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Book Review

Glenn Gould

Glenn Gould: The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius

The Ecstasy and Tragedy of Genius

Peter F. Ostwald
New York: W.W. Norton & Company. 1997. 368pp ISBN: 0393040771
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Gould's personality warred with itself more than most. Among other things, he turned seclusion into publicity – an exhibitionistic recluse. Fundamentally an instinctual musician, he had to build Talmudic intellectual justifications not only for his interpretations, but for his repertoire itself. Few things irritated me more than hearing Gould construct a brief against some composer essentially because he didn't like him. On the other hand, few things were more wonderful or showed more insight than Gould on a composer he loved.

I'm one of those folks who admire Glenn Gould as a musical mind, without quite knowing why. As far as results go and excepting the 1955 Goldbergs and the Partitas, I far prefer the keyboard Bach performances of Landowska, Tureck, Leppard, and Schiff, to name just three non-HIPpies. Yet Gould continues to fascinate, beyond his reputation for reclusive, eccentric behavior, olympic pill-popping, and provocative remarks. What I think you always get with Gould is an artist compelled to find something new every time he plays a piece. To some extent, such a musician hears the same things differently from the rest of us and at the same time must hold the conviction of the justness of his view. Ostwald makes a convincing case for the former, arguing that Gould's apprehension of counterpoint went beyond almost everyone else's, extending to the ability to hear several simultaneous conversations. As to the latter, Gould was child-like in the stubbornness with which he held on to his opinions, often simply because they were his, and there was a child-like pride he took in the fact that he arrived at them largely without "help."

Gould couldn't have asked for a biographer more suited to the task of arriving at the truth of the man – assuming, of course, that's what Gould really wanted. Even those closest to Gould knew for sure only what he wanted to tell them; he was as secretive and misleading about himself as Stokowski, one of his musical heroes. Ostwald, who raced to complete this book before he died of cancer, was one of Gould's few friends, a respectable amateur violinist (he played sonatas with Gould himself), an M.D. in psychiatry, and a writer interested in links between genius and madness. He has also written books on Schumann and Nijinsky. Despite what anyone may tell you, psychiatric therapy is at least as much art as science, requiring an imaginative sympathy on the part of the practitioner. Ostwald has this in spades, as well as a large dollop of what we misleadingly call "common sense." The book is jargon-free. It's more like listening to the conversation of a perceptive friend than to a clinician. Best of all, it doesn't claim to have the "answer" to Gould. Indeed, it opens up many avenues of speculation, which to me is the glory of the book.

For example, why did Gould retire from live performance? Gould has written all sorts of justifications – most famously, his declaration of the "death" of the concert hall, due to electronic media – all of which smack strongly of "after-the-fact." Obviously he disliked public performance and disliked crowds. Ostwald talks about Gould's germ phobia, instilled in him by his over-protective mother, and expressed in his hypochondria, large private pharmacy, and practice of armoring himself in layers of heavy clothes. I would also mention that the repetition in concert life very likely palled on Gould, the artist compelled to come up with something new each time. How often can even a genius do this? And yet, Gould eludes us. Something doesn't quite add up.

One notices especially the great similarity between his retirement and the systematic and sudden dropping of his friends toward the end of his life. Gould seems to play out the same symbolic act. Is there a connection?

Isaiah Berlin divided people into either "foxes" or "hedgehogs," after the Russian proverb: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one thing very well." Gould was a hedgehog who aspired to fox. He very early wanted to be performer, philosopher, and composer, and he wanted composer most of all. His own compositions failed to satisfy him, which I believe disappointed him terribly. One can do many things in the face of such a derailment of the personality's dreams. One can continue to pursue the goal, hoping some day to reach it. One can deflect one's activity to some other goal more easily within reach. One can shut down and withdraw, to maintain the dream in isolation, for it is only in the company of others that the dream is likely to be challenged. In other words, even though one no longer actively pursues the goal, one consoles oneself with the goal in potentia, if only one had the time, and so on. This however increases the fragility of that inner scenario and the consequent need to keep from the destructive threat represented by others. To some extent, Gould deflected his goal to writing and producing his radio "documentaries," most notably The Idea of North, but I doubt he found it fully satisfactory, and, in any case, the CBC grew less and less receptive to his work. Interestingly, Gould valued his gifts as a pianist the least of all, probably because he could perform miracles without thinking about them. However, toward the end of his life, he discovered that he could no longer command his fingers so easily. He noted down physical pains, loss of control, and half-cocked self-cures, which turned out to provide only temporary relief. I really believe this spooked him: if he wasn't a great pianist, what was he? The hypochondriac who had tried doctors' patience with an army of phantom ailments at a moment of genuine need decided to dose himself, withdrawing into seclusion even further, with, I believe, the disastrous result of a fatal stroke. Ostwald points out that even if Gould had seen a doctor, knowledge of "performance medicine" was so rudimentary that a real ailment might not have been caught. Furthermore, Gould had cried wolf so many times, that his doctors' first thought was usually to discount what he said. Hypochondria can kill you. Ostwald speculates about Gould's physical condition – interesting if you know even a little anatomy – and throughout continually demonstrates his own intellectual balance.

One advantage to writing about Glenn Gould is that no one with sense will say, "You've got it all wrong." Gould remains a puzzle, and I suspect he was largely a puzzle to himself – a compulsive self-examiner who avoided or failed to see the source of his drive and obsessions. Ostwald undoubtedly comes as close as anyone to making the main pieces fit.

Copyright © 1998 by Steve Schwartz.

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