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My name is Avior Byron and I am a musicologist, blogger and composer. I write books, articles and a blog about music, performance, research, and theory. Read more at my about page

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Review of The Glenn Gould Reader

Review of The Glenn Gould Reader

I am a great admirer of Glenn Gould. I always loved the two versions of the Goldberg Variations that he recorded (as usual I have included in this post several video that you might find interesting).
 
However, the first time that I was really amazed from his interpretation was when I heard him play Schoenberg’s Piano Piece Op. 33a. In his performance I heard something that I cannot describe in words. It is simply magic. As he often does, Gould deviates from the score. He does it on purpose from the reason that I will mention in a moment.


 
I bought several months ago The Glenn Gould Reader (edited by Tim Page. Published by Vintage Books, 1990). It includes essays written by Gould to journals such as the Piano Quarterly and texts that accompanied his recordings. Some of the texts are funny and light hearted. Others have incredible insights into music, performance and musical history.
 

Gould on Stokowsky

His essay ‘Stokowsky in Six Scenes’ is a master piece. A passage from it may give you an idea why Gould himself had the habit of deviating from the score as well as give you a taste of his literary style:
 
‘Stokowsky was, for want of a better word, an ecstatic. He was involved with the notes, the tempo marks, the dynamics in the score, to the same extent that a filmmaker is involved with the original book or source which supplies the impetus, the idea, for his film. “Black marks on paper”, he would say to me a quarter-century later. “We write black marks on white paper – the mere facts of frequency; but music is a communication much more subtle than mere facts. The best a composer can do when within him he hears a great melody is to put it on paper. We call it music, but that is not music; that is only paper. Some believe that one should merely mechanically reproduce the marks on the paper, but I do not believe in that. One must go much further than that. We must defend the composer against the mechanical conception of life which if becoming more and more strong today.”’ (p. 264)
 
This, of course, could represent not only Stokowsky, but also Gould himself. At another place in the essay Gould tells us that Stokowsky modified his studio interpretations so that they will suite the living-room acoustics where the music will be heard. Indeed, when Gould writes about other performers, he often gives valuable and interesting information about himself.
 
 

Gould on Schoenberg

Another excellent essay is ‘Arnold Schoenberg – A Perspective’. This is was originally a monograph published by the University of Cincinnati (1964). What I love about this essay is that it makes an interesting overview on Schoenberg’s compositional development, yet it also tries (as early as 1964!) to understand his significance on the history of music. Gould raises questions such as ‘what will happen to Schoenberg in the year 2000?’ He notes the fact that Schoenberg’s technique had entered the grade-B horror movies and that it is much more acceptable in operas than in the concert hall.     
 
Gould had a deep understanding of the aesthetics, philosophical and technical problems that occupied Schoenberg. When he deals with technical issues, he usually does not divorce them from social and historical events (although he takes caution not to suggest too strong connections), and he describes in a very lively way what might have been the composer’s feelings when embarking on new and unknown paths of composition.


 

Gould on  Rubinstein

In his essay on Rubinstein he includes a conversation that tell us volumes about Gould’s philosophy of recording:
 
‘…when you begin, you don’t quite know what it is about. You only come to know as you proceed… I very rarely know, when I come to the studio, exactly how I am going to do something… I’ll try it is fifteen different ways… I don’t know at the time of the session what result is finally going to accrue. And it does depend upon listening to a playback and saying “That doesn’t work; it is going to go that way; I’ll have to change that completely.” It makes the performer very like the composer, really, because it gives him editorial afterthought…’ (p. 287)
 
It is interesting to read this, since Gould had a dream of being a composer – a dream that was fulfilled only in his performances.
 
Gould was an incredibly knowledgeable musician. He writes about people such as Byrd, Gibbons, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Hindemith, Boulez, Terry Riley, Rubinstein, Menuhin, Barbra Streisand and many others. I the book one can find essays about technology, recordings, Gould various broadcast and TV projects, and other interesting things. I recommend reading this book to anyone who is interested in classical music in general and Glenn Gould and performance in particular.    
 

Gould on Recordings and Media

Some of the most interesting essays can be found in part three of the book, which is entitled "Media". The first article, "The Prospects of Recording", is perhaps the most interesting. In it Gould explains his views on editing, the affect of recordings on the listener in particular and art in general. I also recommend reading the next essay: "Music and Technology". In this section one can find texts that Gould used for some of his broadcasts. For example, for The Idea of North. One can listen to these broadcasts, as they have been released two years ago on CDs on CBS Records.


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