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.
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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.
Now we get to the three sonata recordings. I’ve had more fun with those things than anything I’ve ever done, practically, mainly because I really don’t like Mozart as a composer. I love the early sonatas, I love the early Mozart, period. I’m really fond of that moment when he was either emulating Haydn or Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach or anybody but himself. The moment he found himself, as conventional wisdom would have it, at the age of 18 or 19 or 20, I stop being so interested in him. The moment he became aware of this theatrical potential, I’m no longer so interested in him.
There is, as you know, a long tradition in Mozart-playing, and you hit upon it beautifully with the word “emotive,” and it described a tradition in which one played with the masculine-feminine “opposites” of the first and usually last movements of the sonatas, in the sense that one had that which was stern, that which was melting, that which was commanding, that which was seductive — in opposition to each other. And that’s all very well and good, except that that whole concept had just begun to go around the symphonic world at the time when Mozart wrote those sonatas. Now again I seem to be leaning heavily on historical argument, which I don’t like to do, because as I say I defy it so often that I could be hoisted on my own petard; it’s not a safe ground in court for me. But in view of the fact that I lack any other at this moment, I will have recourse to it nonetheless.
The plain fact is that the Haydn sonatas, for instance, which are much more extensive in the canon than the Mozart — there being 50-something to 17 or 18 — and much more interesting as pieces, as pieces and as experiments, musically… it’s the only late-night music that I’ve sat down and really played for myself in the last year — well, occasionally Wagner or something like that — but otherwise it’s Haydn sonatas, the early ones especially, the baroque-ish ones. They are so beautiful and in every case so delightfully innovative. This feeling that none is cut from the same cookie stamp… I don’t get this feeling in Mozart — I get the feeling that basically once he hit his stride they’re all cut from the same cookie stamp, except perhaps in the very last years. I find it awkward because I think that the more he tried to deal with the piano as a theatrical weapon, the less successful he became.
Now, coming back to what I said about the idea of “opposites”: The whole coalition of opposites was by no means fully developed at that time. It was only in its first stages, and by the time you get to Beethoven, of course, the earliest sonatas of Beethoven already exhibit it in a much more full-blown state, though even there there are some reservations. But the point is, I think, that if you examine Haydn about the same period, you find that Haydn — who was after all Mozart’s god in many ways, certainly in instrumental writing — was not developing this idea as a consistent phenomenon, but in fact toward the end of his life he’s getting further away from it, such that the second theme is also the first theme — there’s a kind of Lisztian consistency in the later Haydn sonatas, as indeed in the earlier ones, in that a rhythmic configuration will be lifted, will be simply put into another key, just as Bach would do it, in a rondo or something like that.
So the whole psychological argument for this is a new moment, with a new element that must be given its due by virtue of the fact that we slow down and soften down and make the phrases legato, as opposed to upright and nonlegato previously, if that’s the case — in other words, a change of heart and temperament. All this doesn’t seem to me all that justifiable in the Mozart sonatas. This is quite separate now from my objections to them as keyboard writing or as bits of theatrical manifestations that intrude upon the musical purpose. But just in terms of observing them as structures, the things that I’ve mentioned were certainly getting into the music, of that there’s no question.
But I think the proof of the fact that they hadn’t fully gotten into the music by mid-Mozart is in the fact that Mozart never really did learn to write a development section until his very last years, and you don’t have to write a development section unless you’ve got something to develop. And I’m not being flip about that. I mean, literally, that the development section in the classical sonata was there in order to crystallize the potentialities of opposite forces, and it was precisely Beethoven, whose whole structural notions were based on the collision of opposites, who wrote developments until you begged for the return to some kind of sobriety [laughing]. And of course Haydn also wrote much more extensive developments than Mozart, even though Haydn was not terribly interested in the masculine-feminine coalition either, but nevertheless I really think that the notion that you start off playing a Mozart sonata with a firm, upright kind of tempo and steady beat and then relax into something that is slurpy and Viennese and then come back to a hint of the other thing — a hint of the other and you have a double bar and then you do a bridgework passage which takes you back and you do the whole thing again — I think it’s silly, because it’s not borne out by the music, it really isn’t. As I say, I’m reluctant to situate the argument so firmly on some sort of historical pedestal, because I normally am prepared to argue much more eccentrically for the things that I do, but in this case I really can argue that way.
