" Glenn Gould - The Art of the Fugue " by Stefan Rieger
(" Glenn Gould czyli Sztuka fugi ")
is the first book written in Polish about the Canadian musical genius. In May, 1998 the book was shortlisted for the annual NIKE Prize, Poland's most prestigious literary award for the best book of the year (the 1998 prize was eventually awarded to Nobel prize winner Czeslaw Milosz).
The book is atypical. It is not a biography or a monography in any strict sense. It is rather a series of variations on the theme of Gould, or a kind of fugue in which Gould is the theme and among various counterpoints the most important are perhaps Bach, Gombrowicz, Beethoven and Time. Why Gombrowicz ? Because the great Polish writer was like Gould, a similar kind of totally unconventional and uncompromising outsider.
The potential reader is an intellectual with an open mind and open ears. The book is quite " Gouldian " in its spirit and form. An attempt has been made to reflect certain musical forms, or at least to construct different parts of the book following the structure of some emblematic works.
Part I - " The Art of the Fugue " - is an attempt to apprehend the phenomenon of Gould, his philosophy of art and his strategy of " cheating " time. This part as a whole consists of mirror-reflections of 14 counterpoints.
Part II - " The Well-Tempered Clavier " - consists chiefly of reflections on Gould as a pianist, with digressions on the Baroque and the problem of " authenticity " in art, on different interpretations of Bach, comments on other performers, as well as on the views of Roland Barthes on " bourgeois art ", etc.
Part III - " The Sonata " - presents an unorthodox view of the history of music through the prism of Gould's musical preferences but not necessarily through his eyes alone.
Part IV - " The Gouldberg Variations " - contains most of the biographical material, as well as comments on concerts, recording techniques, analogy between music and film, the role of the media, Gould's contrapuntal radio documentaries, etc.
The book is written in a light and original tone in dealing with profound and even existentially central matters, in accord with the philosophy of Gould (as well as that of Gombrowicz), for whom art consists in reconciling opposites : seriousness with humour, intellect and ecstasy... A lot of readers not very knowledgeable about music have reacted very favorably to the book. But specialists and devotees of classical music will also find there an extensive appendix, including a comprehensive Chronology, Discography, Filmography and Bibliography.
The publisher is slowo/obraz terytoria s.c.
Publisher's adress : ul. Grunwaldzka 74/3, 80244 GDANSK, Poland
Tel: 0033-140108231 / 0033-662649100
E-mail : email@example.com
Author's mail adress : firstname.lastname@example.org
The Accountant and Einstein (Part II, Chapter 7)
Gould belonged to the first generation of musicians who applied a rejuvenating treatment to Bach. Just when he, as a young pianist, rebelled against the charismatic heirs of nineteenth-century traditions, the pioneers of the "baroque revolution" appeared on the scene: Deller, Harnoncourt, Leonhardt. But despite superficially sharing some aims with them, Gould excluded himself, in a sense, from this movement of musical orthodoxy by choosing - unforgivably - the "wrong" instrument.
He paid back the purists in like kind, scoffing at their archaeological scrupulosity. What was the use of a sterile quarrel - in the name of a superficial authenticity - over the superiority of "baroque" pitch (415 Hz) as against the pitch which is standard today (440 Hz)? Surely, there is no necessity to return to the instruments Bach played on.
What is important is to develop a deep understanding of the nature of the instruments that shaped his musical imagination - the brilliance of the harpsichord, the marvelously clear and detached sound of the baroque organ - to let them invade our conscious mind and influence on an almost subconscious level our manner of phrasing and playing, whatever instruments we choose.
Gould was certainly well-informed musically, but he was guided largely by his musical intuition, looking for answers to questions about interpretation within the music itself. Although an apologist for anachronism in art, he was by no means an advocate of the current approaches (new certainly doesn't mean better, new just means new - as he used to say), but neither could he feel a passion for musicological excavations. Inevitably, he also laid himself open to the charge of "dilettantism" from the high priests of baroque renewal, lying in wait for every opportunity to pull forth from some dusty archive a crushing proof of someone's ignorance. Sometimes these discussions suggest a dispute between an accountant and Einstein. "The bill doesn't add up" - the accountant protests. "It's all relative, you just have to change the frame of reference" - answers Einstein.
The unflagging labors of generations of musicians and scholars have allowed us to penetrate to the sources of the Baroque, to reanimate the spirit of that epoch. In order to reconstruct the world of the musical imagination at the turn of the seventeenth century, we should recognize all its elements, including extra-musical ones. Word, gesture, theater, architecture, the dramatic function of the contrast of light and shade in painting, the staging or "playing" of emotional states, the intermingling of sacrum and profanum, movement, ballet, dance. Cut off from the Baroque by the massive barrier of Romanticism, only now do we realize to what degree its quintessence was the melange des genres, its metaphor, choreography (broadly conceived), and its emblematic genre, the baroque opera.
Baroque music aspires to adhere to spoken language as it is codified in rhetorical figures. At that time rhetoric and its scholarly terminology was taught in every school. The link between the art of eloquence and music was obvious to everybody then. Bach studied Quintilian and consciously constructed his works based on the rules formulated by the Roman author. It is, however, quite striking how he managed to bend a whole arsenal of contrapuntal means to them.
