A couple of years before the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould retired from the concert stage at 32, he was scheduled to rehearse Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with members of the Cleveland Orchestra and conductor George Szell. Out Gould came onto the stage — the musicians tuning up — and slowly a look of outraged incredulity appeared on the fastidious conductor’s face.
Right under him was his continuo-performing star maneuvering a little rug next to the piano, on top of which rug, methodically and intensely, the pianist began adjusting the four 3-inch screws attached to his sawed-down, short-legged, wooden folding chair, readjusting them to the height and angle that suited his exceptional performing posture — an almost on-the-floor, nose-on-the-keys slouch that has driven Victorian church-pew piano teachers into a state of total stupefaction.
Oblivious to the world but finally satisfied with the angle, Gould looked up to find that that most patriarchal of conductors, muttering indignantly, was storming off the stage, never to return in Gould’s presence. An assistant conductor took over for the rehearsal, as well as for the extraordinary concert performance which Szell himself attended — sitting in the audience — and after which he turned to a friend, saying: “That nut’s a genius.”
Since 1946 when he first publicly performed Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto at 14, Glenn Gould has been amazing audiences and critics. He has been called a musician of “divine guidance” and the greatest pianist since Busoni. He has also been called the Bobby Fischer of the piano and has been castigated for: (1) his unconventional performing mannerisms — loping onstage like a misplaced eland with unpressed tails, sometimes wearing gloves, playing almost at floor level, conducting, humming, singing, combating and cajoling and making love to his piano as if it were Lewis Carroll’s Snark (“I engage with the snark/Every night after dark/In a dreamy, delirious fight”); (2) his uncompromisingly imaginative choice of repertoire (William Byrd, Bach, Hindemith and Schoenberg instead of Chopin and Rachmaninoff… and more Rachmaninoff); (3) his obsessive search and preference for a light-actioned piano, meant to facilitate a musical approach that emphasizes clarity of definition and textures and a rarely equalled analytical subtlety and acuity (the pianist Sviatoslav Richter, oboist Heinz Holliger, and cellist Janos Starker seem to me to be Gould’s few peers in this regard) — as well as for certain startling but revelatory interpretations of “standards” like the Brahms First Piano Concerto. When Gould first performed this piece with Leonard Bernstein and the N.Y. Philharmonic, Bernstein actually got up before the audience to disassociate himself gently from Gould’s approach, which featured slow tempi and a profound structural design that, for the first time I can remember, truly revealed the work’s pent-up emotional rapture.
And, finally, Gould has been criticized for his supposedly eccentric and hermetic lifestyle (the pianist refuses to fly, likes taking trips by himself to the far north of Canada), for his bizarre get-up, e.g., wearing gloves, mittens, T-shirt, shirt, vest, sweater, coat and scarf in warm weather — and, to cap it all off, for his having retired, at the wizened age of 32, from any and all public concert recitals.
Gould’s retirement, in fact, has allowed him to make good his claim that the functions of concerts have now been taken over by electronic media — that it is the recording medium itself that allows for an unparalleled analytic clarity, immediacy, tactile proximity, and catholicity of repertoire. The “analytic dissection by microphone” enables Gould to present the music from a “strongly biased conceptual viewpoint,” just as it allows the music to emerge — as in unrepressed bodies and souls — with an untrammeled force and luminescence. As Gould’s performances demonstrate, structural clarification always releases new energy.
Since his retirement in 1964, Gould has continued to produce one extraordinary recording after another. (He’s made about 50 albums to date for Columbia Records, the latest of which is the Gamba Sonatas of Bach, on which he collaborates with cellist Leonard Rose.) And he has interspersed his unsurpassed Bach realizations with “first” recordings of Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden (accompanying the actor Claude Rains who reads Tennyson’s sentimental, drawing-room poem), the Liszt piano transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Bizet’s Variations Chromatiques, and, recently, an astonishingly beautiful piano transcription of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. Gould composes as well. Examples include a string quartet Opus 1, written between 1953-55 and recorded by the Symphonia Quartet. It is a romantic composition showing Gould’s fin-de-siecle predilection for the works of Bruckner and Richard Strauss. He has also composed “So You Want to Write a Fugue” for vocal and string quartets, a brilliant, jocular piece which was recorded by the Julliard String Quartet for a plastic insert record in HiFi/Stereo Review some years ago.
In addition to his recording career, Gould has produced and made five programs of “contrapuntal radio” for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (using voices in trio sonata form and employing the sounds of a train and the sea as a basso continuo); participated in, and even played for, certain CBC television programs (a Beethoven bicentennial concert, for example); and has completed a program entitled The Age of Ecstasy: Music 1900-1910, while working on four films about music and technology for the French ORTF.
