Glenn Gould : the ecstasy and tragedy of genius /

Saved in:
Main Author: Ostwald, Peter F.
Format: Book
Published:New York : Norton, 1998, c1997.
Tags: Add Tag
No Tags, Be the first to tag this record!

CHAPTER ONE THE CONCERT On February 28, 1957, two young men met on a California stage. One was an eccentric, fair-haired, world-famous pianist, barely over twenty-four, the other was a serious, already balding, twenty-nine-year old psychiatrist and violinist. Was this a chance encounter? Nothing in their background could suggest the possibility of such a meeting. The pianist was of Canadian descent, born and raised in Toronto, the only child of a prosperous furrier, and firmly entrenched in Canadian soil and Protestant values. The violinist was a Berliner child, star-marked by the Nazis, whose parents managed to flee to the United States in 1937, leaving behind relatives, friends, home, and property. The pianist, Glenn Gould, is now dead. His friend, Peter Ostwald, lives to write about him. Looking back today on my initial contact with Glenn Gould, I wonder what made it so memorable. Surely the basic ingredients were this man's genius and my readiness for an overwhelming musical experience. Gould was then on his first transcontinental tour, following two spectacular recitals in Washington, D.C., and New York in 1955. Those recitals had led to his recording contract with Columbia and catapulted him to fame throughout the world with an astonishing LP of Bach's Goldberg Variations. The record cover shows young Gould in ecstatic poses, singing, playing, and conducting the music. The night I met him was his debut in California. He was scheduled to perform the F Minor Concerto by Bach and Richard Strauss's Burleske with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Enrique Jorda. I had recently moved back to San Francisco from New York, after completing my psychiatric training, to take a faculty position in the School of Medicine at the University of California. Martin Canin, a friend and well-known pianist from New York with whom I had often played chamber music and who had introduced me to a number of leading musicians there, urged that I go to hear Gould. You'll be amazed. He's one of the most interesting performers today, an astonishing technician, with a brilliant, keen mind. The real thing, and something of a nut. He'd be a good case for you! Be sure to go backstage and give him my regards." I couldn't resist. The concert opened with a rarely heard symphony by the Spanish composer Juan Arriaga, who died tragically young, at age twenty, in 1826. It was beautifully conducted by the Spaniard Jorda, but received with only mild applause from a somewhat lethargic Wednesday-night audience. Next on the program was the Bach concerto, originally written for the harpsichord and a somewhat unusual choice for a pianist making his local debut--most performers will start with something more flashy. But it seemed fitting for Gould, since his reputation rested primarily on the astounding success of his first commercial recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations, which had instantly become a best-seller and identified him as an immensely original and effective interpreter of Bach. His appearance on stage was unusual, to say the least. He strode out briskly but with a certain awkwardness, suggesting he was not at ease in a suit of tails that looked a size too big for him. His gaze at the audience seemed hesitant and unfocused. He didn't look like someone who enjoyed being in a crowd. His attention was more on the conductor and the musicians, whom he greeted warmly before ambling over to a Steinway Grand. It had been elevated on wooden blocks placed under the three legs. That, and the rickety folding chair on which Gould sat very close to the floor, brought his body into a strikingly unorthodox relationship to the keyboard. His arms were on a horizontal level, rather than angling from above, but he seemed quite relaxed in that unusual position. He smiled, rubbed his hands, and leaned forward, his face nearly resting on the piano keys. The Bach F Minor Concerto opens with orchestra and soloist in unison. The keynote F is heard on the first beat and repeated, producing syncopated effect reiterated in the next two measures with increasing ornamentation. Then there is a surprising ascent to the minor sixth, followed by a drop to the minor third and four notes of piano solo echoing the orchestra. Gould obviously enjoyed playing the music and had a profound sense of its structure. He swayed his body rhythmically, and the prominent jaw undulated, giving a rather simian cast to his pale, clean shaven face. Indeed, he was articulating every note with his mouth; one could hear him vocalize at times. His playing was remarkable--sculptured, three-dimensional; each phrase seemed to have a life of its own. With the orchestra accompanying accurately and sensitively, Gould became ecstatic, his expression one of rapture, his eyes closed or turned inward, and his hands caressing the keyboard as if he were making love. This total involvement with the music also incorporated a curious tendency to elevate his left hand and make conductorlike gestures, giving direction to himself as well as the orchestra. The combined visual and aural effect of Gould's performance quickly transmitted itself to the audience, who became raptly attentive, almost transfixed. His self-absorbed movements and embodiment in sound seemed to cast a spell. It was a kind of seduction. He was pulling his spectators into psychological orbits both close to him and far away, in some ethereal space. His interpretation of the slow movement of the Bach Concerto was truly a revelation. He projected the soulful melody like a silver thread by articulating each phrase with immense deliberation and creating smooth continuities between individual notes. The result was so songlike that it was difficult to believe one was listening to a piano. And the last movement, in strongly accentuated three-eight time, inspired