Before I begin, let me say this: I currently have a Wikipedia page for “Aria” pulled up because I’m still trying to get a handle on what the term exactly means. I have no classical training in piano and have never spent significant time with the instrument. For about a week, I fiddled around with major chords on a keyboard. The only instrument I learned how to play is the viola, and I haven’t picked one up in ten years. My humble conclusion is that an aria is a broad term for a self-contained melody or solo within a larger work?
This is the conflict of classical music — to dig into the music theory and historical contexts of certain pieces is to consistently hit barriers if you didn’t have the privilege of classical music training from a young age. Now, I’m not using that as a complete excuse for my ignorance of classical music; I’ve often gone out of my way to dismiss classical music as something that people who want to look smart profess to have an extensive knowledge of. Ah yes, Mozart’s “Requiem” is quite stunning but have you heard TNGHT’s “Higher Ground” — that took some skill to make too, you know? Of course it’s idiotic to pit fields of music against one another just simply based on the social connotations from either direction (the guy in the snapback could embrace some concertos but the NPR listener could certainly enjoy a bass drop every once in a while). So I offer this read on Glenn Gould as a fig leaf, an opportunity to be the Freder in the metaphorical divide between the industrialists and their workforce in Metropolis, the Michael Scott in the argument between Oscar and Angela over her “kitsch” baby jazz poster.
To understand what Gould’s Bach: The Goldberg Variations are all about is to understand Johann Sebastian Bach and when he composed. Bach was Baroque, not classical, so he composed a half-century to a century before Mozart and Beethoven. The Baroque period is known for complexity in relation to the classical period. There is a dense self-seriousness to Baroque pieces that classical music rooted out. Bach played The Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord, which differs from the piano in many ways. The piano is percussion while the harpsichord is string; the harpsichord does not have as many octaves; you can hold notes longer with the piano; you can control volume based on how you press keys on the piano. The harpsichord solo from the Beatles’ “In My Life” is probably the most well-known use of the instrument in a popular song; it’s beautifully-used but you can still hear the choppiness and monotone-level of playing that caused it to essentially die off.
Glenn Gould, essentially a child prodigy pianist, signed with one of the most highly-esteemed classical record companies, Columbia Masterworks, at 22 years old in 1955. His first act was to record The Goldberg Variations from June 10th to June 16th, and his recording and playing methods were well-documented by the Columbia records engineers in attendance. Gould worked with a bench that lowered his face down to the keys; this bench was created when Gould injured his back as a kid and he would take the bench with him his whole life. He would soak his arms in hot water for twenty minutes. He already had an assortment of pills (anxiety, pain meds, etc.) which undoubtedly contributed to his short lifespan. He would also wear winter clothing despite the NYC summer heat.
To pick The Goldberg Variations as the start of one’s recording career is a daunting bold task. It wasn’t one of Bach’s well-known pieces — certainly didn’t have the melodic grace of his cello suites. Most recordings of The Goldberg Variations were still played with the harpsichord, dutifully playing Bach’s original transcripts. Gould’s contract with Columbia granted him artistic freedom, but executives were still trying to coax him in a more modest direction; modesty was never his style. There are 32 sections in the work: an opening and closing aria that mimic each other and 30 variations. Here’s another music theory barrier as you listen: how are these variations? I can’t properly explain, but essentially the same lines and notes keep cropping up but it is subtle, to say the least. If you listen to The Goldberg Variations on the harpsichord, you’ll essentially find that it’s incredibly stuffy — just pure regal music that can’t find a proper character because it can never come up for air. In the wonderfully-gifted hands of Glenn Gould though, the pieces are strikingly ecstatic and somehow complex without suffocating the listener.
You may have heard the signature piece from The Goldberg Variations without knowing where it came from. The aria that opens and closes the collection is now essentially Hannibal Lecter’s theme song as it was used in The Silence of the Lambs and the excellent TV series Hannibal. It really is a perfect match; Gould’s Bach work remains in the Baroque style but carries all the drama and vigor of Gould’s eccentric and modern piano methods. Equal parts graceful and harsh, the aria and all its complexities perfectly characterizes the Hannibal character, particularly Mads Mikkelsen’s version.
The Goldberg Variations essentially are Gould’s compositions now. In a Guardian article where contemporary pianists were asked on their opinion of Gould, they all went to his Bach interpretations. They all grew up on it and had loving stories to tell from finding it on their own or remembering their dad commenting how Gould just played them too fast. The speed of Gould’s playing displayed his brilliant “finger-tapping” talents but also honored the staccato feel of the original harpsichord playing. One of the pianists takes issue with how much Gould disregards the origins and historical significance of Bach’s compositions . It’s certainly hard to hear something like the brash piano accents all over “Variation 14” and not see a traditional Bach interpreter like Wanda Landowska start fuming with rage. She’s quoted as saying she “did not appreciate his eccentricities.” Admiration, frustration, fascination, irritation — for classical music connoisseurs, it’s a range of opinions on Gould.
His love of the studio was unique for that time. For most classical artists, the studio was meant to capture a performance; Gould saw it as a place to perfect a piece. He recorded the aria 21 times before he settled on a final mix. Splicing together the best parts from each mix was a technique Gould loved — that’s manipulative heresy if you ask the right people. It makes sense that Gould would abandon live performances by 1964 and stay in the studio the rest of his life (his ailments certainly pushed him in that direction, no doubt). With his condensed versions of the variations (he played no repeats unlike most Bach players), you can really hone in on the meticulous perfection in Gould’s playing style.
Without Gould, The Goldberg Variations would have fallen by the wayside — harpsichord compositions that faded with the instrument and only played by Bach purists. To revive the lovely pieces, they needed a proper update and a heavy-handed one at that. Through Gould, listeners can better understand Bach’s motives for the variations which was to help cure Count Kaiserling of his insomnia. The repetition of the melodic lines and the juxtaposition of jaunty and peaceful tunes would soothe the Count in long restless nights. There’s debate around how much Gould is fairly portraying Bach’s vision but not enough on whether Bach’s work was necessary by the 1950s. This is where maybe not being classically-trained has its advantages. Of course to the insular circle of classically-trained musicians, Bach is about as vital as it gets, but we’re talking about 1955 here. Miles Davis already has a classic out; Elvis Presley’s Sun recordings have created a legend; Chuck Berry is about to release “Maybellene;” Johnny Cash is making his two greatest songs. Bach’s harpsichord variations don’t sound too exciting to this outsider.
But to hear of a fussy pill-guzzling obsessive genius tinkering with studio equipment and perplexing his contemporaries sounds exciting. It took over 200 years for Bach’s Goldberg Variations to modernize and properly transport into a recording studio. There’s a communication here, a give-and-take, the meeting place of Baroque and 20th-century classical teachings, and the final result is a classic album start to finish. There’s just not many albums from this time period that stand the test of time; it took a centuries-long collaboration between Bach and Gould to get to that place. They needed each other. And above all else, it’s just an exciting listen — a great headphone listen at night, maybe with a nice Chianti.