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THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS:


THE AESTHETIC PHILOSOPHIES OF GLENN GOULD

Nicholas Faller
Introduction to Graduate Studies in Music II
University of Missouri
Spring 2017
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THE GOLDBERG VARIATIONS: THE AESTHETIC PHILOSOPHIES OF GLENN


GOULD

Introduction

Of the many performers who have contributed to the growing body of knowledge

on the performance practice of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), few have challenged

tradition and convention to the same extent as the Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould (1932-

1982). Noted for his idiosyncratic and eclectic approach to authentic style and

interpretation, Goulds fame arose at an early age with the recording of one of Bachs

most celebrated works, the Goldberg Variations (1741). Through Goulds performances,

lectures, writings, and recordings of this iconic piece a certain pattern emerges in his

interpretation, one that illuminates his singular and markedly unconventional

philosophies on musical aesthetics. These philosophies encompass several notable ideas:

formalism, the notion of performer as composer, and the emphasis on interactivity in the

act of listening. Synthesis of the writings on Goulds aesthetic philosophies with analysis

of his recordings of the Goldberg Variations will provide a clearer understanding of the

creative methods he employed in the art of interpretation.

As both a celebrated public figure and exceptional musician, Gould has been the

subject of a significant body of scholarly writing. Materials for this study include

literature addressing the social and cultural factors that influenced Goulds interpretations

of Bachs music as well as detailed score studies and analysis of both Goulds 1955 and

1981 recordings of the Goldberg Variations. Also cited are several definitive biographies

of Gould whose authors document his wildly successful career and highlight his many
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eccentricities. The combination of biographical and analytical content illustrates how

deeply necessary examination of both categories are in painting a complete picture of

Goulds approach to interpretation. Of essential value are a number of sources that

communicate Goulds own thoughts on the topics of musical interpretation and

aesthetics: published interviews, video lectures, and personal anecdotes from colleagues

and friends.

Through extensive analysis of the available research on Goulds aesthetic

philosophies as they apply to specific steps in Goulds creative process, in this essay I

will deconstruct Goulds interpretive approach in an attempt to provide rational

explanation for an imaginative mind that is too often simplified or dismissed as eccentric.

In addition, examples from Bachs Goldberg Variations will provide tangible examples of

these aesthetic philosophies as they occur in Goulds playing.

Background

Born in Toronto in 1932, Glenn Gould showed incredible proficiency on the piano

in his childhood. Motivated and precocious, He quickly developed into one of the most

revolutionary concert pianists of his time. Over the course of his musical development,

Gould began to favor works of the Baroque, Classical, and late Romantic periods for their

alluring structural complexity. In contrast, he showed marked contempt for early

Romantic and Impressionistic works, especially those that were at the core of the piano

repertoire in his youth.1 As these musical preferences demonstrate, Gould found joy in

the intellectual challenges of the music that he played, primarily focusing on formal

1 Kevin Bazzana, Biography This is Glenn Gould (www.glenngould.com/biography;


accessed 4 March 2017).
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aspects such as complex contrapuntal lines or large-scale musical structures. Although he

showed favor towards older musical styles, Goulds methods for musical interpretation

were far from traditional. His remarkable technical skill provided him with the capability

to break convention and as a result, offer genuinely personal interpretations of canonical

works by composers such as Bach.

At the age of twenty-three, Gould released his critically acclaimed recording of

the Goldberg Variations (released in 1955). This performance, as one of the few existing

recordings of the piece in the 1950s, both propelled Gould to international fame and

solidified the pieces place in contemporary piano repertoire.2 The record, infused with

Goulds remarkable ability and personal eccentricity, was the result of years of obsessive

preparation. Gould favored a practice technique called tapping, pioneered by his teacher

Alberto Guerrero, during which the pianist would produce the sound of each note by

tapping each finger with the non-playing hand. This exercise built a sense of economical

and relaxed muscle movement, allowing Gould to push beyond the technical and musical

limits of this predecessors.3

Critics raved about Goulds flagship recording, proclaiming him to be one of the

most important pianists of his generation. One reviewer from the New York Times

perceived his extraordinary commitment to the music:

Gould has skill and imagination, and the music appears to mean something
to him. He also has a sharp, clear technique that enables him to toss of the

2 Bazzana, Biography. This is Glenn Gould.

3 Kevin Bazzana, Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (New York:
Oxford University Press, 2004), 72.
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contrapuntal intricacies of the writing with no apparent effort. Best of all,


his work has intensity...Obviously a young man with a future.4

Not all reviews of Goulds recordings or public performances were positive.

