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Glenn Gould and Classical Interpretation

Discussion in 'The RedBanned Bar & Grill' started by Rohann van Rensburg, May 17, 2023.

  1. Came across this video and thought this was an interesting discussion:

    I remember @Doug Gibson posting a video about Gould talking about Stravinsky's "bad voice leading" and how his music "drives him literally up the wall". He also had an essay on why he thought Mozart was a "bad composer" later on in his life. I personally side far more with Bernstein on this topic -- even before I was accustomed to many of Bach's pieces, I never enjoyed Gould's performances of Bach as it felt like his playing lost the sublimity of the music and lacked respect for it. He goes as far as to deliberately ignore performance markings on many pieces.

    His rationale overall was essentially that these pieces had been performed as written "to death", so the only thing left to do was "reimagine" or "recompose" them.

    There seem to be two camps of sorts, with some variation in between. On the one hand, the great composers are great for a reason, we should revere and respect their work and play it as intended, and they deserve to be there. On the other hand, the greats are somewhat arbitrarily propped up and deified, and their work should be interpreted and room should be made for new work. Both sides have their extremes too (the greats are gods before men and are to be revered as such vs. music theory is "racist" or whichever postmodern idiocy is insisted upon). Personally, while I'm all for the innovation that came with later composers and other forms of music, I find the latter camp tends to be less philosophically robust, missing the mark on the universality of the music and the nature of interpreting music written by a composer in the first place. We all have individual expression, but composers make performance markings for a reason, and without these, the piece loses an important component of itself. I think boundaries and confines are wholly warranted in performance.

    I also find it unsurprising that Bernstein is a strong advocate for sharing the love and beauty of music with children and had strong things to say about teachers complaining about hearing pieces too frequently with fresh-eared students, while Gould was contemptuous of the public and seemed to love being snidely contrarian about art in general.

    Any thoughts?
  2. I believe in the Holy Trinity - Composer, Performer, Listener. I do everything I can to get my music, as I hear it in my head, into the listener's, by way of the performer. But I learned early on that the performer had something to add; something unique and individual such that it mattered precisely who was performing it. It is never enough to hire a good - even great - player; that alone does not define their contribution.

    Today, I try to be less dogmatic, and less specific where I can so as to let the performer influence the work more directly. I found this philosophy to work in directing actors, and in raising my son as well. But when the time comes that I'm very particular about a detail, I mark it as such, and because I'm generally not heavy-handed, it doesn't fatigue the performer or strangle them.

    Glenn Gould makes odd choices, and sometimes brilliant ones. When Draco was learning Invention 13 we laughed at, and not with, Gould's take. But he's also right that after hundreds of years, if you're performing it at all, do you have anything to add?

    In the end, if I wanted every note and nuance to be precisely as I intend it, I'll just sit at home and play with myself. But I'd be missing an opportunity for it to grow beyond itself, if I endeavor to find the right performer in whom I can trust.
  3. I think you have to follow Gould chronologically to understand him. Also he is not afraid of "odd choices"

    To give an analogy if you start with late Picasso, then it is easy to think the art world is a con and full of shit.
    You might see a picture of a triangle with a nipple and think "is that it". However his early work for very "real life" and you
    can really see he had control of his craft.This is particularly true of Dali. I remember once my teacher told me to check out John Coltrane. He told me he was the most brilliant Jazz musician. So I went to Best Buy and picked up a cheap CD called "Planets".
    This was basically free jazz. Noise. It was world aparts from Blue train or Kind of Blue.

    Gould wanted to become a "Thought Leader". His later recordings became critiques. It is as much art criticism as performance.
    He did not believe in "Authentic Interpretation. Now sure if you are aware this was happening before he retired from performing in public.

    Bernstein made a minor scandal with his speech before performing with Gould

    However you would find it easier and more in context by starting with his earlier work

  4. Well said Mike, been stewing on this a while. Solid philosophy in general. Selecting and sussing out the best out of a performer -- in the way that they best perform through their own individuality -- is truly a fascinating skill that seems to require openness and "letting go" as much as it does directing. Plenty of parenting analogies in there. It's easier to redirect a stream by gently changing its course and letting it flow than it is to dam it up and attempt to force it in another direction.

    Barring Doug's context post, I would agree with you wholeheartedly. My head/heart are half in the jazz/progressive rock way of approaching music, and the other half in the classical world. I'm very much for experimentation, tastefully and artfully pushing boundaries and opening oneself up to the mysterious experience of genuine creativity, and some are born for that more than others. But I also revere the greats for what they wrote and contributed, perhaps too rigidly. Bach -- while not always my first choice to listen to -- likely sits atop this pile of giants. I commend Gould's audacity and his approach, but I also prefer approaching original pieces of composing greats with a great deal of respect for intent, especially those in earlier eras. This isn't a narrow tunnel, since we obviously cannot know exactly what Bach and others intended in their music, but more of a wide road whereupon one may change lanes or drive at various speeds but going "off" the road tends not to fare well. While I do think he was brilliant, I find myself generally siding with the joy and respect that (Seymour) Bernstein approached Bach and others with. Maybe I would think differently if we were not in an era of arrogant "deconstructionist" pseudo-art and I longed for "different", rather than "beautiful".
  5. Good to see you on here! I was hoping this thread would summon you back onto the forum somehow :).

    Great points, always important to watch progression of an artist. Makes me think of comparing "Bitches Brew" to "Kind of Blue", or Scott Walker's "Walker Brothers" to "Drift". The desire to continue growing occasionally seems to entail losing interest in what resonates with a good portion of one's audience.

    That makes sense given Gould's essays and his later ideas about performance. I much respect the unapologetic progress of an artist, but likely differ on the idea of "authenticity" -- I do agree in part that "authentic interpretation" isn't real, but I also don't believe that means it's entirely a relativist/ambiguous experience. But I'm some rando on the internet, and he's Glenn Gould.

    As an aside, I think Picasso was arguably more obscure than even Dali. Amazing experience to see Dali's "Divina Commedia" in Florence some years ago, while surrealist and weird (obviously), there was such a precision and clear intent in his work.

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