Which brings me to why I had fun with it. I had fun with it precisely because you can play the damn things in the most deliciously straightforward manner, never yielding at a cadence, never giving up for a moment, just going absolutely straight through to the end, like a rapido sort of thing. And this has nothing to do with tempo, you can do it just as successfully with a slow tempo as with a — no, not quite as easily, it’s tougher. A slow tempo just by the weight of its duration makes you want to make more curves in the music, that’s certainly true. But in any event, by and large they can, I think, be made to work that way. Now the horror and the outcry that has resulted, and… I think it was the critic Martin Mayer who said about Volume 2: “Finally, this is madness!” or something to that effect. That sort of outcry I really think is terribly funny, because all they’re really seeing is a denial of a certain set of expectations that have been built into their hearing processes. And I’m not saying that there’s any path that you can follow beyond that, but there is one thing instructive to remember, and that is that if you listen to any decent conductor of any skill whatever, and give him the same material and orchestrate it for him, I will bet you anything that he is not going to stop at the moment of the dominant modulation and go into a whole new tempo. He may soften the strings or change their bowings a little, but he isn’t going to change the tempo.
I wanted to ask about the famous red herring that almost anyone who doesn’t like your playing immediately uses against you — the question of tempo. To me, it seems that the emotional content and structural form of a piece isn’t so much determined by a fast or slow tempo, but rather that, in a qualitative sense, whatever tempo you choose creates, within that tempo field, a certain level of tensions and relationships. So that the tempo appears in a way like a container into which a liquid is poured.
I couldn’t agree more and can’t begin to top that in terms of expressing it so well. The best example of that, if we talk about just the classical literature, is Artur Schnabel. I think that Schnabel, and I’m not exactly saying anything new, was probably the greatest Beethoven player who ever lived. I find myself more genuinely drawn to the essence of Beethoven in Schnabel than I ever have been by anybody. I mean, you may not particularly care for the way he did certain things, but by God, he knew what he was doing, and there is a sense of structure that nobody has ever really caught the way he did in most of the Beethoven things. And this is especially true in the early works, where he does something that I suppose was very revolutionary for the time.
I grew up with the Schnabel records, so it’s hard for me to know what it would have been like if I hadn’t. But the thing about Schnabel is that — and this is in contradistinction to everything that I’ve just argued, because I don’t do this at all… I’m very aware of constant pulse — Schnabel was aware of the pulse of the paragraph. He was certainly aware of the interior pulse as well, but he chose to let it ride through the paragraph, as if he were dictating a letter with a certain series of commas and semicolons, and I don’t think anyone else ever played the piano using that system and bringing it off — other people have tried, but nobody else ever really got it, and he did.
I’m thinking of one gorgeous record opus 2, no. 2, in which you are really just not aware of the bar line, and yet at the same time the structure of the piece could not be more plastic, it’s utterly clear, but there’s no sense of [sings a snappy phrase], which is exactly the way I would play the piece, by the way — I would play with very firm, very tight rhythmic features. He doesn’t, and yet the profile psychologically is so extraordinary that you feel that you’re absolutely floating, through an entire paragraph. But when he gets to the end of that paragraph, you haven’t lost momentum; it’s simply an ability to make moments with a kind of conviction and without any unnecessary emphasis — although sometimes in the later works he starts to get very stridently emphatic, I’m not so convinced by some of the things he does in the last sonatas — but those early ones are just unbelievable, they really are.
As far as I’m concerned, Schnabel could play any of those sonatas fast, slow, middle — it wouldn’t make any difference; as long as he was working from the premise that he was and brought it off as he did, it didn’t really matter. And I would like to think that, similarly, I could… well, as a matter of fact, perversely enough, the two versions of the Mozart C Major Sonata, K. 330, that exist of mine — one is very slow, the one done in 1958 with Haydn, and the other is of course very fast.
Yes, I agree with you about tempo, I’ve never understood why it’s such a big deal, you know. It’s always seemed to me that tempo is a function of so many relatively extraneous things — I mean, for instance, my tempi have noticeably slowed down in the last year, because I’m playing on a piano newly rebuilt, which eventually will assume the characteristics that it had before. I hope and pray, but which at the moment has a heavier action. And if you play with a heavier action, it isn’t just because it takes more effort, it’s because the nature of that action produces a quality of legato which I would frankly like to get rid of — I’d like to get it right back to its nice secco quality that it had before it fell off a truck. But a new piano with new hammers hitting new strings is going to give you innately more legato. Now you can go one of two ways. You can fight it, which I’ve tried to do to some degree. We have a new record coming out of Bach’s first four French Suites [Gould has since recorded an album of the fifth and sixth Suites, and another of Bach’s Partita in B Minor] — in fact it’s the first thing we did make after the piano was restored — and they’re just as deliberate and dry as any Bach I’ve ever done, but they are played more slowly, because one way you can function within a somewhat thicker sound is obviously to slow down. The articulation, if you go at it at the tempo that you might otherwise have done, is going to be less clean. So the instrument determines it, the hall determines it to an extraordinary extent.
