The rich biographical soil of Glenn Gould's life and art is quickly being depleted by over-farming
There's a book launch tomorrow night at the Royal Ontario Museum for Partita for Glenn Gould, by Montrealer Georges Leroux. (Click on the title for publication details.)
In its original French, the book won the Grand Prix du Livre de Montréal and was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Nonfiction. Given that the work is by a veteran University de Québec à Montreal philosophy professor with a lifelong love of Glenn Gould's playing, this should be a welcome addition to the huge-and-growing catalogue of biographies, meditations and appreciations of an artist who touched the lives of millions of listeners around the world.
Before I weigh in on the book, you should know that my predecessor as Star classical music critic, William Littler, is going to moderate a chat with Leroux as well as Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont (the makers of the film Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould) tomorrow, starting at 7 p.m., at the ROM's Signy and Cléophée Eaton Theatre (level 1B). The evening includes the screening of the film. Tickets are $25 ($20 for ROM members), and can be reserved here.
As for my impressions of the book, the first thing you should know is that I repeatedly wanted to fling it across the room in frustration.
Early in his book, Leroux quotes from "Let's Ban Applause," something Gould wrote in 1962. Leroux writes that, in this passage, "we find the strongest expression of what will become (Gould's) artistic ethic. I regard it as a declaration of principle that underlies his entire aesthetic, and I will return to it often:"
I am disposed toward this view because I believe that the justification of art is the internal combustion it ignites in the hearts of men and not its shallow, externalized, public manifestations. The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline, but is, rather, the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity. Through the ministrations of radio and the phonograph, we are rapidly and quite properly learning to appreciate the elements of aesthetic narcissism -- and I use that word in the best sense -- and are awakening to the challenge that each man contemplatively create his own divinity.
Leroux responds to Gould like so:
In this book I want to reflect on the meaning of this sense of wonder and this sovereignty of the artistic life, and also on the factors that limit the experience. I also want to look at the transcendence of a work of art and the sway it exercises over a life, even in its persistent elusiveness. My assumption is that these limits are pushed outward day by day, and I am tempted to see there a parallel with holiness. I would not recoil from speaking of the holiness of art, if by that one means the absolute, uncompromising commitment to a style of life. We would not revere a saint who did not give of himself freely; not would we admire an artist who took no risks. The demands of art are such that it claims life in its entirety, and that is the price of authenticity...
And so on (and on). And on.
It is such a Romantic view of the Artist, with a capital A. It also has all the elements of the Facebook world's preoccupation with All Things Me. And it all comes wrapped in the florid circumlocution of a seasoned lecturer on Philosophy.
Leroux gazes adoringly at his subject, returning obsessively to Gould's eccentric solitude as a source of fascination, from childhood through to the final recording of the Goldberg Variations. All of his biographical material is borrowed from those who came before, so what we get is an appreciation. There are no freshly unsealed letters, no secret trysts, no hatchets unearthed. Here is a man who loves music and adores Gould, and seems to have a fondness for the Artist as hero, building the sound studio as his Temple to Art.
This rubs me the wrong way, because I (currently) believe that it is this kind of unnatural fixation on the artist as icon that scares away many young people from the world of classical music. If we didn't have eccentrics, we wouldn't have any art. Musicians are human beings whose music will or won't connect with a listeners for purely human reasons.
For me, the ideal book about Gould that was not about Gould is Mark Kingwell's contribution to Penguin's Great Canadians series from last year. Kingwell looks beyond the self of the listener and the artist to look at a broader cultural and philosophical context for what made Glenn Gould so very special.
Kingwell used his philosophical background to help me see and understand how our society makes icons of artists. Kevin Bazzana's biography, Wondrous Strange, explained Gould the man and the artist in a straightforward, meticulously researched and elegantly laid out narrative.
For this pair of eyes, Leroux's extended meditation achieves neither.
Perhaps we should simply let the music speak to us directly, and stop trying to explain its mysterious attraction. The soil of Glenn Gould's life and work can only net so much fruit before it runs out of nutrients.
Here's Gould, playing the Fugue in E-flat, from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier, in 1963:
Here, for Scott, is a montage of Toronto streets, roads and alleyways, with a soundtrack of Gould playing Sellinger's Round, by William Byrd: