Introduction to The Last Puritan:

Glenn Gould (1932 ~ 1982)

 

© Bruno Monsaingeon

 

Los Angeles - late July 1973

I happen to be spending a few days in the company of Yehudi Menuhin who came to give two concerts in California.  Tomorrow, he will travel back to Europe while I will be flying to Toronto where I am to meet Glenn Gould for the first time.  I mention this to Yehudi, curious as I am to know his feelings vis-a-vis an artist whom I admire but have never met, although we did exchange a rather voluminous written correspondence over the past few months.  Much to my surprise, I learn that Yehudi and Glenn know each other personally; that they have in fact played together.  Yehudi undertakes to relate the occasion:
     "It dates back to 1965; Glenn Gould had invited me to participate in one of his television appearances and had asked me to play with him sonatas by Bach and Beethoven and...the Schönberg Fantasy.  As you well know, Schönberg is not amongst those twentieth century composers for whose music I have an immediate and irresistible appeal.  When I arrived at Glenn's place in Toronto for our first scheduled rehearsal, I met a man of genius to whom the Schönbergian structures and idiom were natural elements.  We worked on the Fantasy together and he magnificently managed to convey to me the profound understanding and true love he had for that music.  It was a revelation." 

Toronto - one day later

     I let into my hotel room a very odd individual muffled up in a sizeless overcoat and wearing cap, scarves, gloves and overshoes despite the hot weather outside.  In the course of the subsequent first fifteen hours of uninterrupted conversation, I feel submerged by his intensity, his warmth and his humour.  Our mutual admiration for Menuhin provides us with a most opportune conversation opener:
     "Two days prior to the taping sessions, Yehudi came to Toronto hardly knowing the Schönberg Fantasy.  While we were working on it, I witnessed his progressive immersion into the work of which he finally gave an intensely poetic and heart- rending reading.  It was a revelation." 
     Such was the appropriate beginning to what was to prove an incredibly productive ten years of collaboration between Glenn Gould and myself.  This collaboration resulted in two series of films, the last one designed to represent his musical testament - containing the Goldberg Variations as the ultimate instalment we were given to complete - and for which we had further plans for a few years to come. 
     I was still more or less a kid then and he was approaching his fortieth year.  My professional activity as musician and film-maker had hardly begun, whereas he had already been the subject of a legend.  Moreover I was living in France where he had never set foot ("The French nation has known worse crises than my absence," he said to me.) and towards whose music and art, a few exceptions aside, he felt no inclination; now that he has departed, thereby depriving my own existence of a part of the essential content with which he had provided it, I often and timidly wonder, like Thomas Mann's Dr.  Zeitblom attempting to draw the portrait of Adrian Leverkuhn, what might have been the common ground on which our friendship was founded and without which no long-term association would have been possible. 
     I suppose that more than age analogy, more than geographic rooting, and more even than community of experience and interests, it is a community of preoccupations that is most likely to fecundate friendship.  Here I was attempting to give musical form and expression to films, confronted with a great man who was convinced that his best musical thought went into recordings and that the best analogy to be found vis-a-vis the making of a record involving musical interpretation was in the filming process - a man who was convinced that concentrated communication required isolation from the world with which one eventually wanted to communicate and also the whole apparatus of preconception, production and post-production editorial after-thought.  And yet of all pianists, he was in a sense the one who needed least the assistance of the editorial blade because of the unparalleled infallibility of his technical resources and the superb lucidity of his conceptions. 
     It will already have been guessed: Glenn Gould is in my opinion the most important personality of the present musical world, not only as a pianist (even though many people, because of their attachment to pre-ordained categories, ignore or prefer to ignore that he was much more: "I am," he said, "a Canadian writer and broadcaster who happens to play the piano in his spare time.") but also as a musical thinker: composer, writer, sociologist, theoretician and prophet of the means of communication of the future, and finally moralist. 
     Let us imagine for a moment that we are in the audience at one of the concerts that established Glenn Gould's international reputation in 1955 - we immediately know that we are dealing with the foremost pianist of the century.  Such an assertion, however, does not mean very much, because what he is bringing lies in an altogether different and elevated sphere.  His kingdom does not belong in the same world.  By deserting a few years later, at the age of 32 and at the peak of fame according to a carefully premeditated plan which nobody believed he would follow, the bloodthirsty arena of public concerts, to confine his activity to the hermetically sealed privacy of the recording studio, Glenn Gould was assigning a new role to the interpreter and defining a new concept of interpretation.  Concert audiences seldom have a clear idea of what a concert artist's career represents.  What they perceive as a unique occasion is often not much more than an act of routine which ensnares in their own trap those who commit themselves to it.  The preservation of artistic and emotional integrity, despite the easy and deceptive seduction of power which success seems to bring about, is hardly ever the preoccupation of artists whose lives are made up of intrigue, rivalry, comparison and tiresome repetitiveness. 