Do you consciously, in your own performances, try to comment on other musicians’ interpretations — for instance, playing a Bach fugue intentionally different from the way Landowska or Edwin Fischer do it?
No, I can honestly tell you that… well, I knew most of the Landowska fugues when I was a kid. I know they’ve been reissued but I don’t believe I’ve heard any of them since I was about fifteen, and Edwin Fischer I never knew at all. Rather than the playing of people like that, I was much more familiar when I was growing up with the playing of Rosalyn Tureck, for instance, than I ever was with Landowska. In fact, really I didn’t like Landowska’s playing very much, and I did like Tureck’s enormously — Tureck influenced me.
That’s strange. I’ve found that some of her performances are a bit stiff and artificially terraced.
Well, I think that she and I have very different notions about the music. And I think that what you’ve just said about the strata of things is partly true. But back in the Forties, when I was a teenager, she was the first person who played Bach in what seemed to me a sensible way. In those days, being 14, 15, 16, I was fighting a battle in which I was never going to get a surrender flag from my teacher on the way in which Bach should go, and this was the first evidence that came along that said, “Yeah, you know, that is,” because it was playing of such uprightness, to put it into the moral sphere. There was such a sense of repose, and I don’t mean languor, I mean positiveness — and positiveness even in the liturgical sense — whereas the Bach “specialists,” the people who had really brought him to the attention of the many — Casals and so on, and I speak with reverence about him — but nevertheless Casals and Landowska played with enormous amounts of rubato. In fact, their whole approach is based on the way in which the romantic sensibility could be welded onto the baroque, and I think that’s really what made their playing very attractive to that generation. Not that it wasn’t great playing — it was fantastic playing; perhaps, as playing, better than the people we’ve been talking about — but nevertheless it, to me, was not really Bach.
Casals has a moment in a documentary I’ve been working on — it’s a line that he always uses, and he used it again with me — in which he talks about the fact that his playing was only regarded as revolutionary in terms of the Bach Suites, because “the Germans…” (I’m sorry [laughing], I’m good at voices but I always fail with Casals, I can’t get it — it isn’t a Spanish accent and I want to go into Jose Jimenez, and it isn’t that — I don’t know what it is). But anyway he talks about the fact that it was the Germans who didn’t understand him and didn’t understand Bach and so forth and so on — they didn’t understand that Bach was a human being, and this was one of his standard lines. But I don’t agree with it, because — well, I don’t know how you feel, but to me the most interesting, or indeed the only convincing, Bach orchestral performances that I know of on records have come out of Germany — notably Karl Richter’s.
But to me, Tureck was as illuminating in terms of the way in which the piano could be used as a vehicle for Bach as I would think the original recordings that Munchinger made of the Brandenburgs must have been immediately after the war. I’m sure this was true for most people of my generation — you were coming out of a conservatory system which put a premium on expressivity, wanted or not. There was something cultivated and cultured about producing a langueur, and there were limits of permissibility. For instance, in playing Chopin — which I was never deemed to be able to do and for that reason had great fun a couple of years ago when I played the B Minor Sonata on CBC, which is the only big Chopin piece I like — I like the miniature things but I don’t like the sonatas much. That is, I sort of like the first movement of the B Minor and played it just for the hell of it. In any event, as a kid, of course, I had to play Chopin, it was de rigueur, and I was always informed that I forgot about such things as de-emphasizing the top note in an upward-bound progression, much as a singer would do, because of Chopin’s vocalise, and all this sort of stuff. I mean, there were certain conventions of expressiveness that were supposed to be there, and at the same time it wasn’t considered in good taste if those conventions were turned on their head and new conventions emerged from them or against them — that was not in good taste. Above all, it was important that one find some sort of 1945 Zeitgeist, and apply it to everything. To play Bach with no pedal at all was just not done. And the models for the teachers of that generation certainly were probably Casals and Landowska and Fischer. None of those people influenced me in the least, and the first one who really did was Tureck.
I hear you’re going to record your own transcription of Wagner’s “Meistersinger” this weekend? How many records is that going to take?
