034: Glenn Gould: Remixing the Classics
January 19, 2017
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Thirty-four years after his death, Glenn Gould's extensive catalogue of recordings, and the bold artistic vision behind them continue to resonate with music fans the world over. His irreverent interpretations of piano repertoire and perplexing idiosyncrasies have become the stuff of legend. In this episode we speak with Kevin Bazzana, author of the award-winning biography Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. He tells us about Gould's extraordinary career in music and the surprising secrets revealed to him about Gould's private life while conducting research at Library and Archives Canada.
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Glenn Gould: Remixing the Classics
Geneviève Morin: Welcome to "Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage." I'm your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada's documentary heritage.
Thirty-four years after his death, Glenn Gould's extensive catalogue of recordings, and the bold artistic vision behind them continue to resonate with music fans the world over. His irreverent interpretations of piano repertoire and perplexing idiosyncrasies have become the stuff of legend. In this episode we speak to Kevin Bazzana, author of the award-winning biography Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. He tells us about Gould's extraordinary career in music and the surprising secrets revealed to him about Gould's private life while conducting research at Library and Archives Canada.
Many of you will recognize this as the opening aria of Glenn Gould's revered 1955 Columbia Records recording of the Goldberg variations by Johann Sebastian Bach. The recording brought Gould instant international acclaim and has become one of the best-selling classical recordings of all-time. In order to gain a deeper insight into the man behind the myth we spoke with Gould authority Kevin Bazzana. We reached him at his home in Brentwood Bay, British Columbia.
Hello Kevin, welcome to Library and Archives Canada's podcast.
Kevin Bazzana: Hi, thanks for having me.
GM: How did you become interested in Glenn Gould?
KB: I became interested because I've always had a particular interest in interpretation; musical interpretation has always been where my musical interest has leaned and so when you're interested in what performers do and what they do with a composer's work, you sort of naturally get drawn to the ones who do things in the most distinctive way, the most individual way. So I've always been drawn to some of the great old romantic conductors and turn of the century pianists from the early days of recording, the ones that play things with a great deal of individuality. And there were never many performers like that from the modern era except for very few and Glenn Gould was one of them and very strikingly so. It's hard to really think of anyone who is quite that individual as an interpreter and so if you're interested in performance issues, that's someone you're going to be drawn to again and again and again. It's not surprising that the Glenn Gould industry continues after his death, because it's hard to imagine there's ever going to be a time when he doesn't sound strange and unusual and distinctive. I don't ever think that the way he played and the way he thought is ever going to become the norm in classical music, so I think he's always going to stand out. I wouldn't be surprised if he's one of the few performers from our era that people keep listening to a hundred years from now or whenever.
GM: Well it's funny you're bringing that up because as I was preparing for the interview, I was trying to figure if we have any contemporaries today who could even be somewhat similar to Gould. I was having a lot of trouble even finding someone who could be close to it.
KB: It would be hard for me to think, even today, of a comparable figure. Maybe that's one of the reasons that, even though he's long gone, people keep turning to him when they want that particular kind of encounter with some highly individual performer. And it has to be said that the usual pattern for a classical musician is not for him to become more popular after he dies. There have been some very great performers who don't really survive their death to a great degree you know, they have a great audience as long as they're around to continue to generate new work and new publicity, but interest in them declines after they die. There are very few people like Gould. There's Leonard Bernstein, there's Horowitz, there are a few others, but this kind of posthumous industry is really not the norm and I think it has something to do with just how strikingly unusual a figure he was and always will be. New generations come along and yet Glenn Gould is still the strangest and the most individual sounding performer no matter how many new ones comes along, so I think that explains in part the reason why his recordings, for instance, are all still in print, and always have been and probably always will be.
GM: Do you think it's also the fact that he was so consistent in his imaginative interpretations?
