Glenn Gould: extra hands

Thank you Edward Johnson Building library, once again I found treasure in the collection that never disappoints.

I’d grabbed a great mass of scores in anticipation of a couple of gigs, never knowing fully what to play, but wanting to let my impulses lead me.

One pathway of association is the magic of transcription. People sometimes want to hear a tune that they know, whether it’s a pop-tune, a jazz standard, or something classical. There’s an incredible sensation of power in playing something as a piano solo that you’ve heard massively from a full orchestra. This is true whether it’s originally for piano and later orchestrated , (as with Mussorgskii’s Pictures at an Exhibition, a suite that I prefer on piano, especially the last few) or an orchestral piece that’s been transcribed for piano. The most exciting composers I’ve ever experienced in transcription are Berlioz and Wagner, two composers of massive scores that defy easy reduction.

It was in the realm of transcriptions that I found the aforementioned gem.  Perhaps it’s a lost art, but at one time these transcriptions performed an important function. Without a piano transcription it was otherwise impossible to encounter some new compositions. If you were a composer and nobody wanted to play your orchestral pieces, a transcription could help champion your work: which is precisely what Franz Liszt accomplished for Berlioz & Wagner. Nowadays one can easily hear scores on youtube (or of course via various recorded media that you pay for), but in the 19th century? the only way to encounter some music was via a piano reduction.

And that means either you had to play it yourself or hear it played for you. Live music was the only option.

Live performance represented a special nagging part of Glenn Gould’s life. As you may recall, the Canadian virtuoso, famed for recordings such as Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, made an unprecedented decision to abandon live performance. It wasn’t because he was a recluse or an introvert (although come to think of it, maybe he was those things too, and the personality type was a contributing factor), so much as his preference for recordings, the control he could exercise over dynamics and background noise in a studio. His was a very modern view of music that is in many ways still far ahead of its time.  Recorded music offered a pathway to achieve the perfection one imagines while reading a score.

Let me illustrate further by talking about the gem I found. It’s Glenn Gould’s transcription of passages from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (or “Twilight of the Gods”). If the opera’s name doesn’t scare you, the published piece is called Morgendämmerung und Siegfrieds Rheinfahrt, or Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine-Journey. To get some idea of what’s being compressed for the piano, let’s listen to the original. The prologue to Act I of Twilight of the Gods has two scenes:

  • A slow but portentous scene of the three Norns, who weave fate in the dark: and announce the imminent End of things.
  • Sunrise, an exciting duet between Siegfried and Brünnhilde, and after they say goodbye, he rides off into the morning (just to confound fans of westerns, where they ride off into sunsets instead).

The recording that follows is also a kind of transcription from the opera.  In this one Wagner is edited down to orchestra only, without any singing. Now, listen to this full orchestra version, and imagine how you might distill it further by playing all those louds notes as a piano solo.

This is a kind of program music because the music comes from an opera, deriving at least some of its beauty from its story and what it’s signifying. The story? We begin with the darkness that precedes the dawn. After a shift into B-flat and a quiet statement in brass of Siegfried’s motif followed by Brunndhile’s theme in the clarinet, the music begins to grow in loudness & intensity, as if to suggest sunrise, dawn and perhaps two people going out into the day. The lovers are about to say farewell, as Siegfried goes off in search of further adventure. The duet is a kind of pledge of eternal love, building to a climax as Siegfried rides off. Does the music in any sense depict his journey? Or perhaps we’re presented with ideas and themes relevant to the story that’s to unfold. Whatever it signifies, this is especially spectacular when it’s presented by the unique sound of the Cleveland Orchestra brass.

Did you notice the astonishing array of colours Wagner brings to individual moments? That’s part of the challenge for the pianist, who has to emulate 100 instruments of various colours on a solo piano.

The essence of a piano transcription is live performance, the transmission of a composition through a live medium whereby the pianist defies the complexities –for instance, all the notes played by perhaps 100 players suddenly reproduced by one person on one instrument—in daring to imitate and portray something so huge in a compressed and miniaturized form. No wonder then that this was a common pathway for virtuosi, particularly Franz Liszt. While Liszt was a humanitarian in helping out relatively unknown composers (Berlioz & Wagner most prominently, both through his transcriptions and financial assistance, but also as a champion of their work in his own programming), playing such wonderful music made him look good in the process.

Now let’s zip forward to the 1970s. Glenn Gould last played a live concert in 1964. In transcribing he was not celebrating liveness at all, because his transcriptions would be studio entities. Not only would his performances be on record rather than live, but there’s another dimension that’s pure Gould. There are impossible passages where there seem to be so many notes that two hands couldn’t possibly execute the passage, no matter how virtuosic. How could he do it? I wondered as soon as I heard these recordings, and now have confirmation, both from seeing the score that I took out of the library, and after reading the splendid introductory essay from Carl Morey:

Emeritus Professor Carl Morey

Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey has the unusual feature (shared with and more extended in the Prelude to Die Meistersinger) of having been written for a kind of four-hand duo performance. Gould first recorded the main piano part, then put on ear-phones so that he could hear his own performance and dubbed a supplementary part over the first recording. The final recording thus presented a texture that is complex beyond the capability of even the most brilliant single pianist.

I’d wondered about this when I first heard Gould’s album of Wagner transcriptions, especially the Meistersinger prelude, where the overdub is very clear.

The irony of this floors me. The live performance of transcriptions affirm virtuosity in a live setting, a display for the pure purpose—and exquisite pleasure—of showing off. These big loud pieces are an incredible ego trip to play: except that’s not what Gould wanted. He sought instead to get closer to the ideal text in the book, the reified distilled essence of Wagner, not the live experience of Wagner. That is what the goofy headline is about, that in contemplating an ideal Wagner in the studio far from the crowd, divorced from singers & live performance, Gould creates something that’s not performable live: not without an extra pair of hands, that is.

Here’s Gould’s performance. There are a few seconds missing at the end, but you have the final cadence and a good idea of the piece.  If i had an alternative link to substitute i would.

Gould’s creation (as published in the book i withdrew from the library) is a very playable score, at least until we come to those impossible passages that require you to suddenly grow a third and fourth hand. When one tries the comparable passages in the piano-vocal score (with an accompaniment that’s far from simple) one at least encounters something for two hands, yet even this too can be challenging (and loud!).  Gould’s score is more pianistic, a piece that stands alone.

While we’re at it there’s one hugely important detail I want to mention. As a child I encountered the orchestral excerpt –not the Cleveland one, but another version—without any voices. The piece ends with a nostalgic return to the triumphant E-flat of the beginning that gives the piece a wonderful sense of symmetry and a happy ending. But that’s not how it goes in the opera. Oh no. Siegfried does not happily ride off into the sunset. He dies, murdered in Act III of Götterdämmerung. I can still recall the sense of wrongness I felt the first time I heard the opera, a visceral sense of dread and horror before Act I even begins.

Have a listen (three parts) to the relevant passages from the opera including the vocal parts.
1. Dawn and beginning of love duet:
2. Conclusion of love duet, beginning of Rhine Journey: 
3. Conclusion of Rhine Journey (the key discrepant passage begins at 4:44): 

I believe this discrepancy –between the concert version with its happy ending and the way it flows in the context of the opera—might be one of Wagner’s great achievements. “Might” because I am not even sure it’s his achievement. I understand from my reading that he approved of the excerpts from his operas—that helped publicize his operas—but I don’t know who is really responsible for this insightful ending, going back to E-flat.  I believe that it’s implicit in the music,  that a tone-poem that were affirming tradition rather than seeking revolution would revert to the home key.  I wish I knew more about the creation of the concert piece with its happy ending.

This entry was posted in Books & Literature, Music and musicology, Opera and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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