Oh, no, not the whole opera [laughing], just the Prologue…. The four more or less standard records coming out soon are Hindemith’s Three Sonatas, the fourth Mozart, the Bach French Suites, and — what am I leaving out — Beethoven’s opus 31. And then, as the kicker, we decided that we had to do something a little odd, so a glance was cast nostalgically back to the days of the secret project known as “BL-5,” which came out five years ago, the Liszt transcription of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony — it was referred to as BL-5 around the company for a while. And temporarily we thought of BL-6 — the Pastoral — which I have played on the CBC, but BL-6 is not nearly as interesting, it’s not as interesting a transcription in many ways. And at this point I said — you know, I’ve always sort of sat down at night and played Wagner myself, because I’m a total Wagnerite, at least of the later things, and I thought it would be fun to make my own transcriptions, but this time not to do what Liszt does, which is to be very faithful and honorable, but to go really, if not all the way, quite a long way, toward a realization rather than a transcription. So they gave it the green light, and the album will consist of the Meistersinger Prelude, which will probably open it, followed by Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, and on the flip side the most Germanic (and for “Germanic” read “slowest”) performance of Siegfried Idyll, like — God, what’s the name of that man? Knappertsbusch — which fits the piano… well, can be made to fit the piano, rather as if it had been thought of by Scriabin in his earliest years.
It is inherently pianistic — I always thought it would be. I wondered at first about the advisability of a piece that had so much repetition, that was so given to sequences of [sings] four bars of that, and then [sings again] four bars of that, but I found that it could be done by changing the emphasis, the accents on one voice or another. And I’ve sort of developed a thesis about transcription. The whole area is one that really irritated me before, because as a kid everybody was sort of playing the Bach-Liszt or Bach-Tausig or Bach-Busoni or Bach-some-thing-or-other, and I never did, I didn’t like them, and I played those things on the organ, and they sounded much better that way.
The Liszt transcriptions, whether of Beethoven or Wagner, tend to be relentlessly faithful, in that if the texture orchestrally is thick, he will reproduce a thickness on the piano, and of course a thickness on the piano doesn’t sound good, let’s face it. If the drum roll goes on for sixteen bars, there will be a tremolando of sixteen bars in the lower octaves of the piano, which is muddy as hell. Now, there are certain places where the drum is a theatrical instrument, as in the beginning of the Rhine Journey, where you just can’t avoid it. But apart from such moments I took a solemn oath that there wouldn’t be anything other than the occasional wham! from the tympani, and nothing else, that I would try to recreate the thing as though somebody like Scriabin, who really knew something about the piano, as Wagner did not, had had a hand in it.
The Meistersinger is not a problem because it’s so contrapuntal that it plays itself, although I must say it’s the only place where I’m going to have to cheat, because I’m going to have to put earphones on for the last three minutes, for the place where he brings back all the themes, and you have to play it four hands. It’s a piece that I’ve played just as a party piece all my life, and you can get through the first seven minutes fine, and then you say, “OK, which themes are we leaving out tonight?” — there’s just no way. So I will do it as an overdub. I’ve already played the Siegfried Idyll on the CBC as a kind of tryout, so I know that it works, and what I did was to widen the sound — and here we come back to the notions of breaking chords. But I went much farther than that. I took the position that one of the things that goes wrong when you transcribe a work faithfully for orchestra, especially a work that has a predominant string texture, as the Siegfried Idyll does, is that the doubling of contrabass and cello should be either as an intermittent feature or one which is used to widen the spectrum of sound without reinforcing the percussiveness of the sound, as indeed it does in the orchestra. So what I did, except in the biggest climaxes, throughout the entire Siegfried Idyll the contrabass always enters on the off beat, much as the tympani in Sibelius’s symphonies tend to come in more often than not just before the beat or just after the beat — as sort of counterattractive phenomena. But that was the sort of prototype for several other little inventions along the way, one of which was that whenever Wagner sits for six bars on an E major chord, as he does only too often in that piece, well, there’s no way you can keep the activity going. Now what Liszt usually does in a case like that is to fall back on a tremolando, which is just so turn-of-the-century I can’t stand it. So what I did — and if you think my Mozart sonatas upset people, wait till the Wagnerians get hold of this — what I did was to invent whole other voices that aren’t anywhere in the score, except that they are convincingly Wagnerian. For instance, there’s a moment quite near the beginning of the Siegfried Idyll where an F sharp major chord is held for four bars, and over it the violin has the figure [sings]. Now, I just sang it at about twice the tempo at which it is normally played, and if you really imagine that double time on the piano, by the time you finish doing that, the lower notes are gone practically. You can reinforce it, you can hit it again. But I chose not to, and what I did was to invent a dialog between two offstage horns, one in the tenor and one in the alto, that try to mimic each other [sings the two horns], and they go on like this among themselves, and it’s gorgeous… forgive me for saying so, but it sounds gorgeous!
[We hung up on this ecstatic note. A week later Glenn Gould called me to continue and finish up the interview. In the concluding section in the next issue Gould discusses his experiments with quadraphonic sound, his self-interviews and alter egos, McLuhan and the radio, Gould’s thoughts on solitude, reflections on Strindberg and the relative merits of Petula Clark and the Beatles.]