Glenn Gould takes the piss out of late Mozart
October 16, 2020 2:50 PM   Subscribe

And as Mozart grew older and abused this facility for improvising, his best ideas were necessarily aborted by those clichés. Because, in fact, a computer could produce them, really, with a minimum of programming, and so could a five-year-old after a few weeks of theory lessons. So one begins to wonder whether, in circumstances like that, the composer is, in fact, really necessary.
Your favorite composer sucks!
posted by swift at 3:54 PM on October 16

I'm glad GG never critiqued anything I've written, yeowtch. He'd be an interesting teacher though.
Cast away all that we told you, and the theory that you read.
posted by StarkRoads at 3:59 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

This is a fun watch and a hilariously stuffy perspective, but Mozart didn't become anything, he died when he was 35, and Gould's criticism treats Mozart's compositional output as if it's a completed thought or the full creative arc of a creator's lifetime, when Mozart died fairly young (esp. considering Beethoven's 56 or Haydn's 77). Also, Mozart was fundamentally and primarily a composer of opera, and any substantial criticism of his work leading to the kind of judgment that Gould makes, should be grounded in that body of work first and foremost--the piano stuff was the kind of pop fireworks that helped Wolfgang get paid, man.

It's just a lot of words to say "this is what I think Mozart's piano music should have been, instead of what it actually was." Or, like, news flash? A lot of the piano pieces were pop fluff intended to sell lots of tickets, especially when Mozart got a bigger cut of the box office, as composer and soloist. Expectations for them to be anything else are almost totally anachronistic, added fairly late to Hoffman-style, cult-of-Beethoven composer worship (really, not until the later 20th century and with the help of music industry, did Mozart become a pantheon-type Great Composer).
posted by LooseFilter at 4:00 PM on October 16 [37 favorites]

Heh. That was great. The perspective highly debatable of course, but Gould made good show of why he held his position with an amusing analogy and good choice of selected passages to draw out what he was suggesting to make it readily apparent to non-musicians, though Gould's take is clearly wedded to his manner of playing and philosophy around that. It doesn't hurt that Gould was able to call up that video of Sir Humphrey Price-Davies to stand in as opposing view, even the many parodies of stuffy and pompous pedagogues that are so frequent in media seem understated when compared to Price-Davies. Oof.

The various arguments Gould lays out still have some relevance, even if one generally sides against Gould's case here. I don't mean about Mozart per se, a subject I'm not expert enough to comment in detail on myself, but around the arts more generally, where the notions of who asserts value/importance, how it is determined and what it is one is speaking of are obviously far from settled and tend to get caught up around buzz words and categorization.

I don't think Gould is treating Mozart's output as if it's a completed thought, rather that he just sees a general decline in tension the works create, sliding towards too ready ease instead. Gould speaking of the piano compositions in these terms is at least in part a response to those who did and do rate Mozart's later compositions so highly and talk about all his work through the concept of a "master" who, as that concept holds, tend to further develop their inherent genius over time, which is a root problem with how some think about the arts and artists.
posted by gusottertrout at 5:00 PM on October 16 [5 favorites]

I want to learn about this dangerous new drug called marijuana.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:28 PM on October 16 [12 favorites]

This is real fun. On a side note, I always had the nagging feeling that Mozart was phoning it in with some of the piano pieces, but I also thought that that was just how that particular sausage got made (commission, patrons, etc.).
posted by carter at 5:38 PM on October 16

I know Mozart's music scarcely at all, and of the little I do know, I like only the horn concertos, which I think are wonderful.

But perhaps we don't need to rely solely on an analysis of Mozart's music to evaluate the credibility of Gould's claims:
The 250th anniversary of the birth of one of the greatest musical geniuses of all times, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791), provides an opportunity not only to reflect on his immeasurable contributions to the world of classical music, but also to examine him as a man of exceptional creative power. Mozart's biographical accounts often comment on his peculiar behaviour which has been interpreted by some as a manifestation of an underlying neurobehavioural disorder, such as Tourette syndrome (TS). Once considered a rare psychiatric curiosity, TS is now recognised as a relatively complex neurobehavioural disorder, affecting approximately 2% of the general population.1,2 Some studies have suggested that TS affects up to 3.8% of children, and two‐thirds of them have coexistent attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), obsessive–compulsive disorder (OCD) or other behavioural comorbidities.3 Although learning disabilities have been suggested to be present in some patients with TS,4,5 most reach their full potential without any residual psychiatric or neurological handicap. Many notable figures, such as Dr Samuel Johnson, have made extraordinary contributions to the arts and sciences despite, or perhaps because of, their TS.6 Several reports have drawn attention to the observation that some TS patients possess unique talents and skills, similar to individuals with autism and savant syndrome.7,8
If Mozart did have Tourette's, particularly with comorbidities of tics or OCD, or both, it might be more surprising if Mozart had not had to fight off clichés and stereotyped elements in his music than if he did.
posted by jamjam at 5:41 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

