Poet of the Keyboard: Glen Gould and Bach’s Goldberg Variations

The year was 1955. The place: Columbia Records 30th Street Studio in Manhattan. Over four days between June 10 and June 16, a young pianist of 22 would record J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations to critical and commercial acclaim. That young man was Glen Gould, arguably the finest pianist of the 20th century.

Weeks earlier, Gould had signed his contract with Columbia Records, after its director, David Oppenheim heard him play Webern’s Variations, Orlando Gibbon’s Lord of Salisbury Pavan, and Bach’s Partita in G. Major at Town Hall in New York. It was an unconventional assortment of music for a concert, but then Gould was famously unconventional and eccentric. The critics were floored by Gould’s virtuoso performance. So was Oppenheimer, who immediately offered Gould an exclusive contract. When he asked what Gould wanted to play for his debut recording, Gould replied that he wanted to perform Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Oppenheimer could not believe his ears. The Goldberg Variations was a work more often associated with the harpsichord, and it had been recorded on piano by only two musicians, including the established authority at the time, Rosalyn Tureck. But Gould stood his ground and Columbia gave in.

For his debut recording, Gould brought to the studio his special piano chair, a supply of bottled Poland Spring water, which he believed was the only water fit for drinking, bottles of pills for tension and headache, and unseasonal winter clothing. Once there, he would soak his hands and arms in very hot water for 20 minutes before playing. The piano chair was one that he remained attached to all his life. It is unusually low wooden folding chair his father had modified for him in 1953 by sawing four inches off each leg. Gould once referred to it as a chair with “exactly the right contour.”

The genius pianist, Glenn Gould, performing on the unusually low chair which was made by his father, and which he lugs around to wherever he performs.

And so, in that unconventional setting, one of the greatest classical solo piano recordings took shape. The recording was an astonishing commercial success for classical music. By 1960, the album was reported to have sold 40,000 copies, and by the time of Gould’s death in 1982 at the age of 50, it had sold more than 100,000 copies. A year before that, Gould made a new recording of the Goldberg Variations, sales of which exceeded two million by 2000.

Bach wrote the Goldberg Variations around 1740, some ten years before his death. It is one of the composer’s great encyclopedic works, a multifaceted summation of his style. Gould once told an interviewer that while the work was “never high on my hit parade as an integrated experience,” it contained some sublime moments for him. Variation 15 in G Minor, for instance, one of the canons, was a slow variation that he said moved him “in an extraordinary way” and demonstrated the very best of Bach. As for the lightning variations like 5, 14, and 23, those pieces allowed Gould to show the speed at which his fingers flew.

Watch the following 1981 video recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations #15 in G Minor performed by Gould a year before his death, in what could only be described as a performance of breathtaking control and understated elegance.  Variation #15 is in the first 5 minutes of the video.

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