Many critics targeted Goulds idiosyncrasies and his iconoclastic creative approach. For

example, in 1956, one critic complained:

Goulds storm tossed mane of hair, his invertebrate posture at the


keyboard and his habit of collapse at the end of each solo line was sheer
show businessit is his tragedy that his behavior at the piano produced
laughter in his audience.5

Not long after, Gould retired from the concert stage in favor of the recording

studio. He cited his displeasure with his inability to realize his artistic potential on the

concert stage fully, as well as a deep infatuation with the possibilities of electronic

media.6 Gould continued to record, compose, and lecture until his death in 1982, just

after the release of his final recording of the same piece that had catapulted him to fame,

the Goldberg Variations.

Formalism The Core of Goulds Creative Thought

Platonic Idealism and Formalism are the aesthetic beliefs that form the core of

Goulds interpretational practices. While Gould did not receive a formal philosophical

4 Ibid., 154.

5 Peter F. Ostwald, Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius (New York:
W. W. Norton, 1997), 133.

6 Bazzana, Biography. This is Glenn Gould.


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education or even finish high school, his beliefs can be strongly inferred from his

writings, interviews, and musical performances.7

Gould primarily viewed music as an abstract phenomenon, separate from its

physical means of production.8 This idealist philosophy led Gould to acknowledge

formal structure and coherence as the most fundamental aspects in the identity of a

musical work.9 Emphasis on formalist philosophies led Gould to conclude that

interpretive decisions should be entirely determined by purely musical characteristics

rather than any considerations of technique, literary association, or emotional quality.10

This approach is best reflected in Goulds choice of tempo for the piece. His 1955

recording reflected a marked indifference to tempo. Thanks to his remarkable technical

facility and adept realization of the counterpoint, Gould chose some incredibly quick

tempi for each of the variations. Few, if any, of these match the tempi suggested by the

Kirkpatrick edition and were likely chosen in an effort to demonstrate his exceptional

virtuosity.11 Goulds approach to tempo, nonetheless, changed as he matured:

7 Kevin Bazzana, Glenn Gould: A Study in Performance Practice (Ph.D. Dissertation,


University of California at Berkeley, 1996), 2.

8 Bazzana, Glenn Gould: A Study in Performance Practice, 2.

9 Ibid., 5.

10 Ibid.

11 Nicholas Hopkins, Glenn Goulds Goldberg Variations: A Transcription of the


1981 Recording of the Goldberg Variations by Johann Sebastian Bach (New
York: Carl Fischer, 2015), 5.
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I could not recognize or identify with the spirit of the person who made
that recording. It really seemed like some other spirit was involved, and as
a consequence I was very glad to be doing it again As Ive grown older
Ive found many performances, certainly the great majority of my own
performances, are just too fast for comfort.12

As a result, choice of tempo became of primary concern in his 1981 recording of

the Goldberg Variations. Gould believed that the piece should have a single pulse, with

complex divisions of this pulse serving as subsidiary pulses for each variation.13 The

presence of a single pulse was essential to creating a structurally unified whole. Gould

believed that, because of the varied range of moods and textures presented in the

variations, the piece provides a distinct challenge in the avoidance of its sounding like

thirty distinct works.14

And yet, Gould was not always consistent with his formalist approach. Rather

than draw attention to the repeated bass pattern, a unifying device first heard in the aria

and subsequently in many of the variations, he underplays it in favor of the beautifully

flowing melodies written overtop.15 Nicholas Hopkins made the observation:

12 Hopkins, Glenn Goulds Goldberg Variations, 5.

13 Hopkins, Glenn Goulds Goldberg Variations, 5.

14 Ibid., 14.

15 Ibid., 27-28
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It is ironic that [Gould] was critical of Bachs disregard of the Arias


thematic materials, but offered an interpretation that focused primarily on
the disregarded materials, at the expense of what Bach retained.16

Whether Gould was ignoring the unifying material or was simply trying to draw attention

to the intricate counterpoint, this multidimensional approach balances the tenants of

formalism with raw expression, allowing the music to speak for itself.

