The Bach that Glenn Gould disliked

The Bach that Glenn Gould disliked


norman lebrecht

May 29, 2020

From Daniel Poulin:

Glenn Gould always refused to play the Chromatic Fantasia, a work he despised from early youth. Bruno Monsaingeon convinced him to play it for one of his three TV shows shortly before Gould’s death. He did not play the Fugue, rumor has it he thought it wasn’t by J S Bach but by one of his sons. ‘That’s the kind of music his sons wished their dad wrote all the time,’ he said on the show. 



  • Doug says:

    To this day I cannot understand why so many in the early music crowd turn up their noses to Gould’s playing of Bach. What a marvel, what a joy, what genius!

  • nimitta says:

    Ha! De gustibus non est disputandum…

    I certainly get Gould’s aversion to the fantasia…on the piano. For the harpsichord, however, it is one of the few instances where the pious Johann Sebastian unleashes the full measure of his virtuosic bravado specific to that instrument. As was later said about Jimi Hendrix, Bach is really ‘whippin’ it out’.

    Say what you will about her Pleyel, listen to Wanda Landowska’s famous recording and you’ll get what I mean – she certainly did!

    As for the fugue: I hear a supreme exemplar of the old man’s style, and among the greatest fugues ever conceived for harpsichord. I get chills just hearing a few measures in my head…but again, all of the many piano versions I’ve heard leave me cold. And I’m a pianist…

  • Enrique Sanchez says:

    I admire Gould greatly, but I am getting rather nauseous over the ubiquitous proliferation of his adoration in all circles and his