KB: That could be! That consistency of vision was part of his philosophy because he tended not to record anything unless he had something to say about it that was highly individual. He didn't think there was any point to just playing something again in front of the microphones if you didn't have anything more to say about it than what was already in the catalogues. This is even more true today than it was in his day and even in his day, all of the standard repertoire had already been recorded again and again and again. That was something he was quite explicit about in interviews. He would say, why should I record this piece if I don't […]. There was occasionally something. He would commit to recording all of the sonatas of Mozart or all the keyboard music of Bach or whatever so there would be the odd piece that he may not have had a particular passion for. But there are also some interesting gaps in his repertoire that might be explained by this philosophy of his. I mean I've always wondered why he didn't record more Haydn; he wanted to record all the Haydn sonatas…
KB: … which he loved, he loved them in a way that he didn't love the Mozart sonatas. I often wondered why didn't he ever really get around to recording Haydn rather than Mozart and I think it may have been that though he liked the pieces more, he may not necessarily have had anything particularly individual to say about them, which he certainly did with Mozart. The Mozart project was not just undertaken because he wanted to play those pieces, but because he wanted to comment in some way on what he thought was an incorrect performance tradition or he wanted to position himself relative to the sort of performance clichés about Mozart. I think with Haydn, I don't think that same kind of attitude would have been relevant, which is maybe why he spent so much time with Mozart and so little time with Haydn. There are other cases in his repertoire pieces that he really, really loved but never got around to recording and I think it may just be because it wasn't enough for him to just like the music, he had to actually have something to say that was his own, that was individual, that made it worthwhile for him to record it.
GM: Can we call this artistic modesty? If I can't contribute anything, I won't gunk up the repertoire. Gunk up is an academic term of course.
KB: I suppose. It's an awareness of the context in which he's working and it very much comes from him thinking of himself as a recording artist rather than a concert artist. A concert artist who plays the standard repertoire is constantly going over the same ground again and again and again…
KB: … and usually going over ground that's familiar. There aren't a lot of performers that spend a lot of time playing a lot of really unconventional repertoire. You just can't make a career that way, for the most part. Whereas Gould thought of himself as undertaking one thing, finishing that thing and moving on to something else and not returning to the original project, except in a few rare cases where he would record something twice. But, for the most part, he really thought of himself as […] This attitude towards recording that he had. It's almost like a compositional attitude, he thinks of himself as a creator, not as someone who's endlessly recreating pieces over and over again, in front of different audiences. But he almost thinks of himself as sort of composing with someone else's music, you know, taking a piece, making his own individual statement about it, almost sort of creating a second layer of composition on top of the composition. Using his interpretation to create something new that's of permanent value and individual and relevant only to his vision and then moving on to something else. So it's almost like a composerly vision of the performer's job.
GM: Is this the main reason why people find Gould fascinating? Are there other things that will draw people into the Gould fold?
KB: Well, whenever lists are made of great pianists, he'll always be high on the list. So there'll always be that, and there'll always be the distinctiveness of the product. And of course, the whole eccentric personality thing, I mean that's very attractive. A lot of people find him a sort of loveable character, which I can see.
