Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Glenn Gould

I’ve just finished reading an unusual book, A Romance on Three Legs, by Katie Hafner. I’m not much fussed about the title, which actually doesn’t make a lot of sense when you get down to it, but the book otherwise is wonderfully written.
It’s firstly the story of Glenn Gould, that extraordinary Canadian pianist who wowed the world with his playing of Bach and various other composers, and who was also (pretty much undeniably) the most eccentric genius/pianist to walk the earth for many moons. He was self-centred, increasingly a hypochondriac (he wore heavy coats in summer, and fingerless gloves), arrogant, and in general a fair pain to deal with. Yet some people got past all that and cared about him.
Secondly, it’s the story of Verne Edquist, an almost blind piano tuner, who served Gould’s tuning needs for a good deal of the latter’s later years.
It’s also the story of the wonderful Steinway piano that Gould fell in love with. It had a ‘name’ CD318, and was perfectly attuned to Gould’s needs. After having searched without success for the ‘right’ piano all over the States and Canada, it turned out that CD318 was sitting waiting for him in a hall in his own city – and he’d actually played on it as a child prodigy.
Beyond these three stories are more: the growth and success and decline of Steinway and Sons, an extraordinary piano-making company that was without rival in the first half of the 20th century, as well as the intricate way in which a grand piano is constructed, piece by piece, and then worked over until it’s tuned to perfection. Hafner goes into detail, the way North American journalists do, but here she keeps us interested from the word go.
Gould seldom comes across as someone you’d want to spend much time with. He was often devious, he dropped longstanding friends at the drop of a hat, he was obsessive about a multitude of things (including another man’s wife), he was ridiculously superstitious, and he felt the world was there to serve him. He was forgiven most of these aspects of his character because of his ability to play so wonderfully. There is no doubt he had genius: quite apart from anything else, he could study a score away from the piano, and play it perfectly once he sat down in front of the keyboard. ‘Sat down’ is apt: he always sat on an ancient chair (it eventually lost all padding) even at concerts, and it was so low that his nose was virtually level with the keyboard. Any pianist will tell you that this is an impossible and potentially unhealthy way to play, but Gould did it, because it somehow suited his utterly fluid style. [The photo shows him sitting relatively normally at the keyboard, but other photos have him sitting in a much less 'normal' position.]
Did I mention that Gould was opinionated? (Often to his disadvantage: he once missed out on hearing an older pianistic genius play because he disdained his choice of repertoire.) Here’s Hafner on Gould’s musical tastes (which admittedly varied at times):
Glenn Gould seldom played the Romantics, and even spoke scornfully of the entire 19th century piano repertoire, including Beethoven. He had a passion for Beethoven’s early sonatas but considered the composer’s middle period – the Appassionatia and Waldstein, for example – nothing but ‘junk’ (although he did record most of the composer’s major works for piano). Gould could be a fickle critic; he dismissed Mozart’s later music as either hedonistic or, at the other extreme, mechanical. “Too many of his works sound like interoffice memos,” he once wrote. Yet he was very fond of Mozart’s early sonatas, especially those with a Baroque character, and he ended up recording all of them. He liked Mendelssohn but dismissed most of his piano music. He simply ignored Schubert, while more thoroughly denouncing Liszt, Chopin and Schumann. Early 20th century composers like Ravel and Debussy didn’t fare much better. And he detested Bartok and Stravinsky; in 1952, when Gould was nineteen, he filled in a questionnaire for the CBC and placed those two musicians under the heading “Most Over-estimated Modern Composers.”

Hafner's biography may be incomplete in some respects; the Wikipedia article (see link under his name above) discusses a number of other matters that make little or no appearance in the book, such as his extensive writing and his compositions. There are a bunch of videos of Gould, both in black and white and colour, on You Tube.
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