping middle register. It is especially noticeable in the first recording Gould made on his "improved" Steinway, Bach's Two- and Three-Part Inventions. Gould was more interested in action than sonority; he cared more about having absolute control over phrasing, articulation and resonance than about shimmering piano tone. When it became clear that the hiccup could only be removed at the expense of this control, Gould opted to put up with it; indeed, he seemed to develop some affection for this anomaly. Gould's beleaguered piano technicians were able gradually to work out the problem over the years, and by 1970 it was scarcely noticeable. Like Gould's perennial humming while he played, mechanical tinkering with his piano seems to have been essential to his playing probably as much for psychological reasons as anything else. In any event, the hiccup is no more bothersome than scratches on old 78 recordings or concert hall coughing, and like them it seems a small price to pay for artistry of the caliber.

This helps explain the treble sound of Gould's playing and the "clarity" - the far more distinguishable individual key and chord sounds.

Jan. 09 2011 08:44 PM
dave from toronto

i'm all for independent minded-ness regarding
interpretation and performance but think nothing
good can come of choosing to play music that you admittedly dislike, or even "hate", as Gould has
said about those mozart sonatas he recorded.

Jan. 09 2011 09:02 AM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

This morning you played Alfred Brendel's rendition (rendering) of Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 15. I happened to have with me Ms. Maria-Joao Pires' version of the piece. I played it just after the Brendel piece ended and noticed much more variation in the cadence with Brendel's interpretation. Obviously "cadence" isn't the proper term. My guess is "phrasing." Ms. Pires was much more regular while Brendel often did what I'll call an SNL Dan Ackroyd determination of LMNO as a single letter - grouping sections for emphasis and notice, like a stylish singer does. Gould seemed to do this, probably to extreme. Certainly "extreme" in the view of some music aficionados. I remember one WQXR host, after a Mozart piece by Gould played, saying, "I'm not sure whether that was more Mozart or Gould." It was both, as it is with every player and more so with the adventurous, talented, open minded or secure ones. Secure in their stature within the community they inhabit.

Open minded seems a strange impression regarding Gould. Perhaps independent minded. He saw established rules as other people's fences. Not his. But he created his own fences.

I also have with me during the work day three CDs of the Goldberg Variations. Gould's (actually both 1955 and 1981), Angela Hewitt's and Simone Dinnerstein's. I rarely listen to Ms. Dinnerstein's. I was surprised by my lack of interest in it, but that's the case at this point. There's a big contrast between Ms. Hewitt's and Gould's. I almost laughed when I first heard Ms. Hewitt's in that it seemed to have electronic reverberation. There was much more of the slight echo in Hewitt's than Gould's. Beyond that it was much more "romantic." "Easy listening" where Gould's grabs you, and demands your attention. I did find the fast playing of the 1955 version a bit of a show off in action, but then if you've got it, flaunt it. No matter how fast the playing, the "clarity" was there. That incredible trait that Gould had as much as anyone I've heard (recordings only - I almost went to see Ms. Dinnerstein when she played the Greene Space but ..)

[Incidentally most of Gould's recordings were made at a converted old church on East 30th St in Manhattan which was much beloved for it's sound. Gould's 1981 recording was the last made at the old church.]

I think the key with Gould wasn't that he set any new standards but that he demonstrated that one should make one's own standard, as best one can. Gould could and did.

It's ironic to see this post on Gould since I almost never hear him on WQXR anymore. The non-standard standard maker. But then David Dubal, who regularly showed what makes great piano playing, is also gone.

Jan. 08 2011 07:58 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane

GLENN GOULD was a genius, eccentric but highly charged, and confident that HIS way was THE way. Leonard Bernstein, the most famous in this regard, found as a conductor in performance with Gould, musical approaches profoundly in disagreement with Gould. Gould would reference those differences not as a matter of taste, but as a misconstruction of the composer's intentions. Guess who he proclaimed errant in judgment ! Psychologists have , from their non-musical training and experience, diagnosed Gould as bipolar. Art often among the most gifted walks a thin line between magical theater and madness.

Jan. 08 2011 03:09 PM
dave from toronto

that's because Gould scripted the entire
interview - ALL questions and answers.


Jan. 08 2011 09:29 AM

I am listening to the interview, I listened to Tim Page's program for a long time. There is no way that this interviewer sounds like Tim Page.

Jan. 07 2011 09:42 PM

The video will be available at Netflix. Or, do what I did, watch for it on your PBS station and record it.

Jan. 06 2011 01:43 PM

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