KB: I think there's also the fact that he did have a sort of vision of things that went far beyond just playing the piano or even just making music. I mean, everything he did at the piano seemed to be sort of part of a larger vision of life, you know, how to live, an ethics, sort of whole philosophy of life that was very consistent in many ways. There was a sort of consistency to every aspect of his work. You look at his ideas about life, his ideas about ethics, his ideas about social and political things. And then you look at his personality and his temperament. And you look at his favourite composers. And you look at the way he played the piano. And the kind of pieces he liked and didn't like. It all kind of fits together in a way that suggests a whole sort of vision. I think that's one of the things that people are attracted to, it's not just a guy playing the piano, it's not just another guy playing the Mozart sonatas. You're getting a whole sort of vision. I mean that's sort of true by definition whenever you hear anyone play anything. But with Gould, it was all very self-conscious and it was all sort of worked out. These are the things he discussed in interviews and discussed in articles and so on. You get sort of a breadth of vision with him, which makes the music-making part of a larger project. This isn't even just me talking; I've heard this from a lot of people. I've heard this from a lot of Gould fans who are captivated by his playing, but one of the reason that they sort of stick around and become heavily invested in him is that they are attracted by this larger vision of, I guess, life. And you get a sense that Gould was not the kind of performer whose whole life was sitting in the practice room, practicing trills. I guess it helped that for him that sort of thing came easily and seemed to be very natural, but he did not really want to be a piano machine, his whole life sort of endlessly at the keyboard. He really had higher ambitions shall we say, and really saw his piano playing as a reflection of a larger vision. And so when he was playing the piano, he wasn't just playing a piece, he was sort of discoursing on his ideas about life and philosophy and so forth. And he really did think that way, I mean it was explicit in the things he talked about and the things he wrote about. He really saw himself as doing more than just playing pieces. I think that's one of the reasons his interpretations were so individual. It's that he was not one of these performers who is interested only in sort of being a mirror that reflects the composer's vision, but he had this really sort of fundamentally romantic idea that when I play a piece of music, I want you to hear what I have to say. And this is one of the things that so many critics and other musicians and so forth often railed against. They would condemn him by saying, you know, when your hear Glenn Gould playing, you're not hearing Bach; you're hearing Glenn Gould's ideas about Bach. Well, yeah, that was just his basic premise. For him, that was the whole reason for playing something, to tell you what he thought about this music, otherwise, what was the point? You could read the score and listen to any one of a hundred other recordings.
GM: That was going to be my next question is how were so many people critical of this approach, because there were wildly divergent views on his interpretations.
KB: There were, and it has to be said that from this point of view, like from a critical point of view, he came along at probably just about the worst time in music history for someone to take this approach to music. The years in which he started to become a public figure in the mid-20th century were sort of the high-water mark years for what you might call a high modernist approach to music where the composer's text was paramount. This was the era when, you know, everyone who took piano lessons was taught to do what the composer said and to add nothing and change nothing. This is the era when a sort of literalistic approach to performance was sort of in the ascendency, and the way people had performed a few generations previously was regarded with hostility and suspicion. This idea that you should use the composer's score as sort of a springboard for your own personality, your own ideas, that was now sort of considered to be the way people played in the bad old days.
KB: So when Gould came along and started turning things upside down, it was at a time when that was just considered to be outrageous, scandalous, unethical even. I mean it's amazing the way people used to talk about performers having sort of a moral obligation to play what's written and only what's written and so forth.
And so the great period for this literalistic approach to music really started after the Second World War, and so Gould came along right at that time. I mean, you know we don't really associate him so much with romantic music but in some ways, his allegiances were with the old romantic performers, the ones who really imposed their personalities onto the music they played.
So when he talked about favourite performers of his, it was never the strict, objective, rigid literalistic kinds of performers. He always talked about old characters from previous generations like Stokowski and Furtwängler and all of these sorts of performers who were kind of discredited in the middle part of the 20th century. You used to hear all sorts of wild and crazy personal interpretations of music in the earliest days of recording. So, you know, in 1900, 1910 and 1920, you'd be hearing recordings of pianists who grew up in the 19th century, and their playing, you know, is unbelievably individualistic. But by the middle of the 20th century, that kind of playing had all been discredited and those old recording were considered relics of the bad old days that had nothing to teach any sort of modern performer.
So when Gould came along with this highly individual and, some would say, disrespectful approach to performing, it really rattled a lot of people. This has all loosened up in recent years; this sort of high modernist, literalistic, craziness from the later 20th century has kind of loosened up lately. So if anything, we're more receptive to someone like Gould today than we were during his heyday.
GM: Was this harmful to the possibilities for collaboration? Did people refuse to work with Gould because of this approach he had?