Performer as Co-Composer Crafting an Interpretation

One of the most pervasive philosophies in Goulds interpretations is that of the

performer as co-composer. Gould was firmly opposed to the work concept of music, in

which the physical score encompassed every single detail of a piece of music.17 Gould

altered the score without hesitation in an attempt to realize his own aesthetic ideals. He

was a great advocate of this approach to music and, in an interview found on The Art of

Piano, lectured:

I think that what happened in the 18th century when performers stopped
being composers was the great disaster for music and I think that to look at
it today as an irrevocable move and to say that this is not any longer
correctible; that we cannot in fact get back to that glorious time when
performers had a composers insight into music and when an audience
consisted largely of people who performed and composed for themselves;
that we cannot get back to that I think is simply to say is music is
finished.18

16 Ibid., 28

17 Andy Hamilton, Aesthetics & Music (Continuum International Publishing Group,


2007), 35.

18 Donald Sturrock, The Art of Piano: Great Pianists of the 20th Century [DVD]
(NVC Arts, 2002).
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While learning the Goldberg Variations, Gould almost exclusively consulted an

edition edited by Ralph Kirkpatrick, a respected American musicologist. This edition

was known at the time for adhering to the contemporary trends in Baroque performance

practice by providing vital information on ornamentation, fingering, phrasing, tempo, and

dynamics.19 It is extremely likely that the information presented in this edition played a

part in shaping Goulds creative paradigm.

The very fact that three copies of this edition of the Goldberg Variations were

housed in the Glenn Gould Archive in the National Library of Canada, and no other

editions were retained, provides another interesting look into Goulds approach to the

piece. It shows that Gould had relatively little interest or concern for the quality of the

editions that he chose over the course of his almost thirty-year history with the piece.

There is absolutely no indication, written or otherwise, that Gould ever consulted other

editions or publications for the purpose of critical analysis.20 Therefore, his only concern,

according to Nicholas Hopkins, was recreation of the score according to his own

insights rather than authenticity or textual fidelity.21

Even the emergence of the Handexemplar, Bachs edited copy of the Goldberg

Variations (found in 1974) did not make a mark on Goulds second recording of the ionic

work (1981). Although Gould was likely aware of its existence, it is likely that he was

19 Hopkins, Glenn Goulds Goldberg Variations, 10.

20 Hopkins, Glenn Goulds Goldberg Variations, 10.

21 Ibid.
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either entirely convinced with his own interpretation or that he was unable to reconcile

these new findings with his own beliefs about how the piece should be performed.22

Goulds refusal to adapt to this new information further reflected his belief that the

performer had both the right and responsibility to alter the information in the score

according to his or her own aesthetic conception of the piece.23 Gould made significant

alterations to ornamentation, articulation, dynamics, fingerings, pedaling, repeats, and

pauses. For the purpose of brevity, only the issue of dynamics will be addressed.24

Dynamic indications in Bachs score are limited to sporadic alternations of piano

and forte (terraced dynamics), with forte being the prevailing dynamic for the piece as

outlined by the Doctrine of Affections.25 Gould adhered to these aesthetic principles and

instead primarily varied dynamics as a method of differentiating specific voices in a

polyphonic structure.26 This could be done to draw attention to inner voices, which were

not normally emphasized in traditional performance; to highlight motivic correspondence

22 Ibid., 11-12

23 Ibid.

24 Further information regarding other aspects of Goulds interpretation can be found in


Nicholas Hopkins, Glenn Goulds Goldberg Variations, 16-25.

25From Hopkins, Glenn Goulds Goldberg Variations, 17: ...An aesthetic concept
prevalent in Baroque music that stipulated that a piece should assume a single character
for its duration.

26 Hopkins, Glenn Goulds Goldberg Variations, 17.


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between voices, or to emphasize parts responsible for the forward momentum of the

piece.27 These clearly marked dynamic choices, coupled with Goulds dynamic nuances

and brilliant technique, contributed to a personalized performance.

Recording and Interactivity in the Act of Listening Musical Transmission as a Means


for Creative Expression

Possibly the most controversial philosophy that Gould championed, was his belief

that the concert hall would soon become obsolete as the main means of musical

transmission. He believed that it would soon be superseded by studio recording, an

approach that he contended would provide greater clarity to the creative communication

taking place between the performer and their audience.28 The detailed and arguably

obsessive practices that became habit in his childhood now followed him into the studio,

creating a greater level of interactivity in music and allowing audience participation in a

form that was not possible in the cult of personality that surrounded public performance.

In this manner, the studio achieved the perfect blend of artistic and social freedom.29

Goulds recording process, which resembled a forced hermitage, provided a frame

for personal musical ideas, allowing him the opportunity to capture his true musical

thoughts through seemingly endless repetition, editing, and experimentation while also

27 Ibid., 17-18.

28 Tim Hecker, "Glenn Gould, the Vanishing Performer and the Ambivalence of the
Studio," Leonardo Music Journal XVII (2008), 77.