Gould also continues to write brilliant and provocative magazine articles and self-interviews on subjects like: the forger as hero of electronic culture, Artur Rubinstein, Petula Clark vs. the Beatles, the analytical importance of the “flip-side overlap” — the four-minute demarcation points at the ends of 78 rpm records — and of Beethoven as an exemplar of a composer whose “professional developmental skills” conflicted with an “amateur’s motivic bluntness.”
These articles are an extension of Gould’s dazzling and witty liner-note extravaganzas in which, like the 18th century Spectator and Tatler newssheets, the pianist advises and warns his listeners, informs us of the state of health of his piano, and analyzes (usually brilliantly), comments on, and theorizes about a wide range of musical matters. On his Lizst-Beethoven Fifth Symphony album, Gould prints four “reviews” of his Beethoven interpretation from Sir Humphrey Price-Davies of The Phonograph magazine, from Professor Dr. Karlheinz Heinkel of Munch’ner Muskilologische Gesellschaft, from S. F. Lemming (M.D.) of the North Dakota Psychiatrists Association, and finally from Zoltan Mostanyi of Rhapsodya, Journal of the All-Union Musical Workers of Budapest. Gould was awarded a Grammy last fall for his liner notes on Hindemith: Three Piano Sonatas.
And for his recording of Bizet and Greig piano pieces, Gould informs us that Greig was a cousin of his maternal great-grandfather, thus affording him a not-to-be-begrudged interpretative authority. And the pianist goes on to advise his critics that since no previous recordings of the Bizet works exist, “for those of you who greet the release with enthusiasm, I should like to propose a phrase such as ‘ — vividly and forcefully, as only a first reading can, it partakes of that freshness, innocence and freedom from tradition that, as the late Artur Schnabel so deftly remarked, is but a “collection of bad habits.” ‘On the other hand, for those in doubt as to the validity of the interpretation involved, I venture to recommend a conceit such as ‘ — regrettably, a performance that has not as yet jelled; an interpretation that is still in search of an architectural overview.'”
Glenn Gould lives, records and works in Toronto, and he keeps in touch with friends around the world by means of the telephone. He does not give personal interviews at his home or office. The following interview was edited down from a two-part, six-hour telephone conversation, Toronto to New York, that took place in late June 1973. And the publication of this interview celebrates the Tenth Anniversary of Glenn Gould’s retirement from the concert stage (March 28th, 1974).
Knowing Gould, one would like to imagine that he might have honored the day by showing up at some local Alberta bar on March 28th, sit down at the cocktail piano, and quietly begin to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations — the first work he ever recorded for Columbia Records in 1955 and still one of the splendors of the record catalog — for a bunch of silver mine workers and Calgary cowboys, caught unawares by this music which — as Gould described it (and, I like to think, his own playing as well) in his now 18-year-old liner notes — “observes neither end nor beginning, music with neither real climax nor real resolution, music which, like Baudelaire’s lovers, ‘rests lightly on the wings of the unchecked wind.’ It has, then, unity through intuitive perception, unity born of craft and scrutiny, mellowed by mastery achieved, and revealed to us here, as so rarely in art, in the vision of subconscious design exulting upon a pinnacle of potency.”
Writing about the works of the late Elizabethan composer Orlando Gibbons, you once observed: “One is never quite able to counter the impression of a music of supreme beauty that somehow lacks its ideal means of reproduction.” You’ve also talked about the “idealized aspects of the works of Bach.” And this emphasis on the idea of “idealization” really seems to me to define your approach to music…. But perhaps I’m starting off on too abstract a note.
No, it’s marvelous, it’s an interesting point, and I suppose that if one fed it into a computer, probably that phrase — “ideal means of reproduction” — or some variant of it would turn up very frequently in what I say and write. I hadn’t realized it before, but it is a preoccupation, and I think it would be interesting to explore why it is….