KB: Well, there were a few people who were kind of rubbed the wrong way by him. There were a few conductors that he didn't seem to get along with. There was a certain kind of conductor that he didn't really like, you know, the real kind of strict martinet kind of conductor. He never played with the Chicago Symphony for instance…
KB: … and I think the reason for that is that it was conducted by Fritz Reiner and I think that's the kind of conductor that he instinctively, you know, the kind of brutally disciplinarian kind of conductor that he just didn't like. He didn't get along with George Szell for instance, they played together once and that was the end of that.
But you know, I kind of had the idea when I was first writing my biography of him that he had sort of gone through his career in this blaze of negative criticism and arousing hostility wherever he went, and this kind of thing. There is kind of a legend about him along those lines. But if you actually listen to what other musicians said about him and you actually read the reviews and so forth that were written of him, there actually isn't a lot of that hostility, not as much as you might think. What's remarkable was that a lot of the musicians, including some of the older generation of musicians, who you would think would be sort of outraged by him or at least, I don't know, not know what to do with a figure like him, were unbelievably impressed by him. I mean people like Bruno Walter and Stokowski and these revered old figures, they were just blown away by Gould. Bruno Walter thought he was a genius, even though he didn't actually like the way he played. I mean, isn't that a remarkable statement.
GM: Was there similar recognition, in terms of Glenn Gould sort of, in his work, in terms of sort of pushing the boundaries in the studio, where he was doing the musical reinterpretations, but he also later in life sort of started being almost, he's been coined as being a visionary in sort of the manipulation of the sound afterwards?
KB: Oh yes, Gould was one of the handful of most important classical figures when it comes to thinking of recording as an actual art form, rather than just as a way of documenting your ideas about a piece that you play in concerts, and as a way of creating an audience for your concerts. Gould was one of very few classical musicians who has really thought of recording as an art form. And it has to be said that the things that he was talking about and advocating, both in terms of philosophy of recording and actual recording techniques, were not outrageous in his day from the standpoint of something like popular music or rock music. They were just outrageous because he was bringing those ideas into a classical context and frankly, half a century later, those ideas are still outrageous. It's still very difficult to find classical performers who think of recording as a real art form.
Classical performers are, by and large, concert performers who think of recording as a way of permanently documenting their ideas about a piece but don't really think of recording itself as being a separate art form. The conservatism of the typical classical music performer is quite surprising and it hasn't changed much since Gould's day, which is why, you know, here we are, what, 30 years into the digital era, and we're still talking about Gould as a visionary because there's still almost no one who thinks the way he does when it comes to recording. And it also has to be said that it's hard to think of another classical performer who's just stopped giving concerts in favour of recording. It just doesn't happen. For one thing, you can't make money that way.
That was true in Gould's day too. I mean, he took a definite financial hit by stopping giving concerts, there's no question about that. There were really very few precedents when he did it and it's hard to think of […]. I mean, you know, occasionally someone is injured or is too old to play or something and has to stop. But in terms of people sort of just deciding to give up concerts in favour of recording, well it didn't happen in his day and it still doesn't happen today.
GM: Could it be because the origins of most classical music, not counting sort of 20th century music, was composed for live performance?
KB: Well, actually, the repertoire that we think of as concert music is not as big as we think. I mean, there are people who go around the world playing Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier for instance, and you know, not by any stretch of the imagination could that be considered concert music. It was never intended to be performed for any audience of any size, anywhere. Mozart sonatas were not really concert music; they were mostly intended for a domestic market. You wouldn't have gone to concerts in Beethoven's day expecting to hear piano sonatas by Beethoven. Even Chopin, you know, didn't like playing in big halls for large audiences. He tended to play in small halls for invited audiences. The amount of music that was actually written to be played in big halls, live, for large audiences is rather small and limited to a pretty small sort of historical period.
That was actually one of Gould's arguments about recording and concerts, he said, "A lot of what pianists do is they go around in big concert halls playing music that was never intended to be played there and is consequently distorted by being played there".
And he did have sort of a point about that. I recall reading that he played the Goldberg variations once, I think in an arena that sat something like seven thousand people.
GM: Oh dear.
