Glenn Gould on JS Bach and Beethoven

Here is one of those youtube treasures: Glenn Gould (GG) talking about J.S. Bach.

Without surprise, GG gives (in his eloquent, articulate and elegant style) very interesting and valuable insights not only on the music of Bach but also on the history of music before and after the death of Bach.

I found particularly interesting the point he makes about Beethoven. After the death of Bach, the main focus of music shifted from the sacred to the profane (or from the church to the theater, as he put it), the dialogue between man and God was replaced by a dialogue between man and man, reflecting a ‘rational’ view of the world. The struggle (the quest) to transcend the human condition was still at the essence of many works of art and of the music of Beethoven in particular, however … ” the Grandeur of Beethoven resides in the struggle, rather than in the occasional transcendence which he achieves”. This is indeed what I feel when listening to Beethoven; a passionate man, often tormented, expressing his strong emotions through music to appease his self. Bach’s music is more of a reflection on the perfection of creation. This may explain why Beethoven is generally more accessible to people than Bach: he is somehow more like us, more … human.

Another interesting point he addressed is the importance of accepting the music of Bach as it is. Gould, as a very intelligent man gifted with a creative mind, doesn’t take seriously the efforts of interpreting and theorizing the symbolism of Bach’s music and finds the quest for ‘the correct interpretation’ dangerous. In fact he seems to consider this kind of research vain. A position to which I totally adhere.
This kind of historiographical approach to the understanding of art, by putting the emphasis solely on the artist and giving him full control on his creative work, is simply flawed. Not only nobody can reconstruct the real chain of events leading to the works of art (including the artist himself) but also the historical account is never complete and is biased. At best it gives a correct story or anecdote. The other point is that the spectator is simply discarded in this kind of analyses; a crucial point raised by Duchamp (see related post: here). Without too much theorizing, and sticking to the facts (remember Russell’s advice), he simply says that “Bach was first and last an architect […] the greatest architect of sound that ever lived.”

No need to say more, this is GG on JSB! Enjoy:

After watching this I felt the urge to listen to the Art of Fugue. An extremely contrapuntal and difficult masterpiece, that Gould probably mastered like anyone else. Andras Schiff is reported to have said that “Gould had better control over five voices than most players have of just two”. Here, GG playing the first nine fugues (by the late 70s I guess):


5 thoughts on “Glenn Gould on JS Bach and Beethoven

  1. I adore Bach and admire Beethoven, the former brings us the divinity in music; the latter brings music with beauty and power into the 19th Century. Bach has worked substantially in the Church hence his secular works amount less in quantity, who did not suffer from the same affliction as Beethoven did; while Beethoven was nurtured by Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, creates music diligently but not limited to only appeasing his self. I do not tend to compare the two great musicians in equal footing (that’s vain). I just find two men complementing each other so well that music itself does not suffer from any narrow sense of definition, audiences are of course the greatest beneficiaries. I love so much the 32 piano sonatas and a few symphonies of Beethoven, to me his Missa Solemnis op123 and the Ninth Symphony have divinity in it, which reflect Beethoven’s spiritual sense if not totally religious in dogmatic sense, of course one should listen more to discover further.

    GG’s explication is clear : I don’t have the same understanding as yours on “the importance of accepting the music of Bach as it is” being imposed by GG. He is a serious man and for sure he takes everything seriously, and has performed for himself every details necessary before drawing any “conclusion”. What I understand from him is that, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, so is a lot” (words of Einstein?), for layman like us, the first part of the quote is especially true. However, “the quest for correct interpretation is dangerous” perhaps is not what he tries to say (or I missed somewhere?).

    Relating to Duchamp’s (and Russell’s) ideas : I start to feel shaky about the idea of generalising Music with Visual Art, I am not sure if these two areas are under the same premise, when we speak about the notion of spectator, etc. Am I asking too much if you could write another post to cover this interesting analogy?

    P.S. An inevitable reminder : the word “story” is still there somewhere, sorry for my long comment.

    1. Thanks for your post … I mean comment.
      First part: I agree..
      Second part: I don’t quite get what you want to say… but knowledge, as long as it is deep, is never dangerous. However, imposing theories (speculations) as factual truths *is* dangerous. What I understood from Gould is that imposing interpretations of this or that movement is dangerous.. and he gave a counter-example to show how vain it is. It’s not about technique.. it’s about theory/interpretation.

      Third part: The ideas of Duchamp and Russel are not as obvious and easy as they seem to be. I think I tried to highlight it in the post on Duchamp. As a general rule : what looks obvious always hides something deep. The more you’ll think about these ideas, the more subtleties you’ll see..

      Yes, I’m planning to write more about these ideas.. as they are in my mind since some time now and are starting to crystallize. Duchamp and Russell are just short-cuts I use to back up my views ;-)

      1. seriously to your comment : knowledge is not equal to wisdom, a lot of knowledge is not deep wisdom; interpretations of Bach’s music based on little (or a lot of) knowledge (without deep understanding/wisdom) surely is dangerous, true by itself without saying.

  2. I have to wait and Wi-Fi the video, but your insights are fascinating. I have been so deeply into Bach these days, as an entire library of Bach was given to me. (Plenty of Beethoven, too !) So I’m just getting up to speed on these two. My background is in fine art, so I love that you bring Duchamp into it, an unusual and original juxtaposition.

    (IMHO, Bach is waaay more accessible than Beethoven….)

    Thanks for your articulate and thoughtful ideas, they’ll be turning around in my head for a while.

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