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“The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”

- Glenn Gould

July 2018

Q: Did Glenn Gould know that one of his recordings would be included on the Golden Record of the Voyager space probes? Do we know how he felt about it? Was he involved in the selection of the track?

           I would be very surprised to learn that Gould knew nothing about the two Voyager space probes launched by NASA in 1977, or about the Golden Record affixed to them, which included, among its 27 samples of Earth’s music, his own recording of the Prelude and Fugue No. 1 in C Major from Book 2 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. Yet, his papers in the Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa, are silent on the subject: no evidence of any contact with NASA or the Golden Record project’s executive director, Carl Sagan; no evidence that he was involved in selecting his track; no evidence that his label, CBS Records, contacted him about it; no evidence that he owned or read Sagan’s book about the project, Murmurs of Earth (1978). The Gould literature, too, is silent on the subject, as is NASA’s Voyager website (voyager.jpl.nasa.gov). Unless information is to be found in The Voyager Record: A Transmission (2016), by Anthony Michael Morena, which I have not seen, we may never know what Gould knew about Voyager.

           Why was his particular recording of the prelude and fugue selected for the Golden Record? It surely helped that one of the project’s music advisers, the artist and writer Jon Lomberg, had worked for the CBC and was evidently familiar with Gould’s work. Indeed, Lomberg’s original suggestions for the record included two recordings by Gould: a different Bach fugue (Book 1, C minor) and the first of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19. And it was CBS Records that ended up putting together all the audio tracks for the Golden Record and (copyright law apparently extending beyond the solar system) securing the necessary releases—though only after Gould’s track had been selected. Perhaps no special explanation is necessary, since by 1977 Gould had long been one of the world’s most celebrated Bach performers. 

Q: Did Glenn Gould have any direct contact with Kurt Vonnegut during the production of Slaughterhouse-Five?

Gould’s papers in the Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa, include much material relating to his work on the soundtrack for the film Slaughterhouse-Five (1972): his copies of Vonnegut’s novel and the screenplay, sketches and scores and other documents relating to his musical arrangements, correspondence (including with the director, George Roy Hill, whom he also met in person), contracts and other business records, promotional material, reviews and other press clippings, the text of his later review of the film for CBC Radio, audio and video tapes. But there is no evidence of any direct contact with Vonnegut. Otto Friedrich, in Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations (1989), quotes Vonnegut’s reply to a query, which includes no suggestion that he had any contact with Gould. 

Q: What were Glenn Gould’s views about opera, art song, and other vocal music?

Gould divided vocal music, like all other music, into sheep and goats. Not surprisingly, he admired vocal music that he was able to justify according to his usual musical priorities—works like Gibbons’ anthems, Bach’s sacred music, Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul, Bruckner’s E-minor Mass, the operas of Wagner and Strauss, the songs and other vocal works of Strauss, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Hindemith, Krenek. (There were some surprises, though, among the sheep: He considered West Side Story a masterpiece, for instance, and shortly before he died he declared that his favourite opera was Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. And then there’s that whole Petula-Clark-and-Barbra-Streisand thing …) It appears that he largely ignored German Romantic lieder and most modern art-song repertories, expressed no interest in opera or vocal chamber music of the Baroque era, liked Mozart’s operas no better than the rest of his music, and was squeamish about the sensuousness and melodiousness and violent emotions of Italian opera. The music of Verdi and Puccini, he said, made him “intensely uncomfortable”—a revealing choice of words.

Gould had a musical idealist’s disdain for the whole theatrical side of opera, too. “I’m not terribly fond of opera, and I don’t go to the opera house very much,” he said, in a 1959 profile. “And when I do, I’m more interested in the actual music I hear than in what I see on the stage—in fact, quite often, when I do go to opera, I shut my eyes and just listen.” Often he barely knew the words or plot of the operatic music he listened to. In a diary entry from 1980, he admitted, after listening to Tannhäuser on the radio, that “I’d never even known what it was about (I’m ashamed to say)”—a surprising gap for a self-described Wagnerite.

Q: Gould seems to have had a habit of spontaneously performing piano transcriptions of various orchestral and operatic works. Did he formally prepare and write out these transcriptions, or was he able to create them on the spot? Do any of these survive in written form? Do we know all the pieces of music he performed in this way (or some of them)?