KB: And I think it was sold out.
KB: I can't imagine someone playing Bach in an arena for seven thousand people.
GM: The sound must have been cavernous.
KB: I have no idea. But I mean, you know, obviously he could do it because he would play there and everyone would think it was great. So, I mean, it's not as though he couldn't pull it off, but I think he was right to think that that's an absurd way to listen to repertoire like that. Repertoire that wasn't intended to be performed anywhere for anyone, it was intended for you to play by yourself on your harpsichord.
GM: What did Glenn Gould contribute to the music of today? I'm thinking of his influences on electronic music or actually using the recording studio as a tool.
KB: Well the funny thing about Gould's influence as a recording artist is that everyone talks about it but in the world in which he worked, the classical music world; it's hard to see much of an influence. Because, again, the conservatism of most classical performers is such that they don't see recording as an actual medium with its own validity. They think of themselves primarily as concert performers who use the recording studio to further their careers and to document their performances, but not as a place to actually do creative work that you can only do in the recording studio. Which is why people still talk about him almost as though the ideas that he talked about were ideas about the future. When he talked about audiences remixing music at home and audiences putting together their own recordings from a set of takes or something like this, assembling these recording kits that he talked about in the 60s, it sounded like he was talking about some place in the far future. Well today, it still sounds like he's talking about some place in the far future because people in other genres do this. Pop people do this. Film aficionados do this. They make their own digital re-edits of their favourite Star Wars film and take out the characters they don't like. But nobody in classical music does this. It seems to be permanently locked into the concert paradigm. That seems to be inescapable.
I mean, technology has obviously improved. Classical recordings sound great and are put together with great precision and, you know, a lot of technological sophistication goes into them. But you don't find very many classical artists playing with the technology the way Gould did, playing with acoustic effects, and that sort of thing. Or building an interpretation in post-production so to speak, the way a moviemaker will look at what he's filmed and realize that he's got a different movie from the one he thought he was filming. I mean this has happened a lot in the history of film, you film one movie and you go into the editing studio and you realize as you move things around and cut things and put things back in that you have a different movie than the one you thought you did. Well that's actually what Gould did in the editing booth. He would realize that he had interpretative possibilities that he hadn't thought of when he was actually making the recording. It's hard to think of any other classical performers today who think that way about recording. Probably in large part because they spend most of their time giving concerts. It's still the only way to really become a famous performer and have a career and make money.
GM: This kind of brings us to this quote that we found from Nicolas Godin who's from the electro pop outfit Air. He recently released an album influenced by Gould's interpretations of Bach and he says that "Glenn Gould was the best of both worlds, the energy of rock and roll and the knowledge of the classics." This is pretty accurate if we're considering what you're telling us about Gould's innovations in the studio.
KB: That's right! Gould's innovations were, in a lot of respects, really only innovations because he brought them over into the classical world. The things that were being done on Beatles recordings in the 60s were far more involved and outrageous than what Gould was doing. But any kind of tinkering and creative play in the recording studio was considered outrageous by classical standards. In fact, with classical music it's all bound up with ideas about morality really, because classical musicians have always considered recording techniques as cheating. You know, you're supposed to sit down and play the piece from beginning to end, and anything else is considered cheating. And you know, as Gould liked to point out, that's just applying the wrong kind of thinking to the medium. I mean, that's just like saying, that you should film a movie from beginning to end with no cuts, it doesn't make any sense. You know, you don't take the standards of the live theatre and make movies that way, that's just not how the medium works.
There have been very few classical musicians who've been able to see the recording medium that way, as having its own sort of integrity. They always bring the classical concert paradigm into their work. And so in that respect, Gould was a lot more like the pop musicians of his day. He hated pop music; let's get that on the record. So you know, I'm not sure he'd be interested in listening to anybody's rock mash-ups of his Bach recordings. And I can listen to no more than about five seconds of any of them myself. But I don't think that he would object to the principal involved, which is, you know, taking somebody else's art form and making something, making new art by manipulating it in creative ways. That's sort of what he did, even as a pianist, I mean he sometimes played so much in a creative way with the music that he played that it almost amounted to rewriting the pieces.