     The present book, Le dernier Puritain (Ed.), contains some extremely touching pages on a few artists who have maintained a purity of purpose and who resisted the temptations of the 'amoral' world of the public concert while still participating in it.  It remains nonetheless a world which Glenn Gould refuses to understand and which he rejects on the basis of an essentially moral position.  All in all, Gould champions the delightfully totalitarian idea according to which there should exist in art no concept of "demand" but only a concept of "supply", or at least that the artist must not take into account the "demand" of the public.  The consequences of such a system of autocratic thinking are immense albeit unexpected.  On the one hand, the repertoire which an artist like Glenn Gould tackles gives the impression of an infinitely expanding universe instead of undergoing the inevitable shrinking process which is that of the concert artist's who submits to the pressure of time and of his public's requirements.  There is something miraculous in that, by the sheer strength of his personality, Glenn Gould should have been able to impose a type of repertoire which did not a priori seem to meet with the criteria of the musical market. 
     When Glenn Gould decided to withdraw from the stage, nobody seriously believed that the discs which he was to continue to record were going to have a prolonged commercial career, because of the interruption of the artist's public appearances which one assumed were the necessary instrument of the continuity of an otherwise unsaleable marketing image - and also because of the supposed austerity and uncompromising quality of the pianist's options in terms of repertoire.  In but a few years of concert activity, Glenn Gould had secured a sufficiently firm financial basis that would allow him to resist the danger of making concessions ("Another bad week like that on Wall Street, he once remarked jestingly, and I'll have to record the Grieg and the Tsjaikovski concertos to recoup!"). 
     More profoundly perhaps, this autocratic thinking allowed him to redefine the concept of interpretation.  First of all he felt that unless the performer evolved a radically different - and of course consistent - conception of a piece, different from what had previously been stated by his colleagues as well as by himself, there was no justification in his performing it.  This amounts to asserting the autonomy of the performer in relation to the score, as well as the possibility of an interpretive pluralism: for Glenn Gould there can exist a multiplicity of equally valid and sublime versions of the same work.  One cannot therefore judge or evolve an interpretation according to the canons of a tradition or the spirit of a given time - which would lead to total conformity - but only according to its structural consistency.  The distinction between creation and interpretation tends to disappear when one hears Glenn Gould, because he invents something which had not even touched our imagination. 
     In that sense, Glenn Gould is the first non-figurative interpreter: once he has grasped the structure of a work, he can allow himself to treat it in the manner of a film-maker who adapts a book for a film, or of a painter who transposes the reality of his model on that other reality which is his canvas; the work poses for him.  In that sense also, Glenn Gould is the interpreter who is closest to the listener, for he invites the latter to participate with him in the exploration of an unknown territory, in the deciphering of signs whose code would have long been lost.  The listener who wishes to find in an interpretation that he knows already cannot but reject him.  The other listener participates with him in the ecstasy of the creation of a new work of art which is much more than just the ephemeral expression of an emotion or the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline: "The purpose of art," wrote Glenn, "is the gradual, life-long construction of a state of wonder and serenity." 
     Engaged in the structure of the music, detached from the instrument which he had mastered to perfection, Glenn seemed to be possessed by a kind of clinical ecstasy when he played.  Thinking as a composer, he identified creatively with the work performed and could therefore allow himself a critical and non-servile attitude towards the score.  Harnessing the undissipated intellectual power that only solitude can give, he could engage himself in a manifold enterprise as pianist, composer, writer and broadcaster: a kind of meditation in action on the concept of communication in the era of technology and of the "charitable" machine.  Technology, he hoped, would be a redeemer.  A sin had been committed at the end of the eighteenth century and if technology helped to put less emphasis on the notion of individual and separate identity, as well as on the hierarchical subdivisions that art seems to imply, composer, interpreter and listener should be in a state to reclaim the unity shattered by the artistic concepts of the Romantic age. 