such a rollicking sense of rhythm that the audience seemed to want to dance along with the joy and vitality of Gould's playing. What a performer! I can recall very few pianists who had that magic, who triumphed in fusing bodily display with musical intelligence. We are told that Liszt did it in the nineteenth century. More recently there was Artur Schnabel, sitting in a comfortable chair and caressing the keyboard without appreciable effort, as though he were having a meal. I also remember Arthur Rubinstein's distinctive way of propelling himself upward in loud passages like a rocket, and then elevating his face as if he were praying to God. Sergei Rachmaninoff was another pianist who had to be seen to be fully appreciated. His granitic body, hunched solidly over the piano, hardly moved while nimble fingers extracted from it the most awesome and delicate sounds. These virtuoso musicians resemble dancers in their integrated appeal to both eye and ear. They play on one's responsiveness with the entire force of body and mind, communicating emotions that can range from religious devotion to sexual ecstasy. After intermission Gould launched into the Burleske by Richard Strauss, a mini-concerto that gave us the opportunity to marvel at his dazzling bravura. This piece is not one of Strauss's better known compositions, and Gould's selecting it for his West Coast debut again indicated a degree of nonconformity. But there could be no doubt that he was a technical wizard. Triplet chords and arpeggios literally flew off the keyboard, and the treacherous descending scales rippled like pearls. He was in absolute command of his instrument. Yet it all looked so easy. There were no exaggerated contortions, no deliberate attempts at showmanship. His hands remained close to the keys, and the wrists were horizontal except when his left hand was conducting. As soon as the piece ended, Gould again became awkward. The applause seemed to startle him. When not making music, he became almost a different person, rather shy and embarrassed, like a young boy surprised to have evoked so much acclaim. After a quick, almost perfunctory bow to the audience, he waved to the orchestra but did not shake hands with the concertmaster as soloists usually do. He scurried backstage ahead of the conductor and came back briefly for a single curtain call. Jorda then returned to end the program with a vivid rendition of Igor Stravinsky's Petrushka Suite. I could barely listen. As soon as the Petrushka was over, I was planning to go backstage to thank Gould for an unforgettable experience. In those days before San Francisco had a Symphony Hall, orchestral concerts were usually held at the War Memorial Opera House, where finding one's way to an artist's dressing room can be an exercise in frustration. The stage entrances from the lobby were controlled by zealous guards who screened and delayed any visitors, and the street entrances were equally inaccessible. But I had learned to get around these obstacles as a medical student, when I ushered at the opera house and occasionally turned pages for pianists who would accompany the famous violinists (Menuhin, Heifetz, Szigeti, Zimbalist, Elman) and other great soloists. In this way I learned how to enter the labyrinth of rooms and rehearsal areas backstage rapidly. The door to Maestro Jorda's dressing room was ajar, and I could see the conductor inside, combing his hair and preparing to welcome guests and autograph hunters. The soloist's room was locked. I knocked, but there was no response. After a second knock, the door opened and Glenn Gould politely invited me in. He had changed from his formal attire and was now dressed in gray pants, a white shirt without tie, heavy woolen sweater, and dark blue jacket. What shocked me was the temperature of the dressing room. It was stiflingly hot and muggy, like a sauna. All of the windows had been tightly closed. and the heat turned up full blast. Gould was alone and seemed pleased to have a visitor, so I introduced myself as a violinist friend of Martin Canin. Then I told him that his playing had been enormously impressive, especially the concerto. Bach was my favorite composer and I had never heard this work played so well. The same was true for the Strauss piece. Gould's face grew radiant; he obviously enjoyed being complimented. But I noticed that he was ill-at-ease, his face tense, and there was some mild twitching of the muscles around his right eye which detracted from an otherwise youthful, handsome appearance. The way Gould began speaking also suggested substantial nervousness. The words poured out in a torrent. "Thank you, that's very kind of you, especially coming from a friend of Martin, whose playing I admire very much. I hope we can get him to play in Canada some day. You know, we have a music festival there every year, at Stratford, and several musicians from the States have participated, the violinist Oscar Shumsky, and Leonard Rose, the cellist. Last year I became one of the directors." "How does it feel being so far from home?" "To be perfectly honest about it, I detest having to travel. Airplanes are a big problem for me because the cabins are never reliably heated and I'm extremely sensitive to temperature change. The air conditioning while waiting at an airport can be an ordeal; I have to be very careful to avoid drafts at all times. Large halls like this one-make me very uncomfortable, as does the audience with its incessant coughing and sneezing. It is hard to protect myself from germs; I think I might actually be coming down with a fever, or a cold, as frequently happens. I'm not at all sure that I'll be able to play tomorrow night's concert." "Well, you certainly played magnificently tonight," I ventured, hoping to direct the conversation away from the topic of health. "It wasn't so bad, actually," he said quickly, with a look of false modesty. "The piano I was supplied with is really first-rate, one of the better Steinways I've played on in the States so far, only a little bit on the heavy