When I listen to Glenn Gould play in recordings, I always thought of his humming as some kind of muse helping him with his genius. To hear him also do it when he’s playing something he considers boring and making fun of it, it’s so much more mundane. But of course everythinghe does makes me love him more
posted by Space Coyote at 6:27 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

I just love that he quotes Victor Borge.
posted by Admiral Viceroy at 6:34 PM on October 16 [4 favorites]

Okay (spoiler alert?), the British expert is also Gould, the entire presentation is tongue-in-cheek with Gould playing one ravishing piece after another while he baits musical sophisticates to furrow their brows and say tut-tut that lazy late Mozart. Or am I just too musically naive to realize his arguments are serious?
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:34 PM on October 16 [7 favorites]

and so could a five-year-old after a few weeks of theory lessons

Mozart family grand tour: 1763-1766.
posted by clavdivs at 6:48 PM on October 16 [2 favorites]

Or am I just too musically naive to realize his arguments are serious?

Embarrassingly, I couldn't see the presentation well enough to recognize Gould in his other Price-Davies persona in the presentation, so the tongue in cheek aspect more or less whizzed right past me, other than noting how absurd Price-Davies came off. Some of the basic arguments are real enough though, or were, just twisted to a different use in this case for some fun evidently.
posted by gusottertrout at 7:27 PM on October 16

If Mozart did have Tourette's, particularly with comorbidities of tics or OCD, or both, it might be more surprising if Mozart had not had to fight off clichés and stereotyped elements in his music than if he did.

Uh, from personal experience with compulsions and tics, one is not compelled to write them down and publish them.
posted by atoxyl at 7:38 PM on October 16 [5 favorites]

I love this sort of thing. An expert holding forth on the why of something that is complicated, and making it accessible.
posted by zenon at 8:41 PM on October 16

I'd just like to mention how much I like that PBL station break tune.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 9:05 PM on October 16 [1 favorite]

Uh, from personal experience with compulsions and tics, one is not compelled to write them down and publish them.
posted by atoxyl
Handwriting Tics in Tourette’s Syndrome: A Single Center Study

Tourette’s syndrome (TS) is a neurodevelopmental disorder typically defined by multiple motor tics and at least one sound tic, beginning in childhood or in adolescence. Handwriting is one of the most impaired school activities for TS patients because of the presence of tics that hamper learning processes. In this paper, we present a case of handwriting tics in a TS patient highlighting the main features.

More recently, TS has been acknowledged as a broad spectrum syndrome (2), including different comorbidities and coexisting symptoms. When beginning in early childhood TS mainly presents with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and tics, when beginning in adolescence instead tics and obsessive–compulsive behavior or disorder (OCB/OCD) are predominant. OCB/OCD trait is present in 60–80% of patients (3), and they are considered as thought tics (4). In many cases, motor and sound tics resolve spontaneously in adulthood, though OCB/OCD generally remains.
In our clinical experience, handwriting tics (HT) could severely affect and condition TS subjects, but they are not often pointed out in the Literature. For this reason, there are not precise data regarding the incidence of HT neither in TS patients nor in healthy population.
Patients suffering from TS may have different types of HT: (a) paligraphia, i.e., writing again and again the same letter, or word, or sentence (for instance the subject could write “today today today is a sunny day d d d d”), (b) outlining each letter multiple times (6–8), (c) pulling the pen back while writing (9, 10).

In some cases, HT can be considered simultaneously motor and obsessional because the subject complies with obsessions through tics, e.g., some patients have a lucky number and feel the urge to write the same sentence the lucky number of times. ...
And if the number of webpages dedicated to helping with them is any guide, what are self-consciously described as "tics" in their writing are some of the most common problems less experienced authors are likely to have.
posted by jamjam at 9:46 PM on October 16

This is fabulous. I LOL'ed at "cover up in the most delinquent way with scales and arpeggios". I read it as Gould satirizing blowhard music critics and giving Mozart a light roasting and giving the audience some lovely playing and effective explanation. I wouldn't put it past him, he got pretty meta in the 70s with the radio documentaries, and those eyebrows and extra-clipped oration are pretty hammy.
posted by threecheesetrees at 3:39 AM on October 17 [9 favorites]

This is marvelous - I didn't realize Gould was such a ham. Stoked to listen to the Solitude Trilogy. Are there other examples of him doing this on film, with other composers?
posted by aspersioncast at 9:21 AM on October 17 [1 favorite]

Sublime, thanks a lot.

