In life as well as music, Glenn Gould is all about structure and controlled mediation


Filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon interviews Glenn Gould for a series of documentaries on the music of J.S. Bach in 1980.

Sony is about to release a box set of three hour-long TV documentaries Glenn Gould made about the music of J.S. Bach, to coincide with the celebrations surrounding what would have been the pianist’s 80th birthday in September.

There are two things that stand out about these prorgammes. Both are as relevant today as when Gould sat down with French filmmaker and violinist Bruno Monsaingeon to plan what were originally supposed to be five installments, 25 years ago.

The first is mediation.

No matter how relaxed or spontaneous Gould’s playing or Monsaigeon’s interviews appear, every syllable and gesture was carefully planned and scrutinized by Gould. The filmmaker gives us a fleeting clue near the start of the first of the Glenn Gould Plays Bach shows, “The Question of Instrument,” as the camera freeze-frames on the final notes of Gould’s opening piece, then draws back to tell us that it has been peering at the pianist through a grainy video monitor.

During the three programmes, Monsaingeon appears to be interviewing Gould, but Gould wrote all the questions so that the deal dialogue we hear is between Gould and himself. There may be more than one face in the lens, but there is only one at the source of everything we see and hear.

The most obvious contemporary echo is in reality television, which is as scripted and edited as the most highbrow documentary.

Structure is the second invisible guest here, related, clearly, to the first.

This is where we get special insight into what made Gould tick.

On the second DVD, “An Art of the Fugue,” Gould returns to a subject that had always been dear to his heart and mind. During the “interview” portions between musical examples, the pianist describes a fugue as utterly timeless and reliable from a conceptual point-of-view, because it is a completely self-contained entity.

The composer introduces a subject, which is joined by a counter-subject derived directly from what preceded it. If the fugue is well-written, all the voices and modulations and developments and modifications must refer back to the original subject. There are no emotions, aural landscapes or any other forms of representation here. Everything is about the music itself.

(This same quality also allows the music to be played on just about any instrument, which is the topic of Disc 1.)

Self-referential and self-sufficient. Isn’t that so much of what all of Gould’s work was all about once he left the concert stage in 1964?

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I have to admit to having a personal epiphany while watching “An Art of the Fugue” yesterday.

Because of what I do, I can’t have a favourite genre of style of music. But because I also practice or play on a keyboard every day, I have to choose what I will spend my very precious practice time on. I have to admit that, at this point in my life, I find particular comfort and satisfaction in traditional classical structures and the careful development of musical ideas.

I’ve long described this affinity to myself as a love of order, of audible symmetry and balance. But after listening to Gould describe the self-sufficiency of a Bach fugue, everything became crystal clear: this is music that needs no external reference and is impervious to mood or temperament.

The same applies to other rule-based forms, such as the classical sonata or a passacaglia.

I realise I’m pushing the analogy here, but it’s almost like a Platonic ideal state, or essence — a blessed counterpoint to our messy Aristotelian world of shifting boundaries, mediations, compromises and infinite moral shades of grey.

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Sony has provided no information on the exact release date of this three-DVD box. The final disc contains a recording-studio interview and full video of Gould’s final recording of the Goldberg Variations, in the spring of 1981.

Information should eventually appear on the official Glenn Gould website, here.

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Here is the Goldberg performance in the recording studio, from Vol. 3:

John Terauds

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