Tuesday, January 4, 2011


SEPTEMBER 25, 1932-OCTOBER 4, 1982


I just watched a documentary on Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best-known as an interpreter of Bach.

The film is called Hereafter and in it, Gould makes an interesting and useful observation about freedom. He says, "I have often thought I'd like to try my hand at being a prisoner...I have never understood the preoccupation with freedom as it is understood in the Western world. So far as I can see freedom of movement usually has to do with mobility, and freedom of speech most frequently with socially-sanctioned verbal aggression. To be incarcerated would be a perfect test of inner mobility"...

Gould was not a member of any organized religion, but he engendered deep reverence in his listeners.  He made people believe in God; he linked them to the eternal. Watching him it's impossible to imagine him with a woman: he was so clearly “wedded” to, consumed by, united with his music. Famously eccentric, he wore gloves year-round, and hated to be touched. He hummed and muttered and crooned while he played, and came to abhor concert halls, likening the experience to a blood sport like bullfighting, and to prefer the control and solitude of the studio.

"I've had all my life a tremendously strong sense that indeed there is a hereafter," he observed, "and that the transformation of the spirit is a phenomenon which one must reckon and in light of which one must attempt to live one's life."

He died at 50, in 1982, and yet in the clip below, filmed in 1981, he looks like an old man, partly because he insisted, his whole life, on sitting on the beat-up chair that his father had made for him as a child and so is hunched over the keyboard (which no doubt contributed to the beauty of his playing), partly because he suffered for decades from a variety of health problems and neuroses, partly because to have the kind of genius he did is perhaps a burden too heavy to bear for the span of a "normal" life.

"When I listen to Glenn Gould, admiration is not what stimulates me," one young fan notes, close to tears, near the end of the film,  "but rather what he has done, the kind of man he was, how he led his life, what it's got to do with me."


  1. Ludwig Wittgenstein's last words were reportedly: "Tell them I've had a wonderful life."

    Your post reminded me that the good life is not necessarily the happy life, Especially when happiness is considered lack of discomfort or discontentment.

    I am always happy to learn more about Glenn Gould.He must have had a mind per hand, perhaps per finger, to play Bach like that.

    Thank you.

  2. I have always loved Glenn Gould. I didn't know about the chair. That is unbelievably touching. This information about Gould makes me think of the tv character Monk: both geniuses, both having a passion for their "work" and despite the fact that Monk was married and deeply in love with his (dead) wife, it was always hard to picture him with a woman.

    Beethoven seems to have a lot in common with Gould too. He had the legs cut off of his piano, and sat on the floor. I think it made it easier for him to hear/feel the music. How Beethoven would have loved modern pianos, I think, so much sturdier and powerful. I've often wondered what he would think of synthesizers.

    I think Gould playing the Goldberg Variations renders it the most beautiful piece in the world. I first heard him play it when I worked at a stereo shop. We used that CD to demonstrate speakers. I had to have it.

    What gets me though, is the man who wrote the piece. I have to assume that Bach was able to play it at least as well as Gould. The mind that created that piece, the fingers that played it for the first time! I find it incredibly passionate.

    One of the first big arguments I ever had with my wife was over my assertion that Beethoven (as we know him) would not have been possible if there had been no Bach. LVB at least, I think, would have been different. It seems hard to imagine Western Music without Bach having been.

    But the common factor here is the suffering: Gould with his illnesses and the chair and neuroses; Bach with the loss of a wife and blindness; Beethoven's father, and his deafness; (and Monk with his neuroses and death of his wife.) It almost seems as though genius is impossible without the suffering, and the suffering is intensified by the passion that is poured into the art.

    I remember, when I wrote my only novel, (and I am NOT remotely hinting that I am a genius or that I've suffered!) I wrote it with such a passion: 8-12 hours a day, straight, for about a month, and at the end, my main character died, and I felt as if I'd lost someone very close to me, that I somehow loved despite her terrible flaws.

    At any rate, you are right. And living the Gospels is way more than living by a rigid moral code. And love will often do way more than what the "code" requires. That's what got Jesus on the cross. He could have redeemed us with his circumcision. He could have redeemed us with a sore throat! But his great love demanded that he give all, that he stretch out his arms to embrace the whole world, with hands pinned by nails that prevented him from in any way limiting the universality of that pain-filled embrace.

    That's what we gotta do.

    Thanks so much for this incredible post and the video.

  3. Heather --

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Especially because your definition of living out the Gospels is so (forgive the word) inclusive, or rather, embracing of several writers whom we might not think of as Gospel-driven. I'd suggest Charles Baudelaire, and my main man Dylan Thomas, as artists who offered everything up -- their whole selves -- during the act of writing. Wasn't it Thomas Merton who said that a poet gives glory to God by being first of all a great poet, and not by thrusting pious pronouncements at us? (I paraphrase pertly.)

    I may have to pin this sentence, and the paragraph from which it comes, to the wall of my workspace:

    To me living out the Gospels means consciously suffering, and realizing we are complicit in the suffering of the world, and that the way to overcome that is by beauty and love, and that, as Dostoevsky said, "Love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams."


  4. I take to heart your words on the insensitivity and cold disdain found in the popular works of popular culture. In the current issue of "Origins" Archbishop Nichols wrote, "Where are the new jobs to come from? How will this reshaping of social welfare work out? How much sensitivity is there for those who will bear its harshest brunt?"
    Thanks for a lovely, thought-provoking post.

  5. Indeed you did, Joseph! Who in my vast ignorance I proceeded to momentarily confuse with V.S. Naipaul...

    And yes, the goal isn't to attack popular culture but to say that our hunger and our need is way way deeper than popular culture is able to address or even acknowledge...I like a good joke as much as the next person, maybe more, but we are never going to reshape social welfare by sitting around casting an ironic and essentially cold eye at each other...

  6. So, so true about the New Yorker stories. I so often think, "and it took all those words to make that [banal] point?"

  7. Ms. King, can I just say one thing: beautiful! My thoughts of suffering and beauty have always been linked together, and "beauty will save the world." At this point, I will only remain silent because this seems to be be the most appropriate thing to do.

  8. This is a really beautiful and truthful piece. Thanks.


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