But let me start out on a very practical level and proceed from there to something more abstract. I was recently talking to a group of educators about the problems concerning the teaching of pianists in institutionalized technical “factories.” You see, I think there’s a fallacy that’s been concocted by the music teachers’ profession, to wit: that there’s a certain sequence of events necessary in order to have the revealed truth about the way one produces a given effect on a given instrument. And I said: Given half an hour of your time and your spirit and a quiet room, I could teach any of you how to play the piano — everything there is to know about playing the piano can be taught in half an hour, I’m convinced of it. I’ve never done it and I never intend to do it, because it’s centipedal in the Schoenbergian sense — that is to say, in the sense in which Schoenberg was afraid to be asked why he used a certain row in a certain way, saying it was like the centipede, which doesn’t want to think about the order of its hundred legs because it would become impotent; it couldn’t walk at all if it did think about it. And I said: Therefore I’m not going to give this half-hour lesson, but if I chose to, the physical element is so very minimal that I could absolutely teach it to you if you paid absolute attention and were very quiet and absorbed what I said and possibly took it down so that you could replay it on a cassette later on, and you wouldn’t need another lesson. You would then have to proceed along certain rather disciplined lines whereby you observed the correlation of that bit of information with certain other kinds of physical activity — you discover there are certain things you can’t do, you discover there are certain kinds of surface you can’t sit on, certain kinds of car seats that you can’t ride in.
And by this time I was getting a great laugh, and they were regarding this whole thing as a routine, which it was not — I was trying to make a quite serious point, which was: that if this were done, you would be free from the entire tactile kinetic commitment. No, correction — you would not be free, you would be eternally bound to it, but so tightly bound to it that it would be a matter of tertiary interest… it would be something that could be “disarranged” only by a set of circumstances that would confuse it.
I once talked about such a “set,” it was a time in Tel Aviv — this was in 1958 — and I was giving a series of concerts on an absolutely rotten piano, the manufacturer of which shall be left unnamed [laughing], but in any event it was after all a desert country, as they kept explaining to me, and they had desert pianos, understandably enough. And I was playing I think 11 concerts in 18 days, which for Isaac Stern would be like nothing, but for me is very difficult — it always was very difficult — and I think eight of the 11 were given on this monstrosity, until I discovered a rather less noble in appearance but much more tactically approachable instrument in a basement and began using that.
In any event, one day I was switching programs, which was a real problem, because up till then I’d coasted on a kind of tactile memory based on the experience of playing the earlier repertoire, and now suddenly I had to change, I had to do a little practicing, and it was at that moment that things began to run downhill. So on the afternoon of the first of that series of concerts — that included the Bach D Minor and the Mozart C Minor, it was a double bill — I’d gone through a miserable rehearsal at which I really played like a pig because this piano had gotten to me finally, and I was playing on its terms. I had “put it on,” as Mr. McLuhan would say, and I was really very concerned, I simply couldn’t play a C-major scale properly, and I suddenly was incapable, apparently, of responding on any terms but those which were immediately addressed to me by the medium of that piano.
So I had a car, rented from the Hertz agency in Jerusalem (the name of which delights me), and I was in any case staying about 15 miles outside of Tel Aviv at a place called Herzliyya-by-the-Sea (it’s sort of an American colony where there are rather nice hotels and you feel not as though you’re in the San Juan Hilton or something). And I went out to a sand dune and decided that the only thing left, the only thing that could possibly save this concert, was to re-create the most admirable tactile circumstance I knew of, and at that time that was in relation to a piano which I still own, though I haven’t used it in many years, a turn-of-the-century (about 1895) Chickering — the supposedly last classic piano built in America — classic by virtue of the fact that it had a lyre that looked as if it were off the cover of the old B. F. Wood edition, with short, stubby legs and slightly square sides. And this piano was the prototype of the piano that I now use for my recordings and the other one that I have in my apartment as well, in that I discovered a relationship of depth of touch to after-touch, which admittedly had to undergo a considerable amount of modification for a Steinway. It couldn’t just be transferred across the board (no pun intended), and both of the pianos that I own were modified along the lines of this turn-of-the-century Chickering.
So I sat in my car in the sand dune and decided to imagine myself back in my living room… and first of all to imagine the living room, which took some doing because I’d been away from it for three months at this point, and I tried to imagine where everything was in the room, then visualize the piano, and… this sounds ridiculously yogistic, I’d never done it before in precisely these terms or anything related to it in terms of precision… but so help me it worked.
Anyway, I was sitting in the car but looking at the sea and got the entire thing in my head and tried desperately to live with that tactile image throughout the balance of the day, got to the auditorium in the evening, played the concert, and it was without question the first time that I’d been in a really exalted mood throughout the entire stay there — I was absolutely free of commitment to that unwieldy beast. Now the result at first for about two lines really scared me, because what was happening was that it was coming out with an almost minimal amount of sound — it really felt as though I were playing only with the soft pedal down, which at times I often was, but in any event I didn’t mean it to sound quite so fainthearted as the result indicated.
I was shocked, and I suddenly realized: Well, of course it’s doing that because I’m absolutely living that tactile image — and eventually I made some modification, some give-and-take in relation to the instrument at hand. And what came out was an extraordinary… wait, allow me to backtrack — like John Dean — “There’s one little piece of information, I should like to correct the record, Mr. Chairman.” [laughing] I’ve been watching the bloody hearings all day. Yes, Mr. Chairman, I want to correct the record, I want to say — I’m sorry, I started with the double bill of the Bach and the Mozart, and it was a switchover — in fact, it was the switchover to Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto that caused this confusion, that’s what it was, and I say this only so that I can finish this story with the appropriate punch line.
The appropriate punch line is that afterwards, the late Max Brod — the Kafka scholar, who at that time was living in Tel Aviv and who wrote for the Tel Aviv German paper — came backstage with an elderly lady, whom I took to be his secretary, and made a few nice sounds, and the lady in question, whose name I didn’t catch, came up to me and in a rather heavy German accent said — bear in mind I’d just played Beethoven Two — and said [conspiratorial half-whisper], “Mr. Gould, ve haf attended already several of your pairformances in Tel Aviv, but tonight’s, zis was somehow, in some vay, somesing vas different, you vere not qvite one of us, you vere — you vere — your being was removed.” And I bowed deeply and said, “Thank you, madam,” realizing of course that she had in fact put her finger on something that was too spooky to talk about even, and I realized that with her obviously limited English there was no way I could convey what I’d really done. But then she finished it off by saying, “Yes, I haf just been saying that zis was unquestionably ze finest Mozart I haf ever heard,” [laughing] and of course it was Beethoven.
When you were sitting in the car in the desert, were you performing the piece in the air or on the dashboard, or…
Neither, neither. The secret is that you must never move your fingers. If you do, you will automatically reflect the most recent tactile configurations that you’ve been exposed to.
Is there a difference between imagining a total performance of a piece and performing it in your imagination? Were you simply imagining a performance of the piece in your mind?
No. That is something profoundly to be wished for and not necessarily contradictory to what we’ve talked about, but at a certain point there is an overlap, and at a certain point the overlap ends, and odd bits and pieces stick out, and I think we should define those bits and pieces. There is a difference, and the difference is something like this: I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced it — and certainly they’re not going to try it on me — but some years ago they discovered a remarkable method of local anesthesia which was employed in dentistry, and the method was that of taking the patient who, for some reason, was reacting badly to Carbocaine or zylocaine or whatever-ocaine, and giving him two dials, one of which contained white noise and the other of which controlled possibly a radio or a cassette or record player, on which was a piece of musical information with which the patient was familiar — Mantovani or Beethoven — whatever he knew, it had to be something he could “pull in,” so to speak. Now then, that meant that his reaching out to that thing had to be impeded in some way, there had to be an area of blockage, and that area of blockage was precisely represented by the dial which controlled the white noise. And it was arranged in various ratios, but at all times the ratio of white noise to actual sound had to be in favor of the white noise, so that you had to fight through that sound barrier, quite literally, in order to pull out remnants of a remembered sound. And it was discovered that without exception this was the most effective local anesthetic they’d ever employed in dentistry, in that it had a hundred percent success… except that there were very few people who were willing to have it tried on them [laughing], but it did have a hundred percent success on those who tried it. And the reason I think is quite obvious: because if you absolutely and totally are forced to concentrate on some object that is other than that which concerns you most deeply at the moment, there’s an element of transcendence implied in that concentration.
To give you another example of the same differentiation: Years ago I was playing for the first time in my life Beethoven’s Sonata no. 30, opus 109 — I think I was about 19 — and I used to try out pieces that I hadn’t played before in relatively small Canadian towns, and this one fell into a program that I was giving about 120 miles from Toronto — a university town called Kingston. I never bothered to practice very much — I now practice almost not at all — but even in those days I never really did. I tended to learn the score away from the piano, in the sense that I would learn it completely by memory first and then go to the piano with it afterwards — and that was another stage in the divorce of tactilia from expressive manifestations of one kind or another. No, that’s not quite accurate, because obviously the expressive manifestations were built into the analytical concept, but the tactile need wasn’t built in — there are certain tactile assumptions which are necessarily built in if you know the instrument well, they have to be, there’s no way in which they can’t.
