How Glenn Gould got split in two

How Glenn Gould got split in two


norman lebrecht

October 09, 2011

Christopher Robson has kindly sent me the story behind his involvement in the upcoming Munich premiere of Glenn Gould vs Glenn Gould.

The Swiss pianist and actor Danny Exnar plays Gould. Apparently, there’s a walk-on part for Barbra Streisand.

I think I need to see this show.

Here’s Christopher’s text:


Glenn Gould project background
In the July of 2007 the stage director Gert Pfafferodt approached me
with a view to taking part in a project. He and the actor Danny
Exnar had come to hear me at the  in Munich a few
weeks earlier, where I had put on my own show of readings and
songs (Sonnets by Shakespeare & Donne, interspersed with songs by
their contemporaries) called “Sonnets to Sundry Notes of Music”
(after one of the set of sonnets by Shakespeare). Gert was already
very familiar with my work through my already 15-year association
with the Bayerische Staatsoper, and had seen me perform on stage
many times. However, for some reason this evening of readings
helped him to make up his mind about asking me to join his Glenn
Gould  project.
Gert Pfafferodt and the actor Danny Exnar had been working on the
idea of a Glenn Gould show for 9 months or so by the time I met
them. Danny was born near Basel in Switzerland, and had studied
piano from a young age. After leaving music school in Basel he
studied a further year in Prague, principally to hone his jazz piano
skills; he then returned to Switzerland – to Berne this time – to take a
degree in Philosophy. Finally, he went on to study  drama at the
renowned “Otto Falkenberg Schule”, the drama school associated
with the Kammerspiel Theater in Munich. There he met Gert
Pfafferodt who, as principal professor at the school, became his
mentor. After 3 years, Danny graduated in 2006 and took up a “fest”
contract with the Landestheater in Tübingen. Danny  left the
ensemble at the end of 2010 and is now a busy freelance actor.
It was then that Danny and Gert began to put together the Gould
project, gleaning texts Gould’s diaries and writings, as well as his TV
and film interviews.

The work in progress that I saw at Gert
Pfafferodt’s studio in July of 2007 was an almost finished play in
German, lasting about 45-50 minutes. Danny played Glenn Gould
speaking about his childhood, Bach, music performance etc; and at
one point, with the aid of finger puppets, Danny interviewed Gould
through imitations of various well known German/Austrian/Swiss TV
and radio Arts & Culture personalities. Danny also  played excerpts
on the piano of music by Bach, Gibbons and Wagner, showing what
a consummate musician he was as well as being a fine actor. 2
After this showing, over wine and lunch they explained to me how
they would like me to join the project and how I could fit in to it.
Their initial desire was - considering his love of Wagner, the fact that
Gould transcribed some of Wagner’s music for the piano, his love of
the human voice, and his lifelong habit of singing with the music he
played - that I should appear towards the end of the play and sing
sitting at the piano (with Gould at my feet) the “Liebestod”
(unaccompanied) from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde”. A sort of

I immediately agreed to join the project. This was  something
different for me, and having just moved to live in  Munich I knew
that I would have time and space to work on such an interesting
idea. Over the next 18 months my role slowly evolved from being just a
singer appearing at the end of the play, into an actor who would be
on stage with Danny from the very beginning. My role had become
almost catalytic and somewhat enigmatic. The play would begin
with Danny on the floor of the stage kneeling by a  large tin bath
filled with water, making paper boats and setting fire to them as they
floated on the water’s surface. I would appear and  sing an old
American evangelical carol. This beginning meant to reflect Gould’s
Presbyterian upbringing and the possibly repressed  childhood. I
would sit to one side of the stage by a table with  my
script/music/books etc. At a certain point in Danny’s story I would
read some text from one of Gould’s letters to his parents, and
supplement it with a short analysis from one of Gould’s biographers.
One episode to evolve through various bits of research, discussion
and improvisation was the “Barbara Streisand moment”. Glenn
Gould became a big fan of Barbara Streisand when she burst on to
the theatre and music scene in the early 1960s. It is possible that he
actually fell in love with her, but he was certainly infatuated with
her. Some years later, on hearing she was in a nearby studio one day
while recording, he tried to go and introduce himself to her to
express his admiration for her. Unfortunately, the  studio “red light”
was on and he was unable to interrupt the recording session.
Consequently, he returned to his own studio. 3
Apparently, Streisand got wind of his intention and took it upon
herself to go and see him herself. Upon entering his studio she
expressed her admiration for him and his artistry, saying she was one
of his biggest fans, and offered her hand to him with “Oh by the
way, I’m Barbara Streisand!”, to which Gould responded after a few
seconds with the curt repost; “I know!!”. She left the room in some
confusion, and the two of them never met again.

This incident is re-enacted repeatedly in the show, until it finally
breaks out into a performance of the standard crooner song “Cry me
a River”. It is pure speculation as to whether they might ever have
made music together – Gould did openly express his admiration and
desire to do some sort of work with her - but somehow the text of
the song and the idea of them meeting with such a disastrous
outcome highlights the complexities of Gould’s personality in the
context of the play. It is a bittersweet moment, and somewhat

