Philip Kennicott, author. W. W. Norton & Company, 2020. ISBN 978-0-393-63536-2
By Karl W. Nehring
As Monty Python were wont to declare, “And now for something completely different.” What we have here are recordings and a book so intimately bound together and so individually as well as jointly rewarding that it just seems to make sense to review them both together. Many music lovers, but especially those with a deep appreciation for the music of J.S. Bach, are most likely familiar with one or even both of legendary Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s two Columbia recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Counterpoint is, as stated on the cover, a memoir of Bach and mourning. A memoir of Bach in terms of the author’s efforts to be able to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a memoir of mourning in the sense of his grief over the loss of his mother. Mourning for his mother drives him to master the Bach, partly as a diversion, partly to recapture his youth. Working on the Goldbergs drives him to analyze more deeply, at times painfully, his relationship with his mother. It also drives him to reach inward, sometimes painfully, for memories of his learning to play the piano, of teachers he studied with, of his successes and failures.
Early in the book, author Philip Kennicott writes that “simply being a bystander, a passive listener to music, isn’t an entirely satisfying form of understanding. For years, I had felt this way about the great piano works that were beyond my abilities, among them Bach’s Goldberg Variations... At a moment when it seemed imperative to understand the world and life more deeply, I wondered if the Goldberg Variations might test the possibility of achieving true knowledge of music. I wondered if perhaps I should learn to play them.” A few pages later, he goes on to observe that “the silly ethos of dreaming the impossible dream is a good way to live in perpetual regret, unable even to muster the energy and will to take on the manageable challenges of a reasonable dream… Learning the Goldberg Variations, however, seemed an eminently reasonable thing to do.
As you might anticipate, it is nearly inevitable that someone who writes a book about learning to play the Goldbergs is going bring up Glenn Gould and those famous recordings. After coming back home following his mother’s death, the inevitable indeed occurs. Feeling the need to listen to something as he mourned in his silent dwelling, Kennicott turns to Gould and makes some observations about the first of Gould’s two recordings. “So I put on Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations in 1955, one of the most admired and thorny recordings ever made. With its patina of thin, pre-digital sound, it captures a pianist doing the miraculous, clarifying as with colored light the intertwining lines of Bach’s thirty variations on a recurring bass pattern. Even critics who find it sometimes dry, or even tendentious in its almost aggressive flaying of the music’s sinews, still stand in awe of it. If it were made today with all the tools available for tweaking and distorting sound, one would suspect the pianist, and his engineers, of studio fraud. As I listened to Gould play, I sensed in the Goldberg Variations the same inexhaustibility of emotion and meaning that I had felt in the Chaconne during the days of my mother’s death. And the perfection of Gould’s playing, his mental tenacity, made me shudder.”
Yes, the sound on the 1955 recording is on the thin side. If anything, though, that thin sound seems to emphasize the utter precision and clarity of Gould’s playing. At times, the sound makes his piano sound something like a harpsichord. Something Kennicott fails to observe about the Gould recordings (both of them, in fact) though, is the sound of Gould’s humming, which Gould was famous for. For some (I among them), the extraneous noises you sometimes hear on a Gould recording are not bothersome and are in fact endearing, making his whole enterprise seem more committed and personal. For others, those noises are a distraction and a nuisance – even a deal-killer in some cases. Perhaps Kennicott is too much of a gentleman to call out another pianist, perhaps his playback system was not all that revealing, perhaps he did not really notice them because he was too busy analyzing Bach’s writing or Gould’s playing, or perhaps he occasionally heard them but just didn’t care. In any event, the 1955 Gould recording is an X-ray rendition of the score that is simply astonishing in terms the virtuosity of Gould’s fleet-fingered interpretation. If you are a fan of the Goldberg Variations, Gould’s 1955 recording is something you really ought to hear, even if you already own a version you are quite happy with.
As the book progresses, Kennicott purchases a score of the Goldbergs, noting that they were never actually titled as such: “The music I knew I finally needed to buy that morning in Chicago was the piece that had haunted me for the past year, a work published with the rather daunting title page: “Keyboard Practice consisting of an aria with thirty variations for the harpsichord with 2 manuals prepared for the Enjoyment of Music Lovers by Johann Sebastian Bach.” The author goes on to recount the story of how those variations came to be called the Goldberg Variations, presenting some interesting historical facts and discussing the merits and demerits of some of the accounts that have been presented from time to time as explanatory tales.
Returning to the subject of Gould, Kennicott opines that “no pianist has had a greater impact on public perceptions of the Goldberg Variations than Gould. It was the first piece he recorded, in 1955, after signing with Columbia Records, and a work he returned to at the end of his life for a thoroughgoing reappraisal. Those two recordings, bookends to a meteoric and idiosyncratic career, offer an encyclopedia of choices a pianist can make about the music of Bach.” He goes on to point out that in Gould’s 1981 recording, “he extended rational control over all its dimensions. In this autumnal interpretation, he offered his view of a central debate about Bach’s variation cycle that still divides musicians, theorists, and listeners, and that is: Are the variations a single, coherent work, consistent and unified in all their parts, or a collection of diverse ideas assembled to show the variegated breadth of musical possibility? … Although Gould would say of the Goldbergs, “As a piece, as a concept, I don’t really think it quite works,” his second recording was his attempt to make it work, to unify it and present it not as a string of delightful episodes but as an integrated whole. … In Gould’s last recording, he went even further to in an attempt to bring and extend a logic of consistent pulse to the entire work, reflected in orderly (although not always simple) tempo ratios. ‘In the case of the Goldbergs,’ he said in a 1981 interview with the critic Tim Page, a conversation Gould mostly scripted, there is one pulse that runs all the way throughout.’”