Now, opus 109 isn’t a particularly difficult or strenuous piece, but there is in it one moment which is a positive horror, as you perhaps know, and that is in the fifth variation in the last movement — in a sense the climactic variation, it’s a fughetta, really… and there’s one moment which is an upward-bound diatonic run in sixths, at the most awkward moment, not only in terms of black-versus-white notes fingering but also in terms of that break in the keyboard around two octaves above middle C where repeat problems most often show up because of the configuration of the modern piano. And at this point you have to change from a pattern in sixths to a pattern in thirds, and you’ve got to do that in a split second. I had always heard this piece played by people who, when they came to that, looked like horses being led from a burning barn, a kind of look of horror came upon them, and I always wondered whether it was really that bad.
And about two or three weeks before I was to play the thing for the first time I started to study the score — I had read it through at the piano and it had never seemed to be a problem — and about a week ahead of time I started to practice it (which sounds suicidal, but that’s the way I always operate), and the first thing I did, foolishly — very bad psychology — was to think in terms of: Well, let’s try the variation, just to make sure there’s no problem — it had never seemed to be when I sat down and read the thing through when I was a kid… but better try it, better work out a little fingering system just in case, you know. And as I began to work out my system, one thing after another began to go wrong, until not many minutes had elapsed and I found that I’d developed a total block about this thing. And three days before the concert, the block, which I’d tried to get rid of by all kinds of devious means — not playing the piece at all — had become such that I couldn’t get to that point without literally shying and stopping. I just froze at that particular moment.
I thought, something’s got to be done about this or I’ve got to change the program or delete the variation or pretend that I know something about the autograph that they don’t. So I thought, OK, I’ll try the Last Resort method, and that was to place beside the piano either one or two radios, two if convenient or possibly one radio and one television, turn them up full blast — that’s really in effect the experiment that years later I was to read about in Non-Anesthetic Dentistry, it was exactly the same principle — turn them up so loudly that while I could in a sense hear what I was doing, I was primarily hearing what was coming off the radio speaker or the television speaker or better still both… and only secondarily myself. And I was separating, at this point, my areas of concentration to such an extent that I realized that that in itself would not break the chain of reaction, I had to do something else, but nevertheless it had already begun to make its mark, it had begun to improve. The fact that you couldn’t hear yourself, that there wasn’t complete observable evidence for your failure, was already a step in the right direction.
But I had to do something more than that, and in this variation the left hand has at that moment a rather uninspired sequence of four notes, the third of which is tied over the bar line. Now, there’s not too much you can do with those four notes, but I thought, all right, there are, we’ll say, in terms of accent and so on, maybe half a dozen permutations that would be possible [sings several of the permutations], and I played them as unmusically as possible — in fact the more unmusical they were, the better, because it took more concentration to do something genuinely unmusical — and I managed to produce some extremely unmusical sounds, during which time my concentration was exclusively on the left hand and not at all on the right, and I did this at varying tempi and kept the radios going, and then came… the moment. I switched off the radios and thought: I don’t think I’m ready for this… need a cup of coffee, made a few other excuses and then finally sat down. The block was gone. And now, every once in a while, just for the hell of it, I sit down and do that passage to see if the block’s still gone. It still is, and it became one of my favorite concert pieces.
Now, the point I was making is that you have to begin, I think, by finding a way to any instrument that gets rid of the whole notion that the instrument presents you essentially with a set of tactical problems — it does, but you have to reduce those tactical problems to their own square root, in a sense, and having done that adapt any kind of situation into which you fall in relation to that square root. The problem then is to have a sufficient advance and/or additional experience of the music so that anything that the piano does, or the violin does, doesn’t get in the way or even permit it to get in the way. And in my own case my means toward this is to spend most of the time away from the piano, which is very difficult because you really want to hear what it sounds like. Because a certain analytical ideal (which is somehow contradictory, I can’t quite think how — I’m a bit stupid today, but anyway…), an analytical completeness, at any rate, is theoretically possible as long as you stay away from the piano. The moment you go to it you’re going to eat into that completeness by tactile compromise. Now at some point you’ve got to do that, but the degree to which you can minimize that compromise is the degree to which you can reach out for the ideal that we were talking about.
A number of pianists have talked about their anxiety dreams in which they continually saw themselves walking out onstage naked or sitting down to find themselves unable to play, like Sparky and his Magic Piano, which refused to perform at the necessary time.
I only have one dream of that kind, which one would think would have abated the moment I stopped giving concerts, but it didn’t. I simply transferred it to other media, and I now have it in relation to recording sessions… and the dream always makes me aware of the fact that the repertoire that I think I’m doing is not the repertoire I’m really doing. Now in order to make that practical it’s never therefore a solo performance; it’s usually an orchestral recording, and I’ve had many variations on this dream.