GM: When you were doing research for your books, how much of this information were you able to glean through LAC's collections? How helpful were we in sort of helping to establish this portrait of Gould's world and his contemporaries?
KB: The LAC collection is absolutely indispensable to writing about Gould because the Gould estate did a great thing when he died, which is to keep the collection together…I suppose they could have probably made a fortune if they had a huge auction and sold all this stuff to collectors all over the world. But by keeping what Gould himself had when he died, keeping that all together and putting it in one place, that was just magnificent because that assures that for the rest of eternity 90% of what you need to really study Gould's life and work is there in one place. Gould was a pack rat, which means that he made recordings of a lot of his concerts and broadcasts; he kept all of those. He kept concert programs. He clipped out reviews and kept the reviews. He kept copies of his own work, all the drafts of his own work. He kept copies of every aspect of his work. He kept his old private notepads. He kept all his letters, the ones he sent as well as the ones he received. He kept books and records. And he kept all of his phone bills and his prescription receipts, and he just kept everything. Which is odd for such a private person who would've been mortified to have people like me rifling through all this stuff and writing about it. But he kept it all and the Gould Estate kept it together and put it in the LAC. It's indispensable; I mean, it was the vast majority of what I did was trolling through all that stuff in the LAC. And augmented to some degree by outside research, there are gaps, you know, there are concerts for which Gould didn't keep the program and that kind of thing for whatever reason. I really appreciate this because the book I wrote after the biography of Gould was a biography of another pianist, who was not well known, who had a very spotty career and was lost to posterity for many years. And to write about him required getting bits and pieces of information from this source and that source and that source and that source, all over the world, in little dribs and drabs, year after year after year of this painful detective work. Whereas because of the LAC collection, anyone who wants to study Gould has almost everything they need, right there in one place, both for the public Gould and the private Gould, every aspect of his work, every aspect of his private life.
GM: I was going to ask you, if the phone bills and all the little dribs and drabs in the Gould fonds, had sometimes made it feel overwhelming to do the research, but if I consider your following project, you must have missed a little bit of the abundance.
KB: Anyone who lives even just the 50 years that Gould lived and has a public career, you know, it's a mountain of stuff. The question is, is the mountain all in one place or do you have to create the mountain by assembling all the bits and pieces from all over the place. That's how a lot of biographers have to do their work, being able to sort of find so much all in one place; I mean there's a lot of it. I remember looking at Gould's private notepads, you know, these legal pads that he kept on his desk all the time, where he jotted down his day-to-day business. I looked through every single page of those, and yes, it does seem overwhelming because of the sheer quantity of it. But what was involved for me to do that was simply to take a microfilm reel from the LAC and stick it on the machine, wheel my way through it and rewind it and put the next one and wheel my way through it. I mean you know, it was hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages but it was as convenient as hundreds of pages could be. Imagine if I'd had to track down all those note pads from private collectors all over the world who'd bought them at auctions after Gould died, it would be a nightmare. There wouldn't be biographies of Gould yet, I don't think, if we'd had to assemble the information that way.
GM: So it was a one-stop shop. That was convenient.
KB: It is. Something like that is so convenient that it can lull you into thinking that it's complete, which it's not. It's incomplete sometimes in interesting ways, like for instance, we know for instance about Gould's private life, we know that he had relationships with women over the years, including this one particular woman, who essentially left her husband and moved to Toronto for a few years to be with him. That relationship is practically, completely undocumented in his papers, which is very interesting. But then, you know, my relationship with my wife is undocumented in my papers. Why? Because she lives in the house. You know, I talk to her; I don't have to write her a letter. So it's that kind of thing, you know. His relationship with his parents is almost completely undocumented in his papers, at least his adult relationship, because he would just call them or see them or whatever. So there are no letters or there are a few to his father towards the end but there's no letters to his mother, that kind of thing. They would just talk on the phone or he'd go over to the house. So there's things like that, that aren't in the collection, just because, just by the nature of the information. But we've been lucky enough to be able to track down information like that through other sources. But the LAC collection is going be the foundation for anyone who, I think, does any kind of serious research on Gould.
GM: So Gould did keep some mysteries to himself. Were there things in the fond that did surprise you, that you hadn't expected?
KB: Well, there are the private notepads for instance, revealed Gould in a way that we're not accustomed to thinking of him, if you only know sort of the Gould of legend. There are some sort of confessional documents in those private notepads. There's a period in 1980 for a few months where he kept a diary, that's kind of interesting. There are some really private documents in which he was dealing with some conflicts involving his father and his father's remarriage. There are cases where he jotted down what seems to be sort of notes he was taking while talking to his cousin about family matters. There are some documents that almost seem like him preparing for an unpleasant conversation with someone, like almost sort of planning out how he hopes the conversation will go. There are so many medical documents in the LAC. A lot of the Gould legends are exaggerated but his hypochondria was no legend. That is really well documented in his papers to an extraordinary and kind of intimate degree that he'd probably be mortified that we're looking at his old medical notes, but he kept them all. So there's a lot that's very private, that's a little bit surprising there, in terms of the personal documents.
GM: So despite the fact that he was a very, very private person in life, we have access to a little bit more about his personal life after his passing.
KB: Oh, a lot more, especially because he died so young. Scholars and fans and so forth have had a lot of access over the years to people who knew him personally, you know, friends, colleagues, fellow musicians and so forth. That's been a rich trove of material as well. But, you know, to look through his private papers is to see aspects of him that probably few or possibly even none of these friends even knew about. I mean, I don't suppose that friends of his were allowed to sit at his desk and rifle through his private documents but that's precisely what you can do now. There are things, I think, that I know just from looking through his most private papers that would probably be news to some of his closest friends.
GM: That's quite an honour isn't it?
KB: Well I don't know, I mean, like I say, Gould would be mortified to know this I'm sure.
GM: I'm sure you've sworn yourself to secrecy though. On some bits.
KB: The only thing, in my own biographical research, I occasionally would find things in Gould's private papers that reflect on people who are still alive. There are things here and there where Gould says something about a friend of his or a colleague of his that I think the friend or colleague would not be happy to hear! [Laughs] I didn't put any of those in my book. I don't want to embarrass anyone who's alive. But, you know, there are things in the LAC collection that are sort of precious insights that probably no one who knew Gould personally even is aware of.
GM: Were you able to gain some insight on what he was working on at the time of his death? He passed away very young, he was 50 years old…
KB: Yes. The private papers from the last five or ten years of Gould's life are particularly interesting because there's a sense around the mid 40s, the last sort of five years of his life, where he seems to be taking stock to some degree. He often said that he didn't plan to play the piano much after the age of 50 and actually, everything I read in his documents seems to kind of confirm that. When he died, he had very solid plans for making recordings as a conductor. And in fact, he had actually booked recording sessions to record two pieces by Beethoven and Mendelssohn, two overtures. He had hired the orchestra and booked the session and they had the dates. And there are relatively few plans for piano recordings after that period, but very ambitious plans for working as a conductor.
There's also, from the mid 70s, there's a series of documents where he writes down all of the articles he had written over the years and organizes them by subject and writes down how long they are. Because it looks as though he had had various offers over the years to publish collections of his writings as a book and it looks as though he was planning to sort of collect his writings and maybe write about some things that he'd always been passionate about that he hadn't written about before. Maybe fill in some gaps and, you know, kind of put together a literary project of that sort. There are various projects from his last years where he seems to be taking stock of his career and bringing certain aspects of his career to a close and moving on to new things. That was particularly interesting, a lot of the stuff is…well it's kind of mouth-watering because he'll write down lists of things he's thinking about recording and you just think, "oh my goodness, if only he had lived to record, you know, x and y and z." But, you know, there are also a lot of contradictions. I mean, he'd talk about retiring but then he'd write down lots and lots of names of piano pieces that he might like to record. So it's hard to know exactly what was a serious plan and what was, you know, just a passing fancy. But it was clear that even if he had lived, the period around age 50 would have been a transitional period. It's clear that his days as a pianist were kind of winding down and he was taking off into other ventures.