But rhetoric is not just the art of beauteous expression, it is also the art of arousing emotions with the help of words, an art which is codified in an extremely complicated "theory of affects". The language of music per analogium develops a mimetic cipher to express these affects, ascribing to them various elements of structure: intervals, dissonances and their resolution, cadences, ascending and descending melodic progressions. In Bach we meet such rhetorical figures at every turn - sound pictures, organically fused with the text of arias or chorales.
For us this language has to a large extent become a foreign language. For the eighteenth-century listener, however, brought up on the sacred texts, it was comprehensible to such an extent, the figures were so easy to recognize, that he did not even have to call on the word for help. These pictures spoke to him even in purely instrumental music, immediately awakening emotional associations. But their decipherability depends on whether they are suitably articulated.
Nicolaus Harnoncourt holds that - to simplify enormously - music before 1800 speaks, and music after 1800 paints. You have to understand the former (and thus first learn its lexicon, its grammar, its pronunciation, its articulation), while the latter works through "climates" which you only have to feel.
Gould, who had no such interest in climates, in essence spoke each piece of music which he touched - including that of the nineteenth century, something he was often reproached for. It is striking how, basically, only concepts from the world of speech - diction, utterance, articulation, pronunciation - can accurately capture the specific qualities of his playing. Is this to say that when he "spoke" Bach's music, Gould used the services of an official translator - i.e. a musicologist - or that he made his own translations?
Gould knew Bach's cantatas perfectly. He certainly never underestimated the wealth of rhetorical and extra-musical figures contained in them, but at the same time he warned against treating them too literally. Bach was a man with a profound religious faith and also an artist immersed in his epoch, but above all he was a great architect of sounds.
The question arises here whether he really belonged to the Baroque, or at least to that Baroque in which we can see the aesthetic answer of the Counter-Reformation to Luther's and Calvin's austere exhortations. Was the world of choreography (in the broad sense of the term), in which he happened to live, really his world? Of course, he took enormous amounts of what he needed from the Baroque, and in the crucible of his genius fused this with the legacy of earlier musical traditions which placed the immanent beauty of artistic constructions above emotions, impure by their very nature.
With his philosophy of art, Gould could not value the authentic baroque. In Bach he loved what deviated most from the Baroque - what does not date this music. In Gould's opinion, the worm had crawled into the apple of art as early as Monteverdi: music was infected with the bacillus of theater.
It is true that Bach never went as far as to write an opera, but on several occasions he accommodated the tastes of his contemporaries who might have grown tired of listening to over-clever fugues. The earlier choral cantatas - perhaps the most beautiful - are firmly embedded in the Northern German tradition of erudite polyphony, but in the later ones Bach felt obliged to adopt the convention of the aria da capo. He adopted this central formal invention of the Baroque, anticipating in a sense the form of the sonata - a pre-determined matrix into which contrasting feelings are then projected in a fixed order. Was it really an improvement ?
Bach can fill any vessel with his greatness, but he is probably the greater the further he stands from fashion. And certainly more than once, especially at the end of his life, he had had enough of baroque contortions and semantic interpolations. When he put down the notes on paper in fugues and partitas, in the Goldberg Variations, was he really thinking about the sinner whipping himself, the tears of the Madonna, or the movements of a foot in the gavotte - or rather of the intervals, of the scheme of modulations, of the laws of harmonic progression ?
When Gould played Bach, he put his trust in this second hypothesis. If he was at variance with the rules of baroque ornamentation, with the principles of rhetoric codified in scholarly treatises, he had at his disposal an argument which it was difficult for the vestal virgins of historical "authenticity" to reject - an argument flowing from the music itself, from its architectonic coherence, from a deep understanding of tonal psychology and the rules of counterpoint.
Selection of Polish press reviews
It is a long time since I have read a book about music which had such an effect on me - because of its style, its fervent engagement in its subject, and its composition - and with whose author I could so identify myself both in feeling and grasping the phenomena which he presents and describes.
B. Pociej, Tygodnik Powszechny, 11 October 1998
This is one of the most inspiring books about art which I have read recently... The reader has a strong sense of Rieger's enormous engagement and fascination with Gould.
J. Kawiorski, Klasyka, March 1998
Stefan Rieger's work is an interesting combination of document and belles lettres. The form of the book is an allusion to Gould's "contrapuntal" radio documentaries. The literary content becomes material which is subjected to a quasi-musical transformation... Stefan Rieger treats Gould's views as the painist himself treated works of music. The Canadian's philosophy of life and art becomes for the author a pretext for the creation of his own vision. The content is provocative, as provocative as the recordings of the Appassionata... The autor writes in a light and imaginative way about difficult things... There is an abundance of subtle humour, irony, allusions and references... Anyone who thinks of himself as a music enthusiast should read this book. Once you have read it, you will listen to Gould's recordings in a different way.
A. Cieslak, Ruch Muzyczny, 19 April 1998
The language of music can lift us up relatively easily into the sphere of the sacrum, because the inflation of words does not affect it. In the twentieth century there are many people - and Gould was certainly one of them - for whom music is the most accessible source of the sacrum. In this way a book about a pianist unexpectedly becomes a work of theology.
M. Cichy, Gazeta Wyborcza, 25 May 1998
In know few books that describe works of music and the phenomenon of music performance in such a vivid way. This is a book of equal interest to musicians and laymen... The style is vibrant, rhetorical yet compact... Rieger skilfully manipulates associations, examples, digressions...
R. Augustyn, Odra, December 1998