Wednesday 8 May 2024

On encountering Glenn Gould playing Bach's Partitas - 1978 to 2024

A boxed set of Glenn Gould playing JS Bach's Partitas, obtained by mail order (uniquely for me) seared itself into memory as a key event in my life. 

This came near the beginning of my discovery of Glenn Gould, at a time when he was regarded with almost uniform hostility in Britain (insofar as he was known at all) - and most of his records were (to me) impossible to obtain (I got most of them when working or on holidays abroad - in the USA, Canada, Paris). 

The Partitas are associated with the long, hard winter of 1978-9; which I experienced in an unheated, drafty, seedy flat. But the association is a good one! It is of lying in bed cocooned inside a sleeping bag, inside another sleeping bag; with blanket and sheet below and four blankets above - listening to the first of these Partitas (and my favourite) the B-flat Major. 

And really listening - with total concentration, so that I was inside the music, following the mind of the musician note for note. 

The intensity with which I listened to my small collection (building to about eight LPs by the end of the year) Gould's Bach recordings at this time was something seldom matched throughout the rest of my life. 

What did I get from it? That's what intrigues me now. To some extent it was simply time spent sampling a higher world, and thus an enjoyably ecstatic experience in its own right. Yet the music also pointed beyond itself in a way that was partly inspiring, but partly frustrating. 

I might briefly return home at lunchtime to collects stuff for for, and listening to some Bach - maybe one of these Partitas, some of the Golberg Variations, or a prelude and fugue from "the 48" - and then I had to return to my lectures, practical classes, and dissections at medical school. 

But it wasn't just the problem of sublime aspirations versus worldly practicalities; it was much deeper - because, even with time, energy and opportunity to do whatever I wanted... Just what was it that I wanted to do, in consequence of listening to Gould play Bach? 

It was like having an answer, but not the question! 

All of this fitted with the general direction of my life; in that this was when I began reading Colin Wilson's The Outsider series and other manifestations of the 1950s movements, James Joyce's Ulysses and other works, discovering Jung; as well as performing (as a singer) and generally exploring classical music - including the late Romantics such as Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Mahler. 

It was a very "existentialist" period in my life!

I desired and sought the kind of life that I imagined Glenn Gould lived; one in which (as I supposed) intensity and ecstasy were normal and continuous.

Of course this was not really true. At least not in a qualitative sense. Gould surely lived that way more often and more completely than most people - but he did not inhabit a higher form of consciousness. 

Gould did not solve the core problem of this mortal life: nobody ever has, because it is impossible to do so! 

It took a long time, several decades, before I recognized that. 

Sometimes the obvious is the hardest thing of all to recognize - at least for modern Men. 

All of this, and more, was brought to memory in a kind of flashback, when I found the above YouTube posting of Gould's Partitas, began to listen with half-attention to the B-flat major; then found that I could not stop listening nor do anything else, until it had ended!


Mark In Mayenne said...

There is deep truth in the Goldberg variations: the Aria at the end sounds different from the one at the start, but it has not changed. So what has changed, and in what way?

Bruce Charlton said...

@MinM - Gould's 1956 Goldbergs was the first of Gould's recordings I owned. Nowadays, I prefer his 1981 version - which I included in my BBC radio program featuring Gould - but, of course, the best thing is to have both!

Ftan said...

Now I want to know why you were in an unheated, drafty, seedy flat during the long winter of 1978–79? What brought you to that wretched condition? (In contrast, I spent that season in a house in Bel-Air, Los Angeles, which only needed a small amount of central heating to be warm.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ftan - Mostly disorganization (left looking for a flat until the last minute), and meanness (it cost four pounds per week rent and rates inclusive - the cheapest I ever heard of at the time - and was worth every penny...)