Gould played a great deal of orchestral and operatic (and other non-piano) music at the keyboard, occasionally publicly. Among his radio and television appearances, for instance, he can be heard playing excerpts from Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, Bruckner’s String Quintet, works by several Russian Romantics, Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony, Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No. 2, and Strauss’s Elektra, Capriccio, Metamorphosen, and Four Last Songs. In these cases, whether his source was the full score or a published piano reduction or vocal score is unknown, but presumably the former: He was certainly capable of making on-the-spot piano reductions of such repertoire, even while sightreading.

Only a few times did he polish and write out an arrangement. One of these was his rendering of the improvisational Prelude to Handel’s Suite for Harpsichord in A Major, as performed in his 1972 recording. This has never been commercially published, though his complete manuscript was printed in facsimile in the Spring 1996 issue of the Foundation’s magazine. He also wrote out the three Wagner transcriptions he recorded in 1973, and excellent editions of these were published by Schott in 2003.

Over the years, many Gould fans have asked about his transcription of Ravel’s La Valse, which he performed in 1975 in the second program (“The Flight from Order: 1910-1920”) of his CBC television series Music in Our Times. For this occasion, he did not make his own, wholly original transcription; rather, he re-arranged Ravel’s solo-piano transcription from 1920. In his spoken introduction to the performance (published in the Spring 2005 issue of the Foundation’s magazine), he referred to the result as “my transcription of Ravel’s transcription of La Valse.”

He wrote about this matter in a letter dated December 6, 1974, and published in Glenn Gould: Selected Letters:

 I found Ravel’s own contribution downright unusable for at least half its length; as you perhaps know, he simply wrote out the harmonic foundation of the piece on two conventional staves and added, as a kind of optional extra in very small print and on a third stave, most of the colouristic elements which give the piece its flavour; much of the time, indeed, there is simply no way in which one can incorporate the third-stave elements and simultaneously be obedient to the material on the primary staves. Consequently, I cleared away as much of the lower-stave underbrush as possible and incorporated as much of the third-stave material as I could—admittedly making a few discreet alterations in Monsieur Maurice’s voice-leading as I went along.

 That third stave includes orchestral details like chromatic scales in the woodwinds and strings, pedal points in the bass, string tremolos, and harp arpeggios. Ravel obviously did not intend this material to be played in the piano reduction, even as an “optional extra,” for, as Gould acknowledged, it is literally impossible to do so as the published transcription stands; more likely, Ravel intended merely to guide and help orient the pianist. But Gould’s aim was to work in precisely those “colouristic elements” that Ravel felt obliged to leave out.

However, he did not write out his transcription from scratch. Instead, he took a copy of Ravel’s transcription and annotated it copiously, crossing out some notes, adding others, and indicating how to redistribute the three staves’ worth of material for two hands—for instance, circling and bracketing groups of notes and labeling them “lh” and “rh.” (This score survives among his papers in the Library and Archives Canada, in Ottawa, and excerpts from it were published in facsimile in the Fall 2002 issue of the Foundation’s magazine.) Gould evidently put together the final transcription in his head, not on paper, though it would certainly be possible to create a publishable score by transcribing his performance from the original CBC recording and consulting the annotated score. And the Ravel transcription certainly qualifies as one of the most musically interesting (and most requested) bits of Gouldiana still to be published.

September 2017

Q:  We hear a lot about Gould and the Idea of North because he is so closely associated in the minds of many people with the Northern part of Ontario, but I’m wondering what places in Ontario were meaningful to him. Where did he visit?  How far North did he go?  Where were the famous pictures of him walking in the snow taken, and of him walking with his dog on film, and conducting by a waterfall?  Did he spend much time outside Toronto?

For Gould, the North really was more idea than reality. He admitted that, despite his lifelong love of the Canadian North, his longing to see it, and his frequent talk on the subject, he never actually visited anywhere more northerly than Churchill, Manitoba, to which he traveled by train, aboard the “Muskeg Express,” in June of 1965. Churchill, on the southwestern shore of Hudson Bay, is almost two thousand kilometres north of Toronto, and above the tree line, yet at latitude 58°N is still hundreds of kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. At the time, however, it was the farthest north one could travel by train. (This was the trip that, two years later, inspired The Idea of North.)

Otherwise, Gould’s ventures northward extended not even to northern Ontario but only to the Great Lakes: Manitoulin Island, for instance, in Lake Huron, and various towns on Highway 17 (part of the Trans-Canada Highway) as it runs along the north shore of Lake Superior—Marathon, Terrace Bay, and especially Wawa, all around latitude 48°N. (He admired the “Group of Seven woebegoneness” of the rugged countryside in this region.) The sequence in which he conducts by a waterfall was filmed at Magpie High Falls, near Wawa, and appears in the television documentary Variations on Glenn Gould, which aired in 1969 in the CBC series Telescope.