     Blessed as he was with the conjunction of an incomparably compelling intellect and seemingly limitless pianistic gifts, yet also distrustful of fingers he saw as dangerous agents full of thought-dictating potential, Glenn could dispense with practicing, that chore of a musician's daily routine.  Indeed, if, aside from our working and shooting sessions, I did hear Glenn play the piano quite often for his, or our own pleasure (Ah!  that first time, in the warehouse where his piano was stored, when I was granted a six hour long recital consisting of Schubert's 5th Symphony, the entire Elektra of Richard Strauss, Hindemith's 3rd Sonata, Lieder by Schönberg, and the final scene from Strauss' Capriccio.)  The only time I ever heard Glenn actually practice the piano happened a few days before he was scheduled to record the Webern Concert for nine instruments for his Television series Music in our time.  We were working on the details of a script, when suddenly, in the middle of the night, he asked me if I would not mind wasting a few minutes.  As usual, he had studied the score away from the piano.  Its intricate parts had become so integrated in his mind that he suddenly discovered he had to go to the piano to force his fingers to "unlearn" the parts of the other instruments involved in the piece!  In fact, the whole concept of repetitiveness on which the practice of music has so far been based appeared to him entirely nonsensical and deprived of the creative spark that makes music an ecstatic experience.  A new vision of the same work was of course always possible, but it would not be conditioned by the deteriorating influence of overexposure.  If Glenn decided to record a work again - that happened only two or three times in 26 years of recording endeavours - his decision was based on technological reasons as well as on the conviction that he could establish an entirely new relationship to the work in question and envisage it from a completely different and coherent angle. 
     Of this attitude, I was the privileged participant when, amongst many other ventures, I directed the film of Bach's Goldberg Variations which he re-recorded one year before his death.  The filming sessions, which coincided with those of the sound recording, took place over a period of several months during which I would travel back and forth from Europe and he between Toronto and New York.  We kept in daily contact, spending countless nights on transatlantic calls singing to each other over the telephone the variations that remained to be filmed so as to make sure that we would finally achieve a perfectly integrated structure of picture and sound. 
     The film which ensued remains for me in the estate of dreams, because I know that I probably never again will extract from an "interpreter" such an intense and confident participation in the staging process, which partly accounts for the unequalled strength of its impact as a musical film.  As to the record, which is made up of the sound track of the film, it presents the sumptuous testimony of its author's ability to renew himself radically in an act of mystical lucidity.  It was to be released a few days before Glenn's death, thereby surrounding his existence, as though it had been interpolated between the two peaceful Arias and the two recordings - one opening, the other closing his career- of Bach's masterpiece, with a symbol of cyclic perfection.  "A work," Glenn had written in his sleeve notes for his 1956 first recording, "which observes neither beginning nor end."  This seems to me the opportune moment to point out the extraordinary equation which, as with Sebastian Bach, exists between the contrapuntal idea and Gould's thinking.  It has become a cliché, to wonder on the clarity of his playing, on that unique capacity to differentiate the polyphonic texture of a work.  Even the most relentless detractors of Gould could not but acknowledge that fact and, for the layman, the feeling he has, when listening to Gould, of being able to hear everything, of participating to an "internal" reading of the score whose every single element seems to become perceptible thanks to the fanatic precision of a perfectly designed pattern, is not the least among the charms of Gould's playing. 
     One must however examine matters further, because, to attempt to reduce to a mere phenomenon of pianistic technique such an exceptional ability to lead a multiplicity of voices along a true polyphony of ideally differentiated phrasings, must obviously be ruled out.  All that can only proceed from a thought, and Gould's thought, like his activities and his tastes, falls within the province of an essentially contrapuntal philosophy.  Indeed, his very existence is akin to a gigantic perpetual fugue, to a form which ponders about its own form and which defines it.  Like all good fugal themes whose utterances are not conclusive but rather generate an answer and create from their own substance an infinitely expanding and perennially unfinished universe, Gould's existence responds to another realm of sensitivity than that to which we are usually bound, and reaches out towards the world of transcendence.  Glenn Gould's world dismisses the concept of conflict as a principle of action; it is, in the proper sense of the word, "asexual," contemplative and ecstatic, passionate yet antisensual, and merges in the divinely ordained nature of contrapuntal organisation.  Like the fugal universe, it subscribes to a concept of incessant motion and continuous variation which withstands the assaults of fashion and time, which repels the theatrical notions based on accumulation of contrast that were secreted and subsequently exploited by Romanticism.  