I have this image in my head of three albums that were almost required of a college student in the early 1960’s. Albums that were essential to a resident of a dormitory at one of the universities on the east coast of the United States. There was so much great music in the sixties, but the things I have in mind were specific to a student trying to seem collegiate, sophisticated and worldly. I could have this picture all wrong. I wasn’t there. But these are three great albums just the same.
I miss albums, those twelve inch vinyl records with good sized artwork and liner notes on the back of the sleeve. Compact discs were a trade off, being more durable but having smaller artwork and not quite the same feel. Digital downloads are even more of a sacrifice for convenience and cost. I get tiny thumbnail images, no liner notes at all, and digitally compressed sound that really can’t compare to a good turntable with original analog vinyl. There are others I know that lament the death of the album.
Glenn Gould’s 1955 debut album is something that would never get recorded today. It was an unknown, unproven pianist with a rarely recorded, esoteric piece of Bach keyboard music. Bach: The Goldberg Variations has gone on to be one of the most well known piano recordings, and launched an international career for the eccentric Gould. This man was just odd, in the most spectacular way. He didn’t really “practice” at the piano, almost never playing Hanon exercises and the like. This was good, because he would have given himself carpal tunnel syndrome if he tried to do technical exercises at the keyboard with his odd posture. In spite of being well over six feet tall, he ALWAYS sat in this very low chair that his father had made for him. This created a unique image of Gould at the piano, with his elbows below the keyboard, his shoulders scrunched up to his ears and his nose close enough to smell the ivory. He hummed and sang along with his playing, to the dismay of recording engineers throughout his career. The man was enraptured by his music making, and mastered polyphonic piano music like few other human beings on this planet.
Glenn Gould didn’t need to be at the piano to rehearse music. In fact, he would almost constantly be running things through his mind, performing and playing in a completely internal world. This clip from a documentary demonstrates Gould going in and out of his internal concert making. It starts with him in a robe, on his short little chair, playing Bach at the piano. You get a good feel of the Gould aura watching this. Then at about 1:57 in this video, something makes him jump up, and walk to the large window behind him. The music, however, is still going in his head. You can hear him humming and continuing the Bach. When he steps back to the piano, he picks up at just the place in the piece where he would be if he never left the chair. HE NEVER MISSED A BEAT.
The Goldberg Variations is a towering masterpiece of keyboard music. The “Goldberg” name comes from Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, a harpsichordist that was likely the first performer. The famous story of Bach writing the Variations for a Russian Count who suffered from insomnia is likely not completely accurate. The Count supposedly wanted some music for his keyboardist Goldberg to play in the next room during his sleepless nights. Bach more likely had sent the work along as a resume and demonstration of his skills, looking for better employment.
The work consists of a beautiful Aria that begins and ends the piece, and 30 variations. The variations are not on the melody of the Aria, but rather the bass line and harmonic progression. This is more of a Baroque era practice in music. Every third variation is a cannon, starting at a larger interval than the previous cannon. The whole work is a masterpiece of counterpoint and organization. Because it was written before the piano was even invented, a pianist has quite a few choices to make when performing it. There is phrasing, dynamics and articulation that one can perform on a piano, things which just don’t exist in the same way on a harpsichord. Since Bach only had a harpsichord, he didn’t put those things in the score and pianists have to fill in some of the blanks themselves.
Glenn Gould has enough idiosyncrasies to fill in the blanks and more. He immerses himself in the music and becomes absorbed, enraptured and engulfed by what he is playing. The 1955 recording is absolutely dreadful from a sound engineering standpoint. It is mono, not stereo, and not so many resources were rounded up for the unproven Gould. The piano was an awful upright piano in a terrible state. It would barely stay in tune for the length of one variation, and had to be retuned in between takes. Keys would stick, or not sound at all. Mr. Gould could be heard humming along with the music, which was not too well received as he was not the famous Glenn Gould yet. In the end it is the performance that rises above all the technical difficulties. The recording is sublime, rapturous, intellectual, romantic and almost supernatural all at the same time. These qualities are what I think my imaginary college student was trying to show off when they played this record.
Next up: Miles Davis, Sketches of Spain