The Unpopular Opinions of Glenn Gould or “How Mozart Became a Bad Composer”

The following is a guest post from Music Reference Specialist James Wintle.

Portrait of Glenn Gould, 195?. Reproduction number LC-USZ62-105199 (b&w film copy neg.), Prints & Photographs Division.

Let me begin with a personal anecdote. My parents are or were both musicians – my father was a composer – and so my appreciation for classical music was probably equal parts nature and nurture. So, when I entered graduate school as a musicologist and met a fellow student named Masa Yoshioka, who became one of my best friends during my doctoral study, it was more than a little shocking when, during one of our many extended conversations about music, he revealed to me that he did not think that Mozart was a particularly interesting composer. As a musicologist who had come from a previous incarnation as a classical singer, this was tantamount to heresy. However, due to my regard for Masa and his well-thought-out opinions, I did not discount it out of hand. Instead, I took it as a challenge to listen to the music of Mozart and, in fact, the music of all composers, with fresh ears every time I encountered it and to let no preconceptions that I had learned as a child allow me to speak as a child when I heard new works by a composer whom I had been conditioned to revere. It is with this spirit in mind that I hope you will view Glenn Gould’s television segment, How Mozart Became a Bad Composer, which was originally broadcast on a weekly public television series titled Public Broadcast Laboratory in 1968. The Library of Congress National Audio-Visual Conservation Center recently digitized the episode that includes the 37-minute segment from a two-inch tape found in the Library’s collection. It is now available on the web site of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting, which is a collaborative effort by the Library of Congress and WGBH in Boston, Massachusetts.

Kevin Bazzana in Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould (2004) notes, “The program outraged viewers in both the United States and Canada, including formerly sympathetic fans and critics.” The program is now widely available to the public for the first time since its broadcast. Although, ardent Glenn Gould fans may remember his interview in Piano Quarterly, which was reprinted in The Glenn Gould Reader (1984), “Mozart and Related Matters: Glenn Gould in Conversation with Bruno Monsaingeon,” in which he expresses many of the same reservations about Mozart’s music that are heard in the television segment.

Leonard Bernstein and Glenn Gould at the piano during a New York Philharmonic rehearsal, 1961. Box 224 / Folder 33, Leonard Bernstein Collection, Music Division.

Glenn Gould’s unpopular opinions were not solely reserved for the music of Mozart. His April 1962 performance of Brahms’ first piano concerto, with the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein conducting, gave rise to an extraordinary situation in which Mr. Bernstein disagreed with Gould’s interpretation so vehemently that he felt it necessary to warn the audience beforehand. The performance was subsequently broadcast on the radio with Bernstein’s comments included. A draft copy of those comments can be found in the Leonard Bernstein Collection at the Library of Congress and is available to read online.

However, Gould’s unpopular opinions did not always take a turn toward the negative. His admiration for the music of Paul Hindemith, for example, at a time when the composer was anything but “popular,” led to fantastic recordings of all three of the composer’s piano sonatas, the various sonatas for brass instruments and piano, and his Das Marienleben song cycle.

It is perhaps in his desire to record the music of composers that were not “popular” that we find Gould’s attitude toward the late works of Mozart and many other “big names” in the classical canon comes to bear. The program notes for his recording of the piano music of Jean Sibelius, hardly standard keyboard repertoire, are not filled with unequivocal praise, but rather he treats the music fairly, criticizing the spots that are problematic as well as praising its strengths. He was not trying to justify the fact that he had decided to record relatively unknown works by dubbing them “forgotten masterpieces” or some similarly trite phrase. He was working under the assumption that music is worth exploring for a variety of different reasons and that we, as musicians and music lovers, should learn as much as we can from it. For Gould, a healthy criticism of art was essential for his understanding and appreciation of it and extracting the most revered composers of the classical canon from the deific discourse that surrounds them was the only way that he was able to achieve a fair perspective. This seems to have been his attitude toward the music that he performed, without fail.

From a modern perspective, it is clear that Glenn Gould would not have been good at Twitter. He requires the listener to engage with his argument and follow it to its logical conclusion rather than simply read the title of his lecture and leave an outraged comment. If listeners are willing to do this, they may well come out of the experience having learned something new or, even better, find the inspiration to submit their own opinions to the same intellectual rigor that Mr. Gould consistently employed.

8 Comments

  1. James Mitchell
    November 12, 2020 at 8:40 am

    As one who recently watched the Mozart broadcast I was struck by Gould’s irony. His commentary on himself portraying a stuffy British pedagogue announced and demonstrated that irony, as did his discussion on the sequence issues in the C-minor. There was a challenge to the audience that I haven’t seen recognized in the commentary.

  2. Steve Lyon
    November 20, 2020 at 4:35 pm

    Perhaps I’m misreading Glenn Gould’s intent as revealed in other discourses but his “How Mozart Became a Bad Composer” strikes me as a clever, playful use of sarcasm to convey admiration. To wit, his willingness to poke fun at himself by embodying his alternate ego as the frumpy, sweater-clad professor via video feed. While pointing out “technical errors” in the C Minor Concerto, he nonetheless wished to invest the analysis with an appreciation of Mozart’s artistry in the midst of tonal, chordal, and modulatory imperfection.

  3. Jeff C. B.
    November 21, 2020 at 7:06 am

    Why wouldn’t he just shut up and play music?

  4. cuvtixo
    December 18, 2020 at 9:54 pm

    Actually Jeff C., he stopped performing at the height of his popularity, just suddenly dropped out of the celebrity musician scene and made rather bizarre noise art in studios. So he shut up and DIDN’T play music, I think specifically to shut up people like you

  5. Geoffrey Marcy
    January 2, 2021 at 8:05 pm

    Young cellists forced to play any Mozart symphony will never forgive Gould for his painfully gentle denunciation of Mozart. Surely, the leading cause of suicides among cellists is Eine Kleine Nicht-Musik.
    Sorry for the misspelling.

  6. Michael Maratsos
    April 15, 2021 at 11:56 am

    I listened to Gould’s discussion and found it both interesting and irritating. He basically analyzed the sequence of a few passages in Mozart’s c minor piano concerto, and from this drew a general conclusion that Mozart had become a caretaker of old techniques, rather than an original composer. This is very much like saying “all welfare recipients are cheats: I knew this one woman who got tons of money she didn’t deserve, and that proves it.” Does anyone seriously think Don Giovanni (written after the c minor concerto) or the requiem does not contain great and non-archival music? Or the C major and g minor string quintets (also written after)? He needed to do much more to even begin to make any case.

  7. Howard Gilman
    May 9, 2021 at 5:13 pm

    For me Glenn Gould’s argument was that Mozart’s earlier works were to him more interesting as youthful experimentation for expressive purposes, compared to his later works found by Mr. Gould to be less imaginative and more reliant on simpler composing routine. Gould was a genius in interpretation and technique so would know of what he speaks and have examples to back up his conclusions, as his shows. The idea is worth exploring by others so gifted. Most have no such discernment to give such an honest response.

  8. rudyb
    May 21, 2021 at 5:23 pm

    Impossible question I know, at this point certainly, but for those more classically enlightened and well versed, was Gould suggesting Mozart’s music was more akin to ‘Pop’?

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