The multiplicity of Gouldian projects, activities and themes also proceeds from the same spirit of contrapuntal superposition which totally absorbs the intellect and entails an absolute control of time, of space, and of their most refined subdivisions.  Gould did not repeat himself, he did not append extendable devices to his work which therefore inevitably had to remain unfinished, whatever might have been the time of his death.  As with Bach's Art of the Fugue, however, it is above all an aura of withdrawal which pervades the ultimate production of Gould.  In his quest of anonymity, which according to him every artist should pursue, he "was in fact withdrawing, from the pragmatic concerns of music-making into an idealized world of uncompromised invention."  Once he carried out a few more projects that were particularly close to his heart, Gould - only some of us knew about that - was going to stop making records; after a few years of a glittering but enigmatic concert career, after a quarter of a century spent in the recording studio, after having moreover produced innumerable radio programmes and published a huge amount of writings on a wide variety of subjects, Glenn Gould was about to withdraw into a world of silence, of total and ascetic solitude in which, cleansed of the coarse manifestations of incarnated sound (which had anyway become unnecessary to his inner hearing), only the spirit hears.  He would not have remained inactive: indeed, being finally able to control his own profound time, he was ready to let his literary work blossom in full bloom. 
     Few artists have, like Glenn Gould, given so overwhelmingly of their own self while showing themselves so very sparingly, for the quest of anonymity is hardly compatible with public recognition.  The recognition of Glenn Gould's genius was neither immediate nor universal.  Even in America, his name was known only locally until his first appearances in Washington and New York launched him overnight and as if by storm on the international scene.  France, a country which, after finally discovering his genius as a musician, probably best saw into the implications of his thought, and is also one of the countries where he actually never performed and where he became known only belatedly, ten years after he had withdrawn from the stage to respond to a higher calling.  His philosophy of communication had already been defined when he was "launched" there through the exclusive means of electronic media, and yet without his ever yielding to the play of public relations, of interviews or of participation in those facile television talk shows that are plugged into the spirit of the time and that weaken and paraphrase the strength of a message which, only when it is controlled, can diffuse its glittering light. 
     Our joint work was set, because of its very meticulousness outside of the television system, and it is a rather comforting thought to know that, in spite of a single late night showing, in spite of its complex and passionately uncompromising contents, the message, extirpating itself from the distressing banality of the televised product, should have been perceived.  The reason no doubt lies in that there remains a niche to be occupied by someone like Glenn who chooses to place himself fraternally outside of a civilisation characterised by promiscuity, comparison, conformity and dispute.  By substituting to conventional and impervious knowledge the deeply experienced reality of structures, by developing an intelligence which re-interprets the world instead of reproducing it, Glenn Gould makes a universal gesture, because he reveals to ourselves an inner world which is also ours but whose vision would have without him forever remained lazily unknown to us. 
     Contrary to what some people assumed or would have liked to have us assume, his is not a sorrowful story.  In giving up concerts towards which indeed many of his contemporaries such as Svjatoslav Richter or Michelangeli, not to mention predecessors like Liszt, have displayed hardly less than ambivalent feelings, through the barely more than intermittent keenness with which they indulged in them, Gould proposes an answer, which will eventually appear as one of common sense to questions posed by others.  He does however find there the joyous driving spark which will allow him to communicate in a manner at once massive and intimate, the inordinate love of music which is his, before attaining the realm of silence and of the unspeakable.  Whoever has had as I have the implausible privilege to spend those ignited nights in the alchemist's den, to see him manipulating and mastering concepts and techniques alike with such jubilation and such exultant humour, can attest that the passionate, wilful and reasoned ordering of all senses which Glenn achieved, to express his peremptory yet affectionate and serene vision of the architecture of all things, if obviously not frivolous, is also not gloomy or sour.  Wisdom prevailed within his enclosure, confusion without! 
     Indeed, Glenn Gould was neither insane nor dangerous.  He did, however and no doubt, represent a threat to the musical profession as we know it, and the implications of his thinking reach far beyond the limits of esthetics.  The musical world, particularly in North America, if hopefully less so in Europe, is poisoned.  Competition and the search for power have spread their venom.  The chairmanship of Carnegie Hall or of any other similar institution whose access to colleagues considered by definition as rivals will be thwarted at all costs, the setting up of clientèles meant to be manipulated, the paranoiac observations of one's competitors' triumphs and failures, the constant solicitation of media and the submission to their ephemeral judgements, have become the target and the major stakes of careers; they stand in for artistic thinking and qualitative criteria.  Paradoxically it is by making use of electronic media, or more accurately, by taking shelter behind the protective shield they offer, that Glenn Gould resisted the falsely satisfying temptation of the world: public opinion did not reach him; he did not seek approval; nor did he sacrifice his genius on the altar of the public relations system.  Indeed he thought that the artist should be granted anonymity.  In this quest, he was reaching back to the status of the Medieval illuminators and cathedral builders who served a purpose larger than themselves. 
