Glenn Gould, called idiosyncratic
by Charles Rosen in a recent New York Times Review of Books
essay, could be called eccentric.
I once had the luck to catch a glimpse of him one warm, humid afternoon in July or August on the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. Gould did not usually go out by the time I was there in the 70's. He had long since given up live performances in favour of recording records (does anyone remember those things?), and making superb television programs for the CBC. (Such as The Art of the Fugue.)
He was unmistakable! Scarfe tight around his neck. Gloves. And a kind of peaked hat. It makes me sweat just remembering him.
He did have his reasons. He never wanted to catch cold. And it is hard to play with cold hands.
But the reason Rosen called him idiosyncratic, is because Gould always played sitting extremely low. So low, in fact, that his arms were immobilized. As my teacher used to say, Gould may have seemed crazy, but he always had absolutely firm arguments for eveything he did.
Rosen speaks of all pianists as idiosyncratic when they finish their lessons and go out on their own, because all teaching of technique is, I forget his exact word, but something to the effect of artificial. In the real world, we have to play piano in ways we evolve for ourselves, he says. Rosen goes on to catalogue many of the great pianist of the 20 Century, and describes their idiosyncracies.
The irony of Rosen's essay is that in the very act of portraying these "idiosyncracies," he is also describing a technique.
Gould's reasoning for playing low is specifically to immobilize his arms, so could concentrate on his fingers, and on the polyphony of the piece he was playing, especially if it were by J.S. Bach, or some other baroque composer. I, myself, used this approach to some little success. It works.
But is no good for playing, say Debussy. There what is required is not the independance of fingers for interweaving melodies, but the integration of fingers into hands into arms for the playing of grand sonorities, and the highlighting of individual tones, out of a handful of, say, 11 or 12 notes. Sitting higher is required. I played Debussy to greater success.
A similar stance is required, for different reasons, in the playing of Rachmaninov. The upper arms, and back to make those BIG sounds.
But I digress far from the idiosyncracies of Gould. When he died, there was an outpouring of public sadness, and a public memorial. Although extremely private in his life, he had become public in his death. I regret I was unable to attend his memorial