That interview with Tim Page, a prominent advocate for Gould, is contained in the third disc included in this three-disc set, along with some outtakes from the 1955 sessions. It is fascinating document, with Gould explaining many of the choices he made in re-recording this might work for which his earlier recording had made him so famous. One especially interesting point that came out in the interview is the matter of timing. Page points out that although the 1955 recording seems so much faster (when you listen to both recordings, chances are you will agree), if you adjust for the presence/absence of repeats taken in the two recordings, and do not include the aria, which Gould plays much more reflectively and slowly in his later recording, the overall timing for the variations themselves is very similar. That was quite a surprise!
The very first CD I ever purchased – before I even had a CD player in my system – was Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of the Goldberg Variations. Perhaps that is an indication that I am not the most objective reviewer of this particular recording. A further disclosure is that in my relatively long life (how did that happen?) there have been two musicians for whom hearing the news of their death brought immediate tears to my eyes, Antonio Carlos Jobim and yes, Glenn Gould. Another thing – I still tend to become a bit misty-eyed when I listen to the aria and hear his ghostly humming. My wife and I still occasionally reminisce about that magical time we were driving up to Buffalo watching those beautiful snowflakes fall while listening to the Goldbergs on the car radio. No, I am definitely not the most objective reviewer of this particular recording, so when I say that Gould’s 1981 recording is an engrossing account of Bach’s keyboard masterpiece, you may take that with a grain of salt.
For Kennicott, too, listening to Gould’s recordings proves to be an emotional experience, perhaps even more so than a musical one. “No pianist can play these works without at some point grappling with what seems a rigorous syllogism: Bach is to music as Gould is to Bach. … Learning to admire Gould meant facing up to the consequences of having avoided Bach for so long. When I finally turned to Bach I grasped for the first time the vastness of my musical failings and I understood my neglect of Bach not just as a youthful oversight, but as a willful decision that had cost me years of unnecessary struggle.” But Kennicott presses on, never really mastering the Goldbergs, of course, but at least learning them well enough to be able to play them. Reading his observations about them is interesting, as is reading about his memories of his relationship with his mother, a relationship that was complicated and often fraught with tension and conflict. Reflecting back on his mother, he writes, “By the end of her life, I can think of only one piece that she genuinely enjoyed, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s violin fantasy ‘The Lark Ascending.’ Music, which had been a large part of her life as a girl and a young woman, was eventually thinned out to a single piece, a musical representation of a bird rising into the air, leaving earth and earthbound things behind, before it ‘to silence nearer soars’ -- the words of George Meredith, whose poem inspired the English composer. And although there is a universe of difference between the two pieces, the simple violin fantasy full of melodic afflatus and the Goldberg Variations with their contrapuntal complexity, I cannot hear the final repeat of the aria at the end of Bach’s masterpiece without thinking that something in it ‘to silence nearer soars.’”
But not everything in the book is so serious. Take, for instance, Kennicott’s account of his dog, Nathan, whom he acquired to provide him some companionship after his mother’s death. Nathan, it turns out, did not like Baroque music, especially Bach, and had a special hatred for the Goldbergs, which, of course, Kennicot had committed to mastering. Needless to say, this created some challenges – even driving Kennicot to acquire an electronic keyboard that would allow him to practice using headphones, which still did not completely placate his canine companion.
Near the end of the book, the tone becomes serious once again as Kennicott reflects one final time on what the meaning of music is and what his quest to master the Goldbergs has brought him. “Did learning the Goldberg Variations help me crawl out of the hole I was in after my mother’s death? Not at all, and the idea was absurd. In emotional terms, I might be in the same exact place had I studied ornithology or taken up a sport or played "Angry Birds." The best one can say of music is that it is a powerful substitution, directing mental energy away from thoughts of death and loss, but it also makes us aware or our insignificance, our frailty, our susceptibility to suffering.”
Serious stuff indeed, but then a couple of pages later, Kennicott offers the reader this bone to chew on: “I wish my playing of this music brought as much pleasure to human beings as my not playing it does to my poor suffering dog, Nathan.”
All in all, Counterpoint is an engaging, informative, and entertaining book. You don’t need to be a fan of the Goldbergs or even of Bach to enjoy it. Including as it does both Gould’s seminally important 1955 Goldbergs and his 1981 rethinking of the work in updated sound, plus the eye- and ear-opening bonus interview/outtake disc, A State of Wonder is a remarkable CD release, well worth seeking out. If you read the book, you will want to hear the CDs. If you hear the CDs, the book will help you hear and appreciate them in a whole new light. Unless you are a dog named Nathan, that is.