I’ve had other kinds of dreams along this line, too. I remember one in which I was in an opera house. I was backstage in rather cramped dressing-room quarters, and while wandering around, I saw someone come up to me — in today’s terms it would be Schuyler Chapin, but then it was the equivalent of Rudolf Bing or Rolf Liebermann — and he came rushing up to me, saying; “Mr. Gould, you’re just the man we need!”
It turns out that they were going to give a performance of some Bellini opera with Mme. Callas, and the lead baritone had fallen ill or lost his voice, and I was supposed to go on. “This is absurd, I’m no singer.” “Of course you are,” the man replied, “I mean, you can read a score. You have an innate grasp….” And they threw this score into my hands, and I quickly looked through it, hoping just to grasp the idiom. They told me that they’d describe, as I came offstage, what the next scene would be, and for the rest of it, I’d just have to obey my musical conscience.
So I knew I couldn’t let them down, could I? And I was told that when Mme. Callas was kneeling before an altar — I was at this point standing in the wings — I was to proceed out, she would greet me and we’d go into a duet. I surmised she would open it, and she started [singing florid coloratura passage] or something like that. And then I started in sixths and thirds, “Ya dum, ya da la da leeee da la. . . .,” and we were going along magnificently with superb euphony. But all of a sudden, on a diminished chord, which I thought was heading back to E major, it decided to veer off and go to G — as diminished chords have a tendency to do [laughing]. And I was left hanging there… So you can add this dream to your collection of naked moments.
In your striving for the ideal performance, you can often be heard humming and singing, turning some of your solo piano recordings into lieder recitals. I’ve always felt this was a compensation for the inflexibility and imperfectibility of your instrument. If you could, though, would you try to eliminate this “additional” poltergeist on your recordings?
Oh yes, and if I could find an equalization system that would get rid of it, which it obviously does not — if it occurred at only one frequency, a frequency that would be dispensable in terms of the piano — I would cue it out in a second; to me it’s not a valuable asset, it’s just an inevitable thing that has always been with me. In fact, when I was a kid — really a kid, nine or ten years old, playing my star pieces at the student concerts — people said exactly the same thing as they now say about my latest records, so it really doesn’t make any difference, I’ve never been able to get rid of it.
It wasn’t until about 1966 or ’67 that we started putting a baffle inside the piano, and that has helped a bit. I think if you “a” and “b” any record done now with a record done at that time, there’s a noticeable improvement. But the other problem of course is that since we’ve moved the whole operation to Toronto we have a drier hall than the one we used in New York, and consequently I think it exaggerates my voice. Because it’s a drier hall we decided to capitalize on its quality, and we’ve gone in very close — we always did, it was never your ideal Deutsche Grammophon distant pickup — even closer to maximize the effect of this rather mellow place, which I think gives it a very lovely sound, but it does necessarily augment the voice a little, so there has been a slight increase in the vocal disturbance the last two years [laughing], but it would still not be up to the great old days of pre-1967.
I heard that for one of your first recordings you actually wore a gas mask during the session.
No, I didn’t, that was a joke — somebody brought in one and I put it on, just for the hell of it, pretended I was going to keep it on. I think Howard Scott, my first producer at Columbia, brought it in as a gag, he picked it up at a war surplus store….
Your posture at the piano has been the occasion of many jokes — slouching position, sitting on a chair hardly off the floor, conducting with your left hand while the right hand is playing, your nose on the keys, swooning into space, your whole body totally involved in the musical situation. Would you change this aspect of your playing if you could?
No, if I didn’t do that there would be an absolute deterioration in my playing. That is an indispensable component, and for the life of me, I’ve never seen why anyone should concern himself with it. The other thing, about my singing, might be genuinely objectionable, and people who lay out their $5.98 or whatever and say, “Gee, do I have to listen to that? It may be interesting as document, but it’s annoying as sound” — well, I would feel exactly the same way. In fact, I was just listening the other day to one of the last records Barbirolli made, the Pelleas And Melisande of Schoenberg (which is a magnificent performance, by the way), and he obviously got carried away several times — it doesn’t bother me, really, but I can see there are some people who will be bothered by it, as they are by Casals’s records, for that matter. I do think it’s a valid objection, but the other business is surely a private matter between my left hand and my right, and I cannot see why it’s of concern to anybody.
