ScrimismsPresently suffering a dearth of witticisms
Books and Music and Musings23 Jan 2008

It seems I’m blogging about Glenn Gould again.

“Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould” by Kevin Bazzana is a fairly recent biography of the Canadian classical musical icon, and I wish I’d had my previous Gould encounters after reading it. I have a much better sense of the man and his significance now. I’ve seen the movie, been to the museum exhibit, and now, read the book. Next I need to hear more of his music. I have a couple of his Back and Beethoven albums, but I’ve got my eye (predictably) on his Goldberg Variations and hope to soon snag a recording of one (or both) of the Goldberg albums that book-ended his career.

Gould’s first record, at the age of 22 in 1955, was the Goldberg Variations and it hit the classical music world like an atom bomb. The Variations was not a well-known piece (Gould single-handly changed that), and Gould was a largely unknown artist making his debut, yet the album had huge success.

At one point in its first year, [Gould's record] was outselling a new recording by Louis Armstrong and the soundtrack of The Pajama Game; in 1960, in the New Yorker, Joseph Roddy reported that it had sold more than forty thousand copies, “which is just about as astonishing in the record business as a big run on a new edition of the Enneads of Plotinus would be in the book trade.”

In 1981, dissatisfied with his earlier recording, he recorded the Goldberg Variations again, offering a different interpretation of the music. The video I posted previously is of this recording session, and is the last videotape of Gould in existence. Bazzana again:

But within a week of the album’s release Gould was dead, and it was easy then to hear it as “autumnal,” as his “testament”; in the decades since, sentimentality about his untimely death has given the 1981 recording, and the Goldberg Variations generally, an exaggerated prominence within the Gould oeuvre. A better candidate for the summit of his Bach discography might be his two-record set of the English Suites, released in 1977: his Bach was never more thoughtfully creative, more intimate or more strongly characterized, and never attained a superior balance between high-modernist orderliness and Romantic flexibility. In any event, Gould had no plans to die at fifty, and his second recording of the Goldberg Variations became his testament only through a sad fluke of fate.

That passage should give you a sense of the book in general. Inevitably it contains a lot of musical terminology and history, with which the reader is not necessarily familiar. While I was put off by this at first, I came to appreciate it a lot. Any book about Gould with any insight must delve into music, which was Gould’s whole life, and Bazzana does a good job of giving the reader a sense of what these musical concepts are and mean. I feel like I know more about classical music now, even if I don’t know exactly what “high modernist orderliness” in Bach sounds like.

I also feel as though I have a good sense of Gould the person: quirky, gifted, suffering terribly from hypochondria, sure, but also likable and real. I’m a little sad to have finished the book: I was getting used to living partly in Gould’s world and now that connection has been severed. I do know that I’ll appreciate his music all the more for understanding the aims and story behind it.

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