Oxymoronic Gould Transcriptions

It seems like a lifetime ago, back when Glenn Gould was still alive. I’d first learned of him in my childhood as the one who showed us a new approach to Bach, a famous performer who had then abandoned live performance to communicate solely through virtual media such as the recording studio or the radio.

And when he then turned to Wagner I should not have been surprised when his interpretations were unique.

He’s gone of course.

More recently –this century, possibly even this decade—I discovered that Glenn Gould’s Wagner transcriptions that I’d heard so long ago as vinyl recordings, could be purchased as scores.

I first encountered them in the Edward Johnson Library, which seems only fair & just, given that the editor is Carl Morey, a former Dean of the Faculty of Music.

The second encounter was when (after taking one out of the library) I realized I needed to buy these scores. And so I made the purchase in the spring of 2017 buying all three from Schott Music. They’re beautiful clear impressions of the music, with notes from Professor Morey.

You may have noticed that this makes two things I’m talking about today, that were in yesterday’s post, namely 1-transcriptions and 2-Carl Morey.

Okay, the Schott scores are my departure point to talk about Gould himself. Two of the three are in a separate category that is the reason for that funny headline. I believe the peculiarities of these two are at the very least a window on the elusive –or is that “reclusive”(?)—Mr Gould. The scores are full of contradictions that reflect the pianist. The contradictions on the page reflect the contradictions on the stage, the reclusive virtuoso, the invisible celebrity. Which of course is the first obvious thing we know about Gould, the pianist who retreated from public view, who opted for a life as a kind of virtual star of the recording studio and CBC, rather than the usual exhibitionism encountered on the concert stage. I think it’s assumed that performers are extroverted, that they want to be seen and even to show off their skills.

But what if a performer were introverted? I leave that question aside, while we turn our attention to the three transcriptions, especially the two anomalous ones.

You’re probably wondering “how can a piano transcription be oxymoronic??” Although the scores speak for themselves perhaps Morey’s notes are the clearest indication:

Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhein 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.

Now of course if you don’t have four hands..? then that means you can’t play the piece, at least in those passages requiring four hands. A piano transcription is a magical kind of thing, something like a Bell Rocket belt, stilts or seven-league boots.

A piano can’t play a piece meant for the full orchestra, can it? It can and it can’t, depending on what you understand inside your head. When you’ve heard a lovely orchestral piece and then play a piano reduction you may hear the wonders of that reduction through your fingers. It’s magic, a bit of a contradiction in play, as you’re using your two hands to replicate the work of many hands, sometimes the work of over 100 people.

It’s helpful that my brain is less literal-minded than some. For example I am partial to Terry Gilliam’s Adventures of Baron Munchausen, celebrating the magic of story-telling with a huge assist from Michael Kamen.

And so, when you play something that teases you and suddenly requires four hands: you run into a real obstacle, as though your rocket belt suddenly has no fuel. Either you fake the parts that are missing (from the other two hands:  which some of us will do of course), or you leave something out. But there’s no question that at this point, where four hands are required, the transcriptions cease to be real transcriptions. You don’t really fly.

Let’s pause for a moment to speak of the one transcription of the three that is fully playable. Gould transcribed the Siegfried Idyll as a stunning piece of music. In a few places it gets a little difficult, yes. You’ll notice that when he plays the piece himself, he goes a little slowly in places. I can’t tell if that’s because he’s a perfectionist in his aim to play the music without any blemish or flaw, or because he’s aligning himself with a tradition of slower interpretations. For some people, any performance of Wagner should be slow & stately, soulful and stirring. This appears to have more to do with a performance tradition of conductors of the 20th century than anything Wagner told us.

When you hear all those inner voices that he’s bringing out, you can’t help thinking of that earlier Gould, the one who played the Goldbergs, bringing out all the hidden treasures. Hearing this Wagner, one suddenly sees a link back to the counterpoint of JS Bach. In fact since spotting this connection –in Gould’s transcription and performance—I have a whole different understanding of Meistersinger and even Parsifal, works that also have lots of inner voices that can be brought out.

So what was going on in those two that become unplayable (unless you were born with 4 hands)..?

I think they’re simply creatures of the studio. Gould was able to overdub, and so created versions that he played with himself in private, and shared with us. In a sense this is the most honest thing one can imagine, that the magician has shown us how he did his tricks.

I sometimes find myself lost in the contradictions, whether playing or thinking about playing such pieces. Gould is this textual idealist creating something that is in a sense like hypertext, illuminating while obscuring, as unreachable as Gould himself.


“5” is the Siegfried-Idyll, “6” the Meistersinger Prelude while the page is open to an unplayable passage in “7” during Siegfried’s Rhine Journey. Buddha had nothing to say.


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2 Responses to Oxymoronic Gould Transcriptions

  1. Pingback: Grainger’s rambling approach to popularity | barczablog

  2. Pingback: Glenn Gould Wagner Transcriptions – The Wagner Society of Northern California

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