29 Ibid., 78.
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isolating him from any external social factors that might have attempted to influence his

creative process. This solitude was also extended to listeners, placing them in an

environment free of any social pressure that might have colored their opinion of the

music. This overwhelming level of musical control proved to be in direct contrast to the

musical trends of the late twentieth century, with the aesthetic philosophies of composers

such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen moving in the direction of aleatory

chaos.30

Gould believed that the creative freedom that this environment granted both the

performer and the audience resulted in a symbiotic process, accelerating the development

of new, revolutionary ideas as channels of pure communication were opened through this

medium.31

These philosophies, nonetheless, pose several inherent problems. Foremost,

Goulds expectations on the listener extend far beyond the capabilities of most members

of his audience. Not only did Gould expect a high degree of creative thought from his

listeners, but he expected many to use these newfound insights in an attempt to create

something new, either by challenging his interpretations in their own performance or

through new technical processes like tape splicing.32 Furthermore, the complete state of

solitude granted to the listener is greatly exaggerated. Goulds reputation for eccentricity

30 Ibid.

31 Hecker, Glenn Gould, the Vanishing Performer and the Ambivalence of the Studio.
79.

32 Ibid.
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would have preceded him to any listener purchasing his recordings and would have likely

had some influence on their perception of the music. Therefore, this aesthetic

philosophy, while not entirely grounded in reality, was representative of a utopian ideal of

musical transmission.

Not only did these utopian ideals influence Goulds choice of musical

transmission, but also his interpretational process. With production aesthetics becoming

almost an instrument on its own, Gould attempted to expand his technical virtuosity to

the realms of studio recording. This is most clearly seen in his split preference between

recording as true representation and the idea of musical artifice.33 In his 1981 recording

of the Goldberg Variations, Gould recorded twenty full takes of the aria before he

eventually found an interpretation that he enjoyed, claiming that it took that many takes

to erase any superfluous expression from his playing.34 In contrast, Gould spliced

together several different takes of a prelude from The Well Tempered Clavier, creating a

hybrid performance that combined the best interpretational choices of each.35

Conclusion

Goulds personal and highly controversial attitudes towards music performance

distinguish him as one of the most highly discussed musicians of the twentieth century.

33 Ibid.

34 Geoffrey Payzant, Glenn Gould: Music and Mind (London: Van Nostrand Reinhold,
1978), 37.

35 Ibid., 39.
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Despite the dismissal by numerous critics over the course of his career, Goulds distinct

aesthetic philosophies created a sense of legitimacy around his iconoclastic creative

process. Most of the philosophies that Gould and his researchers outlined are, indeed,

utopian in their construction, and as a result the effectiveness of their impact on Goulds

interpretation of the Goldberg Variations and the effect on his audience was questionable.

The unfortunate reality is that music, in its most abstract sense, is not a tangible

phenomenon. While the score itself is a valuable tool in the reproduction of a broad and

general musical structure, it does not capture the true essence of a single musical

performance. As a result it is difficult if not impossibleto make an objective claim

about the effectiveness or rationality of Goulds, or any other performers, creative

choices. Instead, the audience has the responsibility to make an educated judgment about

the performance, one informed by a broad knowledge of existing theories and practices

regarding the music in question. These conclusions must be open to new research and the

inevitable challenges of numerous contrasting opinions.

An extremely detailed body of scholarly research is available on the topic of

Goulds aesthetic philosophies, predominately conducted by the Canadian historian and

musicologist, Kevin Bazzana. Relatively little investigation has been done regarding

how Goulds creative process relates to the aesthetic philosophies that emerged in the

visual arts, as examined by nineteenth-century philosophers such as Georg Wilhelm

Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Furthermore, a study

comparing Goulds philosophies with those of his contemporaries, notably Rosalyn

Tureck (1914-2003) or William Kappell (1922-53), would be a valuable addition to

existing research.
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The study conducted in this essay portrays Gould as a significant and thoughtful

creative mind, rather than a merely aberrant individual. While study of his belief system

does illuminate and contextualize his creative practices, it does not necessarily make

Goulds choices any less polemic. This controversy is, in fact, representative of one the

most important and profound victories of Goulds prolific career: study of Goulds

performance requires a re-evaluation and critical examination of ones own musical

standards, which, for aspiring musicologists, performers, and critical listeners, is one of

the greatest creative gifts that the Gould could have given.

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of California at Berkeley, 1996.

______. Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould. New York: Oxford
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