Those other two famous images of Gould are of even less northerly provenance. The photo of him walking in the snow comes from a series taken by Don Hunstein in Caledon, just northwest of Toronto, in January of 1970. One photo from this session graced Gould’s 1970 Columbia Masterworks album of three Beethoven sonatas, and he came to think of it as his favourite picture of himself. The sequence in which he walks his dog Banquo in the woods was filmed somewhere around his family’s cottage on Lake Simcoe, near Uptergrove, Ontario, for the 1959 National Film Board documentary Glenn Gould: Off the Record.

Though definitely a homebody, Gould did get out of Toronto quite often. For much of his life, the family cottage was a place of frequent refuge, and though he was no longer using the cottage by the 1970s he still tried to get out of the city for an extended period at least once or twice a year, mostly on driving trips within Ontario. (Work, too, sometimes took him out of town—to New York, Newfoundland, Manitoba.) In the last few years of his life, he also became fond of certain remote islands off Georgia and the Carolinas, along the southern Atlantic coast of the United States. From time to time, in the last twenty years of his life, he expressed an interest in buying property in one of the rural settings he found attractive: Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland; Bras d’Or Lake in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia; Grand Manan Island, in the Bay of Fundy off New Brunswick; the Carolinas. But he never did.

And then there was that one holiday in the Bahamas in April of 1956, which evidently supplied enough Idea of South to last him a lifetime.

Q:  In Glenn Gould's Toronto, Gould talks about his childhood and mentions the "terrors of the schoolyard." Was he bullied at school, either as a young child or in adolescence?

Gould was indeed bullied somewhat in the early grades, at Williamson Road Public School, though less so at his high school, Malvern Collegiate Institute.

His unusual intellectual and artistic gifts were apparent early on, and his schoolmates always knew he was special, which did not help him to fit in. He was known to go home from Williamson Road in tears, and a 1956 Toronto Daily Star profile reported (presumably on his authority) that he had been “tormented” by bullies. Gould himself said, that same year, “Because I wouldn’t fight back, the neighbourhood kids used to delight in beating me up. But it’s an exaggeration to say they beat me up every day. It was only every other day.” This sounds like a tall tale, of course, though with a kernel of truth.

Gould told his friend John Roberts that a bully once followed him home from school and even took a swing at him. “And Glenn just went for him,” Roberts wrote. “And hit him so hard that this kid wondered what had struck him. Then Glenn grabbed him by the lapels and shook him and said, ‘If you ever come near me again, I will kill you.’ And this kid was absolutely scared out of his mind, and the thing which also frightened Glenn was that he realized that it was true.” The effect of such an incident on a child of Gould’s sensitivity is easy to imagine. His emotional trials at school led to physical symptoms (headaches, stomach cramps) that, in turn, led to considerable absenteeism.

By the time he entered Malvern, at the age of thirteen, he already had a reputation as a local celebrity in the making, and among his classmates he was the subject of much talk, rumour, and speculation. Malvern was the sort of school in which the arts were viewed as sissy stuff, yet here was Gould with a penchant for conducting and singing to himself as he walked. Other children were not above laughing at him behind his back, though he seems not to have been bullied the way he had been at Williamson Road. His childhood neighbour and friend Robert Fulford recalled that Gould was not despised at Malvern for being an oddity, because his gifts were “prodigious and mysterious” enough to inspire a kind of awe.

He still did not fit in, of course, but then he never wanted to fit in, never sought to be a “normal” teenager. Even as a kid, he willingly sacrificed collegial fraternity on the altar of his art.

Meet Kevin Bazanna

Kevin Bazzana  is a Canadian music historian and biographer, best known for his works on the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. Bazzana is a graduate of the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, and the University of California at Berkeley. He lives in Brentwood Bay, British Columbia.

He has has written two books about Glenn Gould, Glenn Gould: The Performer in the Work (1997) and Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (2003). Wondrous Strange was nominated for the 2004 Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. Bazzana also authored a book about Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyhazi, Lost Genius: The Story of a Forgotten Musical Maverick (2007). Lost Genius was a nominee for the 2008 Charles Taylor Prize.

Bazzana also wrote the liner notes for the 2007 Zenph Studios Re-Performance CD by Glenn Gould, Bach: The Goldberg Variations on Sony BMG.