Glenn Gould Discourses on Fugue: Watch and Learn
On the video 'An Art of the Fugue,' Glenn Gould Collection XV
By John Stone
Once you actually get to watch the middle-aged Glenn Gould in action, after having heard him in any of his breathtakingly original and inspired performances, you learn that he is even stranger than his reputation suggests. Now, you not only hear the controversial humming and singing that for many mar his interpretations, but see his mouth in a constant flutter, talking as it were to the music or the ether. You witness Gould's unconventional posture at the piano (at times hunched over like a dinosaur with folded arms crunched under his body that looms over the keyboard); you see the Elvis goggles and sideburns (as well as the late-Elvis bloated body), and the wild gesticulations, as Gould extravagantly conducts his solo playing hand any time he music allows. If the photographs that adorn the artist's early LPs portray him as an iconic individualist with dashing good looks and intensity, the videotaped adult Gould reveals a nerdy, hermetic and fastidious genius with a bad comb-over.
When I first watched this hour-long video that alternates between discussion and performance of J.S. Bach's fugues, I was completely astonished by Gould's prodigious intellect, memory, and eloquence. Set entirely in a studio with Glenn Gould, his Steinway, and the video's director, Bruno Monsaingeon, An Art of the Fugue (1980) features fascinating discussions on counterpoint, Bach's career, as well as the technique, historical context and meaning of fugal composition. Gould speaks with phenomenal authority on the subjects at hand, and more extraordinarily, seems to have the entire Bach oeuvre at his disposal, and can demonstrate on the piano any composition Monsaingeon mentions in passing, and from any point within the work. In a number of deliciously strange moments, Gould will play for a while and then suddenly resume conversation, all the while continuing the complex fugue with his fingers.
Later, I learned that everything down to the twists and turns of the conversation and the musical examples (no matter how off-the-cuff seeming) had been scripted and scrupulously carried out after a long rehearsal process. What appears as a quasi-documentary is indeed edited from numerous takes from multiple sessions. Gould literally force-feeds Monsaingeon his reactions, viewpoints, and musical references. What we have then is Gould using Monsaingeon as a prompt and fall guy for his own arguments on fugue and Bach.
Does knowing that the entire proceeding emanates from a scripted source reduce the impact of this video? Yes and No. Certainly, this knowledge throws the curtain off of the Wizard of Oz, exposing Gould in a brashly lit room rehashing bits and pieces of dialogue and music with a stunt Gould in the guise of a rather hapless Monsaingeon. At the same time, there is magic in the pianist's performances and great wisdom in his words. The cheesy production values and awkward, nay onanistic trappings of an entirely un-spontaneous 'conversation' cannot rob the music and words of their power.
- Gould's performance of the final fugue from Bach's Kunst Der Fuge is one of his loveliest renditions of Bach (or any other) repertoire. Granted, his body can be distracting, particularly in the final episode of this magnificent work, where he seems to mimic the orbiting of planets. But then, this is cosmic music (and I do NOT mean this in the New Age sense, but rather, as in the Medieval notion of a harmony of the spheres), and Gould's evident rapture is not only convincing but moving.
- Gould's slow tempo and reverential approach to Bach's fugue in E Major from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier all but redeem his heinous rendition as recorded for posterity in 1969.
- There is (I believe) unintentional humor in Gould's contrary attitude toward Monsaingeon, whose every 'suggestion' and proposition (again, scripted by Gould) is negated, inflected, or qualified by the master at the keyboard. The more I think of it, the more I suppose all the friction was intentional: it produces a verbal counterpoint of independent voices to complement and amplify the discussion of musical counterpoint.
- Gould passionately defends fugue as a guarantor of structure. His arguments and examples demonstrate the greatness of Bach as a writer of fugues- a demonstration that is perhaps redundant next to the music, but nevertheless serves as an articulate, insightful and pedagogically sound foundation for the study and appreciation of counterpoint in general, as well as of Bach's music.
- In the general cutting back and forth between subjects, Bruno Monsaingeon has himself shot from below with light beaming on his bald head. With his studiously casual shirt, William F. Buckley drawl, wan expressions and penchant for grinning in abject deference to his counterpart, he provides a rather pathetic and peculiar foil for Gould's monologue on fugue. Most hilariously, at the end of a long profile shot of Gould playing Bach's C Major Sinfonia, Monsaingeon suddenly appears in a superimposed bubble, smiling beatifically down on the pianist. Come to think of it, this is rather a highpoint (of absurdity).
Some of the discussion employs advanced concepts of music theory and history and thus may fly over the heads of lay viewers. I am not certain how much enjoyment those with very little understanding of the fundamentals of Western classical music would get out of this, but if anything, at least the music is universal. This marks one of Gould's finest 'performances' as a lecturer (and as noted, the musical examples are wonderful), so I give my strongest recommendation to fans of this artist. Perhaps a better general introduction to Gould in moving pictures is François Girard's multifaceted and captivating Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. The other two videos that comprise Monsaingeon's trilogy of works concerning Gould and Bach are neither as entertaining nor as informative as An Art of the Fugue. Lastly, the $10 (average) price tag on this video makes it a low risk purchase.