GM: As you say, the "what if" is quite gripping, to imagine him at the helm of an orchestra…
KB: Well it's extraordinary to think of him, you know, spending another ten years in the studio recording orchestral literature. Because from the few snippets that we have, it's obvious that his ideas about the orchestral literature were just as outrageous as his ideas about piano literature. So we would have heard Beethoven symphonies and Brandenburg concertos and Brahms symphonies or whatever, in interpretations that would have been unlike anything we'd ever heard before.
GM: Indeed, mouth-watering.
GM: Considering everything we've discussed, what do you think are the most important aspects of Glenn Gould's legacy?
KB: Well obviously, I mean, although he didn't like to think of himself as just a pianist, obviously, that body of piano recordings is going to be his greatest legacy. I really think that those will be listened to as long as anyone listens to anything when it comes to classical music because I don't think there'll ever be a period when they don't sound like great piano playing and don't sound like highly individual interpretations and don't sound like great examples of recording as an art form. But I think the idea of him being a thinking performer, you know, for whom performing was just one aspect of a whole philosophy of life. I think that's going to be sort of a permanent inspiration for a lot of people too, and the very outrageousness of some of his performances, even for people who don't agree with those particular interpretations, I think they're always going to be inspiring to future performers who are sort of grappling in their own way, especially with the standard repertoire. Because remember, with every passing generation, the standard repertoire becomes more and more standard. It becomes older and more entrenched and more familiar and there are more recordings of it. And so, as time passes, I think someone like Gould will, if anything, be more and more of an inspiration because in the future we're going to need, there's going to be a greater need for someone who suggests a new and individual way through this highly familiar repertoire. And I suppose he'll always be an inspiration in terms of the recording medium. He really still sounds like a visionary even though his ideas are half a century old now. The classical music world would have to become a lot less conservative before Gould's ideas would stop sounding visionary. So, I think as long as anyone's interested in classical performers, there will always be an audience for Gould.
GM: To learn more about Glenn Gould resources available at Library and Archives Canada, please visit the episode page for this podcast at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts. Here you will find a number of links related to the life and legacy of Glenn Gould.
To view images associated with this podcast, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album (external link) on the episode page for this podcast. And if you liked this episode, we invite you to subscribe to the podcast. You can do it through iTunes (external link), Google Play (external link) or the RSS feed (external link) located on our website.
Thank you for joining us. I'm your host Genevieve Morin. You've been listening to "Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you". A special thanks to our guest today, Kevin Bazzana. We would also like to thank the Estate of Glenn Gould for the use of some of the audio clips you heard in this episode.
For more information about our podcasts, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.
Goldberg variations BWV 988 (1955) / J.S. Bach
Glenn Gould, piano
Recorded June 10, 14-16, 1955
Sony Classical 88697147452
Interview with Andrew Marshall about recording techniques
From the Masters, recorded on May 7, 1978
Glenn Gould fonds. Courtesy of the Estate of Glenn Gould
Leonard Bernstein comments
Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 / Johannes Brahms
Glenn Gould, piano
Leonard Bernstein, conductor
Glenn Gould fonds. Courtesy of the Estate of Glenn Gould
Contrepoint / Nicolas Godin
Because Music, 2015
Website: http://www.nicolasgodin.com/ (external link)
Piano sonatas (outtakes)
Sonata no.62 in E flat major / Franz Josef Haydn
Glenn Gould, piano
Recorded Feb 24, 1981
Glenn Gould fonds. Courtesy of the Estate of Glenn Gould