side. I prefer something a bit lighter, a keyboard with a more pliable action." At home he had a Chickering, his all-time favorite. He agreed that the Bach concerto had gone well under Maestro Jorda, a splendid conductor. He had been easy to rehearse with, and the orchestra had responded to him quite well. "In the Burleske by Strauss--incidentally, he's one of my favorite composers and one of the most underrated figures of the twentieth century--the balance was never upset by the orchestral texture." Gould thought it difficult to maintain a proper relationship between the orchestral sound, which Strauss exploits in his inimitable manner, and the solo instrument, in this case the piano, an instrument Strauss didn't write all that much for. But he agreed that the orchestra "rose to the occasion splendidly." Gould was beginning to relax, his voice stronger, more self-confident, pleasantly inflected. He obviously loved to talk and to hear himself talk--a brilliant monologue about orchestras he had played with, conductors he liked, his favorite composers, all delivered in densely constructed sentences with numerous embedded clauses. Words flowed out of him with unabashed vitality, making it difficult to interrupt. Not that one would want to stop a musician who possessed such a razor-sharp intellect and spun out words as delectably as he played music. Besides, much of what Gould had to say was very funny. He had a fantastic sense of humor, which he used provocatively rather than spitefully. One of his most devastating quips was about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whom he described cattily as a composer who died too late. Had he not lived so long (to age thirty-five) and thus escaped the influence of Viennese opera, Mozart would have been a far greater composer. Such remarks were meant to shock, and my attempt to defend Mozart led to a vigorous rebuttal, with much laughter. By now a few other well-wishers had arrived, including Enrique Jorda and several members of the orchestra who complimented Gould on his performance and wished him well for tomorrow night's concert. He asked me to wait while he spoke with each visitor briefly and courteously. After signing a few autographs, he turned to talk to me without interruption, until someone appeared to say that the dressing rooms would soon be closed and exits from the opera house bolted. "Do you have a car?" Gould asked. "I'm staying at the St. Francis Hotel." "It would give me great pleasure to drive you back to the hotel," I replied. "Perhaps you'd like to stop somewhere for a bite to eat or something to drink. You must be famished." "Not especially, but I do get very thirsty." He pointed to a large bottle of water on his dressing table, and a box of soda biscuits alongside various lotions and vials of pills. "Poland Water is what my body tolerates best. I always carry my own supply." Suddenly Gould's brisk monologue reverted to aspects of his health; again he mentioned not feeling well. He feared he might be coming down with a cold. To alleviate his symptoms he was taking antibiotics and also using "pills to calm my nerves." In this context he mentioned a nagging pain in the middle of his back, and that he was experiencing some discomfort in his arms and shoulders. "The bones of my back easily get out of alignment with my ribs, and I've found it of considerable benefit to visit chiropractors in Toronto who are very proficient in making adjustments to the spine." One of them also massaged the heavy muscles of his shoulders and advised him to have regular ultrasound treatments. Chiropractors? Ultrasound treatments? During my last year in medical school I had several times visited the local chiropractic college in San Francisco with Peter Mark, a classmate who was as interested in unconventional medicine as I was, in order to find out about methods never included in our own curriculum. So Peter (who has become a successful dermatologist) and I knew about the techniques practiced by chiropractors. But I couldn't recall having heard much about ultrasound. "What does it do?" I asked now. "It has a miraculous effect," Gould said, grasping his left shoulder with his right hand. "You see, the vibratory impulses break down tissue up here, in the bigger muscles, thinning them and thus reducing the bulky mass of muscles that are useless for a pianist. Muscles of the shoulder and upper arm are likely to get hypertrophied, like a boxer's, and that makes them far too powerful for the amount of work needed to play the piano. I am trying to minimize the strength of my shoulders--by sitting low in relation to the keyboard, with my arms level, I can accomplish that to a certain degree. But not sufficiently." His goal generally was to shift control from the upper arms to the hands and fingers. This was where ultrasound came in. He had his own machine at home and used it almost every day. But it was too heavy to transport on concert tours. "I'm already loaded down with thick blocks for the piano and my folding chair." What Gould was saying about the use of ultrasound vibrations to destroy large masses of muscle tissue struck me as highly improbable, if not actually dangerous. At most, one might expect some warming of the tissues and other local effects. I decided it was time to tell Gould of my medical orientation. "Well, don't worry, Mr. Gould. I happen to be a doctor--a psychiatrist." I hastened to add that I was not on duty this evening and he needn't fear that I was going to practice on him. 'You've just performed two very demanding works, with spectacular results. My guess is that you must be somewhat exhausted and overwrought. Let's get out of this intolerably stuffy room and get some fresh air." With that, Gould broke into a captivating smile and turned away from me to pack his belongings. He donned a heavy overcoat and cap, wrapped a woolen scarf around his neck, put on a pair of wool-lined gloves, picked up his folding chair, and we set off. Copyright © 1997 Estate of Peter Ostwald. All rights reserved.