I stumbled across an article touting this video of Glenn Gould playing his last studio recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which wiki tells us is “considered to be one of the most important examples of variation form.” I am not a student of the fine arts so the name didn’t ring a bell. (Back to the Open Culture article):
Without a doubt the most celebrated pianist of the twentieth century, and perhaps the greatest interpreter of Bach’s keyboard compositions, the eccentric genius Gould famously opened and closed his career with the Goldberg Variations, Bach’s “annoyingly unimpeachable” (in [pianist Jeremy] Denk’s words) Baroque piece, written originally for the harpsichord.
But as I was reading, I realized I knew who this most famous of the famous musicians was, I had seen his biography on American Masters, Glenn Gould: Genius.
Gould was an only child born in Canada in 1932. His parents were both musical, as a matter of fact his mother’s maiden name was Grieg, she was distantly related to Edvard Grieg. She played music to her baby as he was developing in her womb and he come out a musical prodigy, a notably quirky musical prodigy. He would become a virtuoso. “As a baby, he reportedly hummed instead of crying and wiggled his fingers as if playing chords.” Here he describes how he felt coming home from hearing his first live concert at age six:
It was Hofmann. It was, I think, his last performance in Toronto, and it was a staggering impression. The only thing I can really remember is that, when I was being brought home in a car, I was in that wonderful state of half-awakeness in which you hear all sorts of incredible sounds going through your mind. They were all orchestral sounds, but I was playing them all, and suddenly I was Hofmann. I was enchanted.
He did have to have things just so, and could be temperamental as he toured the world. Eventually he chose to stop performing live. He spent the rest of his life in the studio expressing his unique creativity from there. He saw no reason to re-record “centuries-old pieces if the performer had no new perspective to bring to the work,” so everything he did was new.
Take the time to listen to him talk about creating music beyond the stage performance in this short “interview” from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation: Variations on Glenn Gould:
“I absolutely enjoy being surrounded by a sort of electronic wallpaper, having music everywhere about me,” says Gould. “I think that it gives a certain shelter, and sets you apart. And I think that the only value I have as an artist–the only value most artists have, whether they realize it or not– is their particular isolation from the world about which they write, and to which they hope to contribute.”
I like this quote where he talks about what Art is:
The justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.
He passed away after suffering a stroke when he was just 50 years old. He’s a one-of-a-kind genius, a musician who lead a one-of-a-kind life. And he will be remembered through time and space:
One of Gould’s performances of the Prelude and Fugue in C major from Book II of The Well-Tempered Clavier was chosen for inclusion on the NASA Voyager Golden Record by a committee headed by Carl Sagan. The disc of recordings was placed on the spacecraft Voyager 1, which is now approaching interstellar space and is the farthest man-made object from Earth.
I think you’ll find him very interesting and inspiring if this is your first meeting.
Photo by hans thijs under Creative Commons license