In January of 2009, we finally took our “work in progress” public
with a performance in the studio space of the Landestheater in
Tübingen. There was no stage set, no design as such, just a bare
stage with a piano, a couple of chairs and a small table, and the tin
bath. The studio space officially seated 150, but it was in fact
oversold and people were being turned away at the door on the
night. The reaction was incredibly positive and we  could see we
were hitting a nerve with the audience.
It became clear however that there was a hole in the piece, and that
the jump from the Streisand moment to the beginning of the Wagner
moment, and Gould’s apotheosis, needed to filled out somehow.
The next few meetings and workshops tried to resolve that with the
inclusion of T.S.Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock”, which I
would read complete and in English. Eliot was one of Gould’s two
favourite writers (the other being Christopher Fry), and the poem
readily mirrors Gould’s confusion and inhibitions in regards to the
opposite sex and his difficulty in expressing intimate feelings. We
also experimented with the idea of bringing someone – a woman –
up from the audience and dressing her in a shimmering gown and
standing her on a pedestal during the reading. I was never actually
quite sure what it meant, but it was an arresting visual image. 4
By this stage Gert had invited the well-known German painter and
sculptor Bernd Zimmer to collaborate with us. He designed and built
a giant Mobile, which hangs in space over the concert grand piano
and most of the stage, and painted a massive “Cosmos” (6 metres
high by 2 metres wide) which stands or hangs at the back of the
stage. These were ready in time for the next performance in
Tübingen in June of 2009, this time on the main stage of the 500-
seat theatre.

Schönes Wochenende __ Bern Zimmer Mobile.jpg

Another hurdle fell at this point when permission and rights were
secured from the Glenn Gould Estate and Gould’s publishers to use
the texts that made up the bulk of the play. Although there are some
improvised lines and some text that are written/invented for dramatic
clarity, the vast majority of the texts are Glenn Gould’s own words,
albeit translated into German by the German publisher Piper Verlag.
In the last year we have slowly worked through and tried to fine tune
what we had produced, and introduce one more element: a
visitation – albeit very briefly – by J.S.Bach.  At first I was a little
sceptical of introducing such an obvious figure into the play,
particularly as he is well represented musically. But as the
appearance is very brief and somewhat humorous it seems to work.
Some audience members may not even perceive the character as
Bach, but maybe as just another strange element in  our slightly
quirky exploration of GG.

The show we will premiere in the Carl-Orff-Saal the Gasteig in
Munich in October will now last 1 hour 30 minutes or so.
Throughout the piece there is a feeling of character flux, a deliberate
stance to leave the characters loosely defined. There is a fluctuating
uncertainty as to whether the actors are playing specific characters
at any given moment or not; this in a way reflects the uncertainty of
Gould as a public figure, sort of helping to highlight the various
enigmatic qualities of Gould. It is fair to say that, despite the number
of books and articles written about and analysing Glenn Gould,
there is still so much of the man that remains a mystery. Perhaps this
is a major reason why he became the Icon which he still remains
Where do we go from here?
Gert Pfafferodt’s wife, Antoinette Cherbuliez, has  now set up a
production company called “Cherbuliez Productions”  to deal
specifically with the Glenn Gould project. She is actively seeking
sponsorship and dealing with issues of Rights, etc. The agent &
producer Thomas Petz (who produced and toured many  of Peter
Brook’s productions back in the 80’s & 90’s), is now on board with
us, looking at festivals and guest theatre appearances in the German
speaking world through 2012.
We now also have an English Language version of the play. Danny
Exnar spent 3 months last year in New York, working intensively
with Wendy Waterman at the Julliard and actor Ben Rappaport, to
try and develop a more idiomatic accent to his already fluent
English. An English language version immediately opens up the
possibility of a wider audience, and we are hoping that this side of
the project will prove fruitful in the coming year.
Most importantly, the development of the piece is seemingly
complete. Our original working title was:

  „Annäherung an Glenn Gould über Glenn Gould“
“Approaching Glenn Gould through Glenn Gould”
For the Gasteig premiere this has now been changed to:
Christopher Robson
Munich, October 2011


  • Thanks Norman for posting this. I’m not quite sure, however, how relevant the photograph of Julia Gooding and Michael George singing in a performance of Purcell’s “Dido & Aeneas” might be. But nice to see such an angry Dido 🙂

  • Danny Exnar says:

    Thank you, Norman, thank you, Chris! What a lovely description of the history of our play.

    As an actor, what can I say? It’s the most wonderful thing to channel and work on a character such as Glenn Gould for more than 4 years. Trying to approach Glenn Gould. The more we plunged into his world and his thoughts, the more open questions we had. During rehearsals, we were never trying to “explain” Glenn Gould or to reveal unrevealed “truths” about his life. We leave this to the biographers. But we had to get as close as we could to his inner motivations, his longings, his passion in order to showcase him with all the respect he deserves. A most challenging thing to do with such a complex and often contradictive character.

    Glenn Gould has been a vast traveling companion of mine for years. My “coming of age” music was Glenn Gould’s interpretation of Bach. I have to confess that I started, as most pianists do at some point, to try to imitate Glenn Gould’s playing when I was around 16 or 17. When I started studying at the conservatory “Jaroslav Jezek” in Prague, my professor instantly realized that and said that I am not the first one to try this and that I could pack my stuff and leave if I continued to imitate Gould. “Yes, Glenn Gould was a genius”, he said, “but only Glenn Gould can play as Glenn Gould.”

    I guess I’ve learned my lesson.. But at drama school, it hit my mind again: “Well, I can’t imitate Glenn Gould’s playing as myself. But since I am about to become an actor, I have the opportunity to become Glenn Gould for a while, and, well, I should at least be allowed to imitate his playing when I am playing Glenn Gould..” I met Gert Pfafferodt and the rest is history (see above)…

    Glenn Gould once said: “I was never prepared to enjoy the presence of the audience.”

    What we are doing in our show is Glenn Gould’s greatest horror (or greatest wish): We are actually being close to an audience. And we do enjoy it!

    Greetings from Switzerland and see you in Munich!