LOOKING AT THE GOLDBERGS, Part III: Tim Page on Glenn Gould

In 2007, author Evan Eisenberg wrote in Slate Magazine 
"The year was 1955. Three things happened: Albert Einstein died, and Glenn Gould recorded the Goldberg Variations. It is difficult to describe the impact of the second event, in part because I was a fetus at the time. (The third event, of course, was my birth.) But I will try. For those of us—beatniks, philistines, fetuses—who thought of classical music as something powdered and periwigged, that slab of vinyl struck with the force of a meteor. The stegosaurs who played Bach as if he were Lawrence Welk sniffed the heady, pomade-purged air and keeled, metaphorically, over. The Cretaceous Age of Music had ended. The Age of Gould had begun."

For any pianist who has grown up in this Age of Gould, his recordings of the Goldberg Variations assert a dual force: both inspiration and obstacle in their greatness and completeness. None of us who tangle with the Goldbergs can imagine an understanding of this musical monument that does not hold Gould’s influence at its very center. His Goldbergs represent a standard, a benchmark, a sort of magnificent elephant in the room. I’ve spoken in this space with colleagues Simone Dinnerstein and Dan Tepfer about our respective challenges in approaching, assessing, and finding our ways around the elephant. It's due to my own life-long fascination with the beast  - a near addiction to the 1955 recording that started when I was a baby on my father's lap - that I've taken the wonderfully rewarding journey to my latest recording project 13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldbergs.

Even for Gould himself, the 1955 recording of the Goldbergs, released as his major-label debut at the age of 22 and an immediate career-launching, reputation-defining success, assumed a presence of somewhat elephantine proportions, which he eventually confronted with the absolute musical revisions of his 1981 recording, released just months before he died. The scope of the internal conflict, evolution and transformation of Gould’s relationship to the Goldbergs is captured in a 1981 interview with Tim Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic and writer, and editor of The Glenn Gould Reader. The conversation is a scripted dialogue written by Gould, more of a radio drama really, recorded in a marathon midnight session in a Toronto studio. The conversation offers a fascinating glimpse into Gould’s restless, flexible mind, and a unique opportunity to hear him speak about the personal and musical variations behind his two recordings of the Goldbergs. The complete interview can be heard on the three-CD set A State of Wonder: The Complete Goldberg Variations 1955 & 1981 (Sony, 2002).

I was fortunate to speak with Tim Page (himself the owner of a restless, flexible and fascinating mind) about Glenn Gould the man and the musician, about his artistic interests and his challenges feared and faced, about the critical re-evaluation of his body of work since his death, about his two iconic recordings of the Goldbergs, and about the lasting footprint of that magical, marvelous elephant.
LD: You’ve written about Gould’s retirement from live performance, his choice to play only in the recording studio, and his belief that recordings would eventually completely replace live concerts. Although it’s true that, today, the concert hall is often full to capacity, while the recording industry, such as it was in Gould’s day, has more or less died, there has been a revolution in recording. Don’t you think that the current reality of incredible variety, accessibility and immediacy in digital music fulfills Gould’s prediction in a way that he would have really enjoyed?

TP: Well, Glenn just loved the recording process. For one thing, it allowed him to avoid live concerts, which he had grown to loathe – the flying, the glad-handing, the conservatism that he saw taking over during his career. He never would have gone back to performing live, even though at the end of his life he did feel that the concert world had changed, that concerts were becoming more modern and interesting, not the same old/same old. You had people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass who were taking real control over their performances, making tremendous changes. But Glenn grew so attached to the possibilities of the studio, and it was where he felt comfortable and free. If he were working today, he would have a very different, open relationship with a record label, he would be able to assert control over repertoire and programming decisions, he’d be in charge of his own projects. And Glenn would have adored the possibilities of the internet.  He would probably have gotten deeply involved with a web presence, self-producing recordings that represented exactly what he wanted to do musically. If he decided one day that he wanted to record Hindemith’s Ludus Tonalis, and then record it again the next day, that’s what he would do, and he would be able to put all of these efforts out over the internet. It would have offered him an expanded version of the creative freedom that he found in the recording process. He was so savvy about disseminating music – he would have been one of the first and the best users of digital platforms and media.

LD: What would he think about the current freedoms in this musical generation: projects like 13 WAYS of Looking at the Goldberg that reimagine the canon; the cross-genre fluidity that we’re creating and experiencing; the revisions of performance practice that are freeing up the physical concert space?

TP: I think he would have approved, both in theory and in practice. He was so interested in invention and reinvention. Some of his performances were very much in reaction to the constrictions that were imposed on him by management and record label in terms of repertoire and programming, really a case of flipping the bird to the establishment. He would have loved a wider playing field and sense of freedom and adventure in musical choices. You know, Glenn had such a curiosity and sense of humor. One of the greatest misconceptions about him is that he was some sort of mad genius, “St. Glenn”, some Bergmanesque neurotic walking around in pain all the time. He had his troubles, but he was often merry, a funny, kind, silly man – he loved jokes and impersonations, he loved to make mischief. You cannot begin to understand who he was without understanding the mischievous boy who loved to make people talk by acting up, by being - forgive the expression but almost joyfully bratty. That sense of mischief and fun was something that he expressed in his music. Sometimes he’d do something outrageous and make it sound like a deep thought, a great new idea, when really he was putting everyone on.

LD: Of course Gould was aware of the tremendous impact of the ’55 recording, on an audience of unprecedented size and scope. What do you think that level of exposure came to mean to him in later years, especially in light of his feelings about the early recording and his reconsidering of the piece in the ’81 recording?
TP: Glenn knew that his early recording of the Goldbergs was his most famous recording by far. He knew it was an iconic performance, and he was able to look back fondly at the brilliant young kid he had been. It really was a performance of originality, intelligence and fire, and I don’t think he actively despised it the way he pretended to. He could look back fondly at that brilliant kid, that speed freak who had been so brash and bold. He comments on the “sense of humor” in the early recording, the “perky, spiky accents that gave it a certain buoyancy”, and he recognizes that physically his approach to playing the piano hadn’t changed too much, but he said that he could not identify with the spirit of the person who had made that recording. You know, the ’55 Goldbergs recording was of course his very first recording. His second recording was the last three Beethoven Sonatas, and I’m quite sure he would have gotten around to re-recording those too. He most likely would have reconsidered many of his early interpretations, as he did the Goldbergs."


The world since Glenn Gould is a different place. Too easily dismissed as an eccentric and an outsider during his lifetime, he has been recognized since his death as one of the great game-changers of our musical century. As Tim put it: “As soon as he died, everyone woke up and realized what he had done.” 

All of us who are believers in musical innovation and change have Glenn Gould to thank, for opening doors and minds, for taking risks and taking heat. Today, 30 years after his death, his output, musical and otherwise, is singular and remarkable. His two recordings of the Goldbergs still stand immovable in the pantheon, and they have inspired a next generation of pianists and listeners throughout the world. All we can do is thank him, and salute the elephant.

Visit NPR Classical this Friday, Mar. 23rd at 1 p.m. ET for a live online listening party. Tom Huizenga will play and discuss Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations with Tim Page and Washington Post classical music critic Anne Midgette.

My deep thanks to Tim Page for his generosity and kindness.

1 comment:

  1. Lara: I just heard your NPR session and it is wonderful. My first encouunter with the Goldbergs was the initial solo recording of Peter Serkin, whose delivery is much more mellow than the almost garish - to my mind and ear - rendition of Gould. I have come to consider myself lucky for this sequence, though now I lean towards other recordings. Gould does deserve credit, in the same sense as Casals for the equally great cello suites, of bringing this masterpiece to the attention of us all. Anyway, you appear to have a most sensitive interpretation, and deserving of a wide audience. Regards, and Thank you!