I discovered early on that there are certain keys to the kingdom in terms of ways of manipulating the instrument which are not those of the Prussian school, obviously. There’s another thing, of course, that you have to remember, and that is that the caricature of my playing is that of someone whose nose is touching the keyboard. Now in point of fact that happens only under optimum circumstances in terms of repertoire. It does not happen as a general rule — not that I sit the rest of the time like Wilhelm Backhaus or whomever. But the special circumstances in terms of repertoire have to do with repertoire that does not demand a widening of the hands — say, Bach or Mozart or pre-Bach — but you cannot, you simply cannot play Scriabin in that position, for the simple reason that the leverage required to support a widening of the hands is such that you have to be further away from the keyboard, you couldn’t be that close. But you can play Bach that way, and should, because by so doing you refine the sound, you minimize the pianistic aspects of it, and you increase your control. I don’t want to be dramatic and say “a thousandfold,” like one of the senators did today (I’ve been watching that bloody thing all day — I don’t know which senator it was, oh yes, it was Gurney), but certainly by a considerable measurement.
And the other factor involved is the nature of the piano that you use. If you use a piano with a conventional heavy action and/or a deep action… and again to repeat the sort of fallacy that piano teachers like to spread about: There is a notion abroad in the land that you some way benefit by learning to play on a difficult instrument, the theory being that if you play on a heavy piano, by the time you get to an easy one it will be consequently easier. This is as sensible as saying that by learning to play on a piano it will make you a good harpsichordist. I mean it does not — it does exactly the opposite, it means that the harpsichord is a difficult thing to play precisely because you’re used to what is, in harpsichord terms, overkill, and one should basically try to stick within a certain type of piano always.
In my case there’s no problem because I use only one piano and have for the last 15 years. The piano that I do all my recordings on since 1960 is a piano built in ’45 but reconditioned by me in ’60 and many times subsequently, including last year completely, when it had to be rebuilt — it was dropped by a truck. Anyway, the long and the short of it is that this piano has a very light action, as indeed all pianos that I prefer do. Many people say it’s tinny and sounds like a harpsichord or a fake harpsichord or God knows what. Maybe it does. I think it has the most translucent sound of any piano I’ve ever played — it’s quite extraordinary, it has a clarity of every register that I think is just about unique. I adore it. It happens to have a very light action. Now if it had a different system of leading; if the draft of the key (which means the fall from top to bottom) were different; if the relationship of the after-touch to the kickback point when you’re depressing a key were different — if any or all of those things were different, one would not be able to sit at that piano as you do. You would have to exert a different leverage and sit further back, of necessity.
And, as I say, because this conventional wisdom, the origin of which I do not know, began to travel abroad in the early years of this century, it was assumed that the great classic pianos were in some way heavy pianos. If you ever play the Mason & Hamlin, which was regarded at one time as a classic piano… it was a very heavy piano, and, well, it had beautiful qualities, but it wasn’t a piano with the kind of action that I find appealing. That sort of instrument, and/or any other kind modeled after it, posed problems of leverage that would make it very difficult for me to adopt the posture that I would like to.
You haven’t only released piano recordings. There are harpsichord performances by you of four of Handel’s Suites, as well as a wonderful organ performance of the first part of Bach’s “Art of the Fugue.” And I’ve noticed, in these recordings, that you seem to work against the grain of the predominant temperamental characteristics of each instrument. For instance, on the harpsichord, where you can’t easily duplicate the arched line and sustained legato of the piano, you seem to aim for just those two qualities. In your piano recordings you aim for the immediacy of attack provided more easily on the harpsichord. And on the organ, you produce a sense of spriteliness more characteristic of both the piano and harpsichord.
Yes, I think you’re absolutely right, there’s a kind of cross-fertilization involved here. I’ll let you in on a secret, however, in regard to both the organ and the harpsichord record: Both of them were done literally without practicing at all; my preparation for both was on the piano exclusively. I don’t own a harpsichord and never have, and there’s only one harpsichord in the world that I can play, and that’s one that all pro-harpsichordists turn up their noses at — the Wittmayer — simply because its tactilia, and particularly the width of its keyboard, is as close to the piano as one can get. I love it, I love it. It’s one that’s owned by a choirmaster here in Toronto who just has it for his own amusement, and one can rent it. It’s the equivalent of a baby grand, a five- or six-foot instrument, and it lacks certain amenities such as a lute on the forefoot, which I would dearly like to have and which any self-respecting harpsichord offers. And all of that record was done with registrations worked out just before I did each piece. I did exactly the same thing with the organ record, although I was somewhat more experienced as an organist because I had played the organ as a kid, but I hadn’t played it since I was a kid, and again I set up registrations and so on at the last minute.