"The inveterate improvisers like Mozart are as caught up in the glory of the moment as the social climber in the jet-stream of café society... What it comes down to is that within every creative person there is an inventor at odds with a museum curator, and most of the extraordinary and moving things that happen in art are the result of a momentary gain by one at the expense of the other... In Mozart's case the inventor was endowed with the most precocious gifts... and the curator, who manufactured all those sequences, and arpeggiated links, and passages of scale padding, zealously carried out his duties as well... But what I object to is that Mozart tries to cover up the conflict between them... time and again the curator wins out over the inventor -- as he's every right to do -- I'd like to find some evidence of protest, some frantic, disruptive, unsyntactical attempt on the part of the inventor to get free of the curator's control... Or in the absence of that desperation move, I'd like Mozart to feel guilty, and because of that guilt, sacrifice some of the charm and courtesy which masks the humanity of his work. And he should feel guilty."
posted by dmh at 9:23 AM on October 17 [5 favorites]

I agree with his assessment of Mozart, although his cleverness hurts my brain. He loves Bach, on the other hand, and on that note I'll dredge up a comment I made here in 2008 about a funny experience at one of his concerts I attended in Vancouver before you all were born.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:08 PM on October 17 [2 favorites]

Maybe Mozart needed a patron like Prince Razumovsky, who reportedly commissioned 3 string quartets from Beethoven (Nos. 7–9, Op. 59), saying "just do whatever YOU want, and you can take your time on it".
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:40 AM on October 18

I just discovered that the folding card table which I use as a kitchen table was made by the same company which made Glenn Gould's chair.
posted by clawsoon at 5:44 AM on October 18

Maybe Mozart needed a patron like Prince Razumovsky, who reportedly commissioned 3 string quartets from Beethoven

Beethoven did better than that, for most of his working life the 7th (and then 8th) Princes Lobkowicz simply gave him an annual stipend to be a composer--in fact, the letter that Beethoven wrote to the 8th prince, to inquire if the son would be continuing the stipend payment after his father died, is about the only piece of correspondence from him I've ever seen that is even nominally polite, and it's nearly obsequious in tone, surprisingly out-of-character for Beethoven.

(But if you're ever in Prague, absolutely definitely stop by the Lobkowicz Palace and check out the Beethoven room: when Napoleon named himself emperor and Beethoven famously scratched out the dedication to his 'Bonaparte' symphony, he renamed it 'Heroic' and dedicated it to Lobkowicz instead, and then also dedicated his 5th and 6th symphonies to him; he also dedicated two string quartets and the triple concerto to him; his father (6th prince) employed Christoph Gluck (important early Classical opera composer) and lived in London for a while, and returned from there with two of Cannaletto's most significant paintings of the era, including a scene of the treaty celebration by George II on the Thames, which featured elaborate floating sets and loads of exotic 'fire-works,' and for which G.F. Handel was commissioned to write his "Musick for the Royal Fireworks," and which never really happened because the fireworks exploded prematurely during rehearsal and caught the big set piece on fire, which sank, and etc., it's a pretty funny story; anyway, between the 7th & 8th princes, they commissioned more than a few pieces from Beethoven, Haydn's Creation, Mozart's re-orchestration of Messiah, and much more--all from one family! The most interesting thing to me was seeing the household staff payment ledger for the private party where Beethoven's 3rd received its first performance, because the musicians were listed along with the cooks and maids and etc., and the orchestra was quite small: 5 violins on each part, 3 violas, 3 cellos, 2 basses; single winds and timpani--so a chamber orchestra, essentially, quite different from most contemporary approaches to this repertoire. Anyway, check it out if you're in Prague, best stop we made there...well, that and the absintherie.)
posted by LooseFilter at 8:01 AM on October 18 [3 favorites]

(In fact, as further tangent to kind of bring us back around to topic, this specific patronage probably best illustrates the working difference between Mozart and Beethoven: Beethoven sort of self-elevated his status, in a marketing/job negotiation sense, and pushed for patrons to pay him stipends rather than only commissions, when Mozart really lived on specific commissions and box office receipts; much more market-based. So Beethoven was able to find some real creative freedom and autonomy for himself and his work, where Mozart either didn't live long enough to figure that one out, or, more likely, was just too driven by his urges and needed a constant cash flow to keep up. The liberating effect of this on Beethoven's work is quite noticeable, and paves the way for the 19th-century work-concept in music, as well as the emergence of the Artist-as-Hero mythos--which is then often anachronistically applied to composers and musical works before that time, projecting expectations backwards onto that music that it was never intended to fulfill.)
posted by LooseFilter at 8:13 AM on October 18 [2 favorites]

