Gould and the intellectual audience

Phil Ford

Some musicians I respect think Glenn Gould is over-rated, and I certainly know why classical-music people are getting (or have gotten, long ago) sick of the Gould-cult. I remember, when I was a student at the RCM in Toronto, that there was a petition going around to rename the then-new Roy Thomson Hall after Glenn Gould — maybe the dumbest, most tone-deaf attempt to wreath some Canadian thing in Gould’s posthumous glory. Then again, the attempt to start a “Glenn Gould Piano Competition” (if memory serves, it became the Toronto Bach Competition that Angela Hewitt won) was also a contender.* Gould has become an all-purpose signifier for classical artiness. To an audience that doesn’t know much about classical music but thinks it’s sort of cool in the same way that string-theory physics and championship Go is, Gould symbolizes ecstasy, unworldliness, and inscrutable genius, with the added bonus of cute quirkiness. It’s surprising that he didn’t appear in one of those “Think Different” Mac ads. Consumed as a media icon, Gould’s playing is almost beside the point, and I suspect that a lot of the literary types who feed on the Gould mythos couldn’t tell you what makes his playing different from everyone else’s.

But whatever your feelings about the Gould phenomenon, or Gould’s actual playing, for that matter, he’s still a fascinating subject to write about, which of course is why everybody keeps writing about him. In many ways he’s the intellectual’s ideal musician. Virgil Thomson once made a distinction between “the intellectual audience” and the “purely musical” one, with the former belonging to the “world of verbalized ideas and general aesthetic awareness” and the latter following the musical world for its own autonomous reasons. Thomson writes that what binds the members of the intellectual audience together is the printed word: they are well-read on the general aesthetic and intellectual trends in art and society, and music interests them to the extent that it intersects with those trends. Gould, along with Leonard Bernstein, is a big winner — maybe the big winner — with the postwar intellectual audience. Gould was full of quirky ideas, liked to write them down and talk about them, and, as Kevin Bazzana has written, tried to illustrate them in his playing. And there’s something else. Gould enjoys the intellectual cachet that comes of his fitting into the postwar hip sensibility better than any other classical musician, more even than Bernstein, who avidly sought that distinction. Gould did not seek hip prestige but earned it anyway. With his baggy overcoat and slouch cap, his nocturnal habits, his hot-and-cold counterposing of isolation and mad talkativeness, his penchant for on-the-road adventures to Wawa and points north, he cut a vaguely Beat figure—the hermit of St. Clair Avenue, one of those quasi-literary creations that seems an organic outgrowth of the city to which he belonged, just as Thelonious Monk was to New York and Chet Baker was to Los Angeles.

So everything Gould did was catnip to intellectuals, and so, when Bernstein delivered a short speech before a 1962 New York Philharmonic performance with Gould of the Brahms D minor piano concerto, warning the audience that what they were about to hear was going to be really slow, it became a succes de scandale. In the pre-internet dark ages, few people had any access to Bernstein’s actual remarks, and an exaggerated version of the story circulated, doubtless helped out by a moronic, embarrassing review
by Harold Schoenberg. Following up my earlier post about musicianly ass-chewing, it seems appropriate to post a link to what Bernstein actually said. (Here’s a text version.) It’s not too bad, really, though you have to wonder how Gould felt at the time.

I’ve heard it said that the New York Philharmonic in the old days was a particularly tough and willful bunch, perfectly happy to sabotage a guest soloist or conductor they didn’t like, and it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that that’s what they’re doing here. The orchestral tutti, with a dull primary accent on each beat, is so leaden it almost sounds as if they’re trying to prove that the tempo can’t work, and the ensemble and intonation are ragged and offhand. Everything about the orchestral playing just says “I couldn’t care less.” So it really does sound incredibly slow at first. But when Gould comes in, I actually kind of forget how slow the tempo is. In the comments section of another post I wrote that Gould didn’t get caught with his subdivided beats showing: he “could play things with such rhythmic control (that is, control of the minute fractions of time that exist between beats, and between subdivisions of beats) that he could maintain tension between moments
widely separated in time, which meant that his slow performances didn’t
plod.” His playing here is a good illustration of that.

That being said, this isn’t my favorite recording of this piece — not by a long shot. But I’m probably more likely to play it in a class than any number of worthier, less freakish performances, because there are so many interesting points you can make with it. Someone like Rudolph Serkin might play the piece beautifully and more appropriately but without making any “points,” and for this he will be ignored by the intellectual audience and loved by those for whom the pleasures of music are auditory rather than verbal. And since intellectuals write all the books, Gould’s odd experiment is going to be far better-known Serkin’s magisterial performance. This is unfair and kind of philistine, when you think about it. P.J. O’Rourke once made fun of humorists who “try to make a point” when he said that laughter is involuntary, while points are not. Something similar could be said here: a sensibility that values a musical performance according to the points it raises is, in some ways, a rather unmusical sensibility. If you are a musicologist, though, you find yourself subject to this sort of professional deformation. Or maybe it’s just me.

*If you are unfamiliar with Gould’s views on competition and concerts, you might start here and here.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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3 Responses to Gould and the intellectual audience

  1. Jonathan says:

    For the record, so-called intellectuals are often amongst the least adventurous thinkers around, but are masterful at scoring points against ideas, philosophies, or interpretations with offending points or edges. I’m surprised by this recording, which I’ve never heard, because Gould doesn’t even sound that slow to me. The orchestra sounds sulky–sullen, inexact, people who don’t want to be there–and I almost feel that Bernstein’s speech was more to them than the audience. I have never been a member of the Gould cult, but it is worth wondering why a challenging new interpretation of, say, a well-known Shakespearean role may be excoriated but may also be admired and celebrated, while a really innovative (or, dare I say, shockingly historically informed) interpretation is simply laughed at and condescended to.
    We could talk about “pianist culture” here. Or not.

  2. Matthew says:

    In terms of pianist culture, it’s worth noting that my undergrad piano professor, a Russian emigre who studied with Goldenweiser and preached the gospel of a long, legato phrase and a singing line, still talked with wonder of Gould’s 1950s appearances in the USSR. I think the idea of Gould’s playing as a purely intellectual exercise was something that encrusted onto his reputation later—for me, at least, the lightning bolt was his sound, his command over rhythm and articulation, the clarity of the lines sustained even through the most sensual, rich timbre. That’s what my teacher (and his colleagues) were responding to—the conviction that the fingerwork was just a tool to manage what was reaching the ear. Gould’s ideas were primarily ideas about sound, not technique or analysis.

  3. Phil Ford says:

    Well, I think that’s exactly right. The thing about Gould is the sound, and yet when a musician becomes thoroughly absorbed into the book world, the stuff that doesn’t translate well into words — sound — tends to get lost. I guess I ended up in this post implying that the intellectual reception of music alters, maybe distorts, our collective perception of performance history. But it also distorts our perception of individual performers, including those, like Gould, who seem so much a phenomenon of the intellectual audience.

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