     The frantic ambition for a glamorous yet transient position whereby too many artists degrade their role to that of entertainers had for a long time been discarded from his mind, if the temptation ever existed.  Instead, he had become the controller and the doer of an art whose impact is all the stronger in that it is immune to acceptance.  No applause from the few friends who had access to him, and to whom he gave the warmest and most affectionate of welcomes, was needed to achieve a state of intense private communion with him - respectability which atrophies so many men once they have achieved a certain notoriety, was thoroughly foreign to his sense of humour.  This solitude, which was a recurrent theme in his works, resembled that of a fictitious character, his brother in literature, Adrian Leverkuhn in Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus.  However, Glenn's pact was not with the devil, but with a God of absolute purity and integrity.  In his own writings, he had become the theoritician of a purified humanity, the austere and penetrated moralist who, away from the sterile pursuit of worldly honours and pleasures, brought into accord his life and his faith: "The last puritan." 
     The field of Gould's meditation extends, as already mentioned, far beyond the sphere of music; his retreat from the public eye was to allow Gould, in his monastic existence, to devote himself to a production of gigantic proportions: immensely elaborate radio programmes such as the Solitude Trilogy - of which The Idea of North which is mentioned several times in the present volume forms one part; numerous essays which make him one of the most brilliant and original thinkers of our time, and most of which had remained so far inaccessible in Europe.  The present book and those which follow are aimed at a complete publication of all these texts.  Sooner or later, Glenn would have recycled these critical, fictional, philosophical and extremely varied essays, to boil down some of their elements into a literary work. 
     Death closed that perspective and thereby authorizes us, we think, to publish them here in the form in which they were issued, for the most part in America, at different periods of his existence. 
     For the present book, we have opted for a four part structure in which will be exposed in succession Gould's fundamental philosophical ideas, portraits of composers and performers who were particularly close to him or who intrigued him, and finally some samples of his critical zest.  A few of these texts might not be of easy access to the layman, and contain - like the ones on Bach and the fugue, or on Byrd and Gibbons - detailed musical analyses.  But these invariably lead to general conclusions of such penetrating insight that even the least musically informed reader will have no difficulty understanding their significance. 
     On the 3rd of March 1972, the day when the first letter originating from the planet Glenn Gould landed into my hands, a small space capsule set off in the direction of Jupiter; it escaped a few months ago the Solar system.  At present, Pioneer 10 zooms at 35,000 miles an hour into the unknown heading toward the star Ross 248 which it will reach in some 30,000 years after having travelled hundreds of billions of miles.  Tucked aboard the capsule as decipherable symbols of a terrestrial conscience, and swirling together with it, are a plaque representing the silhouettes of a man and a woman, some mathematical formulas, and the recording of one fugue of John Sebastian Bach played by Glenn Gould.  Who is to be thanked for that immense privilege: that, in the coordinates of time and space, such a vessel should for a while have crossed my own trajectory? 

(translated from French by the author) All rights reserved. 



     Bruno Monsaingeon (1943) studied law and politics in Paris, took degrees in Russian and Bulgarian at the École des langues orientales and studied the violin at the Paris Conservatory of Music.  From 1970 onwards Bruno Monsaingeon has applied himself to making films about music. 
     He made a great number of programmes for the French television, four of which were about Glenn Gould:  La Retraite, L'Alchimiste, Glenn Gould 1974 and Partita de Bach.  In 1975 this series was awarded the prize for the best music film at the international television festival in Prague. 
     Between 1977 and 1981 Bruno Monsaingeon was working on another series about Glenn Gould:  Glenn Gould joue Bach.  This series consists of three instalments, each lasting about an hour:  'La Question de l'lnstrument,' 'Un Art de Fugue,' and 'Les Variations Goldberg.' 
     Bruno Monsaingeon is also known as the author of a number of books.  He wrote Mademoiselle, fictitious conversations with Nadia Boulanger (about whom he had also made a film), and three books about Glenn Gould:  Le dernier Puritain, Contrepoint à la Ligne and Non, je ne suis pas un excentrique


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