It’s part and parcel of the same syndrome that I’ve talked about in relation to conducting — the anticipatory factor of conducting. The anticipatory factor is very different in the harpsichord, precisely because you cannot arch a line in any way at all. It is true that I love the secco, pointillistic, detached line on the piano at the same time. And the harpsichord, of course, by definition, especially without a lute stop, gives you exactly that, but it also gives you a need for either rhythmic inexorability or its converse, which is infinite rubato, a kind of world which really never comes to rest on any bar line, and I was determined to try and find a way around that. And I thought, well, the only way around that is to pretend I’m not playing the harpsichord [laughing], because if I do I’ll fall into exactly the same trap. And I found as the sessions wore on that I was beginning to, because it’s very, very difficult to play a straight, square eight bars on the harpsichord without wanting to do something rhythmical with it at the end that will stand in lieu of dynamics. And sometimes indeed I had to do it, sometimes it was incumbent upon the music to be shaped that way… in a very chromatic thing like the beginning of the Variations in big D Minor Suite, you have to do it because it’s too big a structure not to. And again in the cadenza in the opening Prelude of the A Major Suite, simply because it is scales and runs, and you’ve got to differentiate, otherwise it sounds like a sewing machine. But that aside, once having hit the stride of a certain tempo I would like to be able to hold it almost as tightly as you can on a piano.
Don’t certain harpsichord pieces need exactly this kind of rubato approach, like the works of Couperin, for example?
Oh yes, I’m sure that’s true. But Handel, at least to me, is a very regal figure and needs a certain kind of straightforwardness and uncomplicatedness, essentially, and an almost deliberate lack of sophistication that would not be true of Couperin. Couperin lives off subtlety much as Scarlatti does — subtlety of a social-grace kind rather than of a structural kind.
Mozart’s nonpolyphonic style would seem to be least suited to your temperament, and in fact your version of the C Minor Piano Concerto has been criticized for your addition of embellishments and a number of continuo passages. You’ve also released three albums of Mozart piano sonatas — and a fourth is just coming out [since the interview, Gould has recorded a fifth album] — and when I first heard them I thought they were a put-on. In fact, they seem to have gotten progressively wilder as the series progresses — Alberti bass lines smashing out, manic or depressive tempi. And then I began to think that perhaps you were taking a Brechtian approach to these works — distancing them in order to get away from the typical emotive type of performances we’re used to hearing. But this is a pretty perverse way to deal with Mozart, isn’t it?
You’re absolutely right, I think, and I’ll take it point by point (I can’t get John Dean out of my head: “I’ll take it point by point if I may, Mr. Chairman”). Let me deal first of all with the C Minor Mozart. It’s the only Mozart concerto that I’ve recorded because it’s the only one that I sort of halfway like. My objection to that record is that I didn’t do nearly enough continuoizing. First of all, those who commented on the things that I added are just plain wrong: It’s documentable fact that Mozart himself made it up as he went along, we know that. Not only that, he took it for granted that everybody else would, because you’ve got to remember that he was just out of, and not entirely out of, the period of figured bass. I mean, the Haydn concerti are full of figured-bass stuff — it was still there as a continuo manifestation as well as a solo instrument, which it was just becoming, after all. And apart from the difference in temperaments, the difference in length and difference in orchestration and so on, the only personnel difference between, let us say, the earliest of Haydn concerti and the latest of Mozart concerti — of which the C Minor is one of the latest ones — would be that in the earliest of Haydn concerti the soloist would do his thing and the conductor would sit at another harpsichord and go right along with him and support him and do some doodlings that were based on figured-bass conceptions written by the composer but which were not absolute.
Now, by the time 30 years have gone and we get to about 1785, the role of the conductor has become absolute, or at any rate if not that, the role of the soloist has been at least consolidated into that of one person, rather than somebody who sits around and helps him out by providing basic harmonies at the same time. But the Mozart textures haven’t freed themselves from the preconception that there would be a harmonic foundation in addition to that which the orchestra is supplying, and supportive of it, but supportive also of the solo textures. And the solo texures are thin as hell in the Mozart concerti, they’re really very badly written. The solo moments are beautiful, they’re gorgeous, one couldn’t have a more beautiful cantilena than the opening of the A Major Concerto’s slow movement — that’s a magnificent moment of keyboard writing. But it just so happens that once the orchestra enters (Mozart is a right-handed composer), he literally does nothing with the left hand. And the reason for that is very simple, and that is that he was still thinking in terms of that type of concerto, twenty years back, in which the conductor had given continuo support.<