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Variations and Variants

by Jacques Hétu

English translation by the National Library of Canada

Glenn Gould was very young when he decided that he wanted to be a composer first. Early in his career, he wrote: I would like, before I turn seventy, to have composed some chamber music, two or three symphonies, and an opera." Gould had very sound knowledge of analytical techniques, plus remarkable aptitude as a composer... a rare thing today among performers... and even among composers!

Glenn Gould had very selective and frequently very particular musical taste, like a composer! He preferred recording to performing in concert: recording is solitary work, as is composing. Designing a radio or television program or a recording as he did involved putting together a sound montage, a process akin to composing.

Glenn Gould's genius may have found its primary expression in performance, but he also dreamed of being a composer. Would I go so far as to say that in some of his performances, he substituted himself for the composer? Is it appropriate to say that this super-performer at times took possession of others' music and transformed it, sometimes disfiguring it and other times transfiguring it? Deep down, for Glenn Gould, what was the intrinsic value of a musical text, a text he frequently tackled as a "pre-text" to a formidable sound production in which his own musical universe, nourished by that of the composer, is displayed and asserts itself on the listener with an irrefutable logic? Performer's logic or composer's logic? Personally, I have often thought that Gould could have been a frustrated composer who, consciously or not, channelled a large portion of his creative energy through the occasionally very mannered performances with which we were familiar.

Twenty years after sustaining a violent shock on hearing Gould's performance of my Variations pour piano, I feel sufficiently healed to deliver an analysis of this performance. First, we must keep in mind what Gould wrote in 1956: "Nothing that can be said concerning my performances or my compositions affects me, but the least criticism of my writings hurts me." May he rest in peace; the brief analysis of my work which he wrote for the liner of his recording devoted to Canadian music is admirably fair, with respect to both structural elements and the form as a whole. But what happened to Gould when he was playing these Variations? Is there a link between the subtle perception of the work which the analyst demonstrates and the musical transposition, in places so remote from the score, which the performer delivers? I have always admitted that this performance had its own logic, obviously a very Gouldian logic which, paradoxically, could in part have been based on the analysis itself, but I must specify that this is only a hypothesis, since I never met Gould. Here is an excerpt from what Gould wrote about my Variations: "After an introduction which serves in lieu of theme and in which the row material is set out via some accented treble octaves each of the four variations becomes occupied with an increasingly dense and/or decreasing literal utilization of the row."

In other words, Gould observes that the initial material is treated increasingly freely by the composer... and this is precisely what happens with the performer: as the work progresses, he takes more and more liberties, moving further and further away from the score. With respect to the score, the first disquieting indicator manifests itself in the timing of the piece: the Variations have an average duration of 8 minutes 45 seconds; Gould's version is 11 minutes 19 seconds long. Overall, he modifies certain tempi considerably, changes legato to staccato, pianos to fortes and vice versa, clarifies some foggy passages, muddles certain other normally clear ones, and so on, slightly like the negative of a photograph compared to the actual image. So are there grounds for questioning the composition of the work to justify the addition of so many variants by the performer? Yet Gould wrote: "Hétu's flair for the instrument is unmistakable. Everything works and sounds and lies rewardingly beneath the fingers. Yet, the impressive thing about these Variations is that ... they are held together by a sure sense of the purely musical values inherent in their material." So it is not the composer's fault! Listening to the work, score in hand, what happens?

Example 1, INTRODUCTION, from VARIATIONS POUR PIANO, by Jacques Hétu


Example 1

The first two pages, the introduction, are presented with strength, conviction and absolute respect for everything written in the score. It should be noted that I write absolutely everything in my piano scores, including pedal markings (e.g. 1).

The first variation, marked Vivace, is a canon played an octave higher, or more precisely two octaves higher, based on an eighth note. Gould is obviously very inclined to highlight this counterpoint and to sculpt the "warring accents" inherent in this type of writing. He does so with an irresistible rhythmic sense, in joyful sonorous flight that is rarely maintained under the strong shading. But the score indicates pianissimo legato; a single passage is marked fortissimo, all the rest is supposed to proceed in a mysterious chiaroscuro. The metronomic marking of this Vivace, 144 quarter-note beats per minute, becomes 200 quarter-note beats per minute, but this tempo is logical, given the frenetic playing style adopted by the performer.

Example 2, VARIATION 2, ADAGIO, from VARIATIONS POUR PIANO, by Jacques Hétu


Example 2

The second variation, marked Adagio, is based on oppositions of registers: in stages, a succession of ponderous low chords emerge slowly, in opposition to a group of fast high, glockenspiel-like notes, all bathed in pedal (e.g. 2). Gould is known to have had an aversion to excessive pedal use; this was even one of the reasons he gave for keeping well away from works by Chopin or Debussy. It was undoubtedly this phobia of intermingled harmonics which led him to change "the orchestration" of this passage: the glockenspiel has become a xylophone! Gould, faithful to his tastes and convictions, could not do anything but skirt around the impressionistic aspect of this page.

Example 3, VARIATION 3, ANDANTE, from VARIATIONS POUR PIANO, by Jacques Hétu


Example 3

The third variation is a short fugue marked Andante, 60 quarter-note beats per minute, which metamorphoses in Gould's hands to a Lento assai, 60 eighth-note beats per minute, exactly twice as slow (e.g. 3). The character of the music is radically changed: the three-voice counterpoint gives way to a climate of immobility, highly contemplative, and ultimately very close to the atmosphere he had created in the 25th Goldberg variation on his first recording. Such slowness of tempo must have repercussions on piano potential in dealing with the duration of sounds: the central part of this variation is a stretto forming a crescendo and culminating in a triple forte, where the harmonies are supported by a sustained low C-sharp octave (e.g. 4).

Because of the tempo used by Gould, this passage could not be played with the nuances marked on the score; he therefore reversed everything: this culminating point, marked fortissimo, crescendo, triple forte, became fortissimo, decrescendo, piano... it is very logical, very musical and very beautiful, but...!

Example 4, two bars from VARIATION 3, from VARIATIONS POUR PIANO, by Jacques Hétu


Example 4

The fourth and last variation is a toccata which gradually ties in again with the first elements of the introduction. Gould proceeds in the same way, with staggering virtuosity, but ignoring the pedal markings in several locations, and curiously muddling certain passages, once again, playing inverted dynamics: piano for a secondary element and forte for the major element becomes forte for the secondary element and piano for the major element... again, this idea of a photographic negative! However, the last two pages of the work, like the first two, are completely consistent with the score markings. After visiting the composer's house and moving some of the furniture around, the performer leaves just as politely and correctly as he arrived!

In conclusion, what have I accomplished here, except to demonstrate that Gould remained true to his esthetic principles concerning music in general and the piano in particular. Other pieces could have been used as an example, but I was in a better position to talk about this one. In fact, I have merely borne witness to what we all knew: Glenn Gould was not a performer like all the rest; Glenn Gould could not make do with playing a score; and through others' music, he imperiously communicated his own musical universe, because Glenn Gould was definitely a true creator.

Source: Library and Archives Canada
© Library and Archives Canada. Reproduced with the permission of the Estate of Glenn Gould and Glenn Gould Limited.

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