‘Everything changes and nothing remains still… you cannot step twice into the same stream.’ – Heraclitus
‘I don’t know much about classical music. For years I thought the Goldberg Variations were something Mr. and Mrs. Goldberg tried on their wedding night.’ – Woody Allen
Two recordings of Goldberg Variations BWV988 – J.S.Bach, Glenn Gould, Sony (1955 and 1981)
I’ve been coming back to Glenn Gould’s two recordings of the Goldberg Variations time and again for over 20 years now. At one time, I even had the technical ability – now sadly neglected – to stumble my way through several of the pieces on the piano myself.
But what makes these TWO recordings essential? And surely if you don’t have any familiarity with the Goldberg Variations, one of these albums would be enough (1).
Gould’s 1955 recording – in mono – is the sound of a young man announcing himself to the world. It is a joyous thing, full of keyboard pyrotechnics, bursting its banks with brio. Gould interprets Bach’s music with a spirit that has no truck with convention: a fully-formed, idiosyncratic approach that still riles critics. David Oppenheim, the managing director of Columbia’s classical division – who had signed Gould up to an exclusive contract – exploited Gould’s eccentricity as a marketing tool to make the record the classical ‘crossover’ hit of its day. Here was the crazy Canadian, plunging his arms into boiling water before each recording session, playing barefoot with an oriental cushion under the soles of his feet, nibbling arrowroot biscuits soaked in milk. Gould was photographed like a movie star – the cover of the original album was a collage of thirty photos of him, one for each variation. According to The New Yorker he was nothing less than ‘the Marlon Brando of the piano’. But regardless of all this baggage, the record was and remains a transcendental experience – a realisation of the calculated ecstasy for which Gould was surely aiming.
In 1981, Gould returned to the same New York studio – a converted Presbyterian chapel – to tackle the variations once more. After a few days of these sessions, he went back to listen to his 1955 recording. ‘I found that it was a rather spooky experience. I listened to it with great pleasure in many respects… But – and it is a very big ‘but’ – I could not recognise or identify with the spirit of the person who made that recording. It really seemed like some other spirit had been involved.’ Over 26 years, during the course of a hugely successful and unconventional career, Gould’s understanding of the music had radically changed. Instead of viewing the variations as individual curios, he now saw the Goldberg Variations as an organic whole with one ‘pulse rate, one constant rhythmic reference point’. In many ways this is analagous to the doctrine of Affekt – a musical theory of Bach’s era – that each work should possess only one ‘spiritual movement’; so the music should be holistic twice over, arithmetically and emotionally. Gould had also come to the conclusion that to appreciate contrapuntal music – to let the effects of counterpoint truly register and resound – he had to take a more deliberate, reflective approach. In other words, the dizzying harmonic effects of counterpoint – the parallelisms and bittersweet discords and heavenly resolutions of interweaving streams of music – are not best suited to playing at a dizzying speed which swallows them up before we can properly relish them. Hence the 1981 recording’s playing time of 51 minutes (as opposed to the breakneck 38 minutes of 1955).
So: two very different approaches, both beautiful in their own way. But I still haven’t answered the question of why you need both.
My answer is that they demonstrate how our relationship to music – in fact, to any work of art – changes over time. And they do it with an ecstasy beyond all other examples. And this changing relationship is true not only for performers of music like Gould but also for humble listeners like the majority of us. Each time I stand in front of my shelf of CDs or flick through my records or scroll through iTunes, in a special sense I am looking at a whole new set of music. This is what Heraclitus meant when he said ‘you cannot step twice into the same stream’. I am not the same person and the waters of the stream are entirely different too. Each time we return to a work of art, we ourselves have an opportunity to spin out new variations on it. To reimagine it. And these experiences are dynamic, changed by how we and the world we live in have changed since the time of our last encounter (2).
This lesson, of course, is already encoded in the Goldberg Variations themselves. For that is what Bach himself is doing: taking a source – in this case a bassline and the harmonies that it implies – and spinning something new out of it, again and again and again, with such crazy ingenuity that we begin to wonder how on earth all this music could come from the same core material. How can the anguish and desolation of Variation 15 be derived from the same place as the whirling dervish of Variation 20?!
Just as the Goldberg Variations ends by repeating the aria – the source code – with which it begins, so does Gould’s career embark from and return to the Goldberg Variations. This going out and returning is one of the most moving moments in all of art. It is The Odyssey. It is Four Quartets. And this is the great gift of both Bach and Gould; for the hour or so we spend in their company we are allowed to go out on the journey of a lifetime and are brought back home again. What a privilege; Gould did not live to hear the 1981 recording himself.
As a parting shot, let me leave you with something different – another variation on the theme I have offered you. It’s Bach again, performed by Glenn Gould, but a different piece (Fugue No. 14 in F-sharp minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, BWV 859) with the extraordinary animations of Norman McLaren as visuals. Enjoy! (3)
(1) If one recording is what you’d prefer, then I would recommend neither of Gould’s. Rosalyn Tureck’s meditative reading on Deutsche Grammophon and Andras Schiff’s ornamented, technically precise recording on Decca are both beautiful in their own right. And Angela Hewitt’s interpretation for Hyperion is universally praised though I sadly can’t claim to know it personally. Take your pick!
(2) All of which relates to Gould’s raison d’être as a musician: “I believe that the only excuse we have for being musicians and for making music in any fashion, is to make it differently—to perform it differently, to establish the music’s difference, vis-à-vis our own difference.” Furthermore, this could be true of the modern listener too. In his essay “The Prospects of Recording” (collected in Undercurrents: The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music, published by Continuum), Gould had this to say: “There is, in fact, nothing, to prevent a dedicated connoisseur from acting as his own tape editor and, with these devices, exercising such interpretative predilections as will permit him to create his own ideal performance.’ In other words, we as listeners can ‘make music differently’, in the way we listen and with the modern technology we have at our disposal – now more than ever. As an example of how Gould himself embraced the recording technology of his era, this video is fascinating:
(3) I first encountered these through François Girard’s excellent feature Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993).