There's something resonant about a colorful and talented musician taken before their time expounding on another, different colorful and talented musician taken before their time. Gould was very near the same age when he made this as Mozart was when he passed on, and he never considered himself to be in great health. I wonder if that contributed to his choice of topics.
posted by StarkRoads at 10:22 AM on October 18 [1 favorite]

At around 4:12: "...and in all the familiar musical forms of his day, an exhilaratingly dependable artist who could knock out a divertimento the way an accounts executive dispatches an interoffice memo..."

Oh, it is ON.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 12:22 PM on October 18 [1 favorite]

After hearing and enjoying Gould play Bach, I stumbled across a recording of him playing several popular Beethoven sonatas. Ah, what mysteries might he unlock in them that I had never heard before? In short, none. Total meh. That was when I first began to suspect that Gould's best insights may have been limited to Bach.

While I can acknowledge that some of his criticisms may be true, I still love Mozart regardless.
posted by pmurray63 at 8:48 PM on October 18 [1 favorite]

But here's another story, yessiree.
Here's a man of talent, you must agree.
Here is a man with loads of talent, you'll agree.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is his name.
He is no newcomer to this game.
He was a real boy wonder who blazed across the sky,
Oh, but now, but now he's just another grown up guy.
If he'd only make an effort once in a while
He would be living now in style
He spends his time at billiards! Now tell me, is that wise?
Oh he'll be, he'll be a pauper 'til the day he dies!
The aria, of course, is "What Sweet Music", from P.D.Q. Bach's A Little Nightmare Music: An Opera in One Irrevocable Act, S.35.
posted by zenoli at 7:33 AM on October 19 [1 favorite]

I love this!

and if you like/love this, you'll like/love this NPR series of pieces about Bach's Goldberg variations!

and both make me love the pieces more and more!
posted by spbmp at 5:54 PM on October 19

Wait, y'all thing he wasn't extolling the piece he was feigning to pan?!
Listen to the playing!
posted by spbmp at 6:15 PM on October 19

IIRC, the piece that he plays at the end is one that he says is a great early work by Mozart, from the time before Mozart became lazy and clichéd.
posted by clawsoon at 6:21 PM on October 19

But what happened when the Wizard returned?
posted by Homemade Interossiter at 2:00 AM on October 20

Actually, (though I didn't find direct quotations) I see Gould has spoken at out other times about the quality of later work.
Still he made *me* love (even the late) Mozart more.
posted by spbmp at 9:24 AM on October 20

^ This highlights for me that a wonderful performer can make listeners love almost anything (and that's not intended to be a knock on later Mozart piano music...or maybe it is...Gould's not wrong per se, his expectations are just inappropriate). For me, the easiest evidence that any composition itself is excellently crafted, is when it can be performed poorly and still be expressively persuasive.*

To Gould's point (even though I think his framing is off), I've heard some performances of Mozart's music that absolutely made me want to leave the room, mainly out of boredom--but I've never wanted to nope out of even a rough rehearsal of his Requiem or second G minor symphony, and that's some of the last music he ever wrote (1791 & 1788, respectively); that music is just magic coalescing in the air, in any version.** I think that because Glenn Gould plays the piano, he wants those later piano works to measure up to the level (and potential) of the earlier ones. I get the disappointment, but did he study/play/conduct any of the later operas or symphonies? Or choral works? Because those are pretty fucking amazing.

* - (My primary musical mentor calls certain repertoire pieces 'styrofoam boats,' because they can have chunks blown off and still hang together and stay afloat--these are the pieces that you want to include when programming any first guest conducting appearance, especially in educational settings like all-state and honor ensembles, when the ability of the ensemble is not specifically discernible until the ensemble exists, i.e. the first rehearsal, when all the programming decisions have long since been made. Which is hilarious, right? And really useful.)

** - I've been teaching about the ars perfecta lately, and if some of those composers--Palestrina or Byrd or even Josquin--could have seen/heard what Mozart lays out in just, e.g., the opening of the Requiem's 'Lachrimosa' or--even better--the Adagio movement from the Gran Partita, they would lose their damn minds over the exquisite, direct simplicity and profound expressiveness of (IMHO) perfect Classical, tonal practice. And the instrument technology would boggle their minds, too.

posted by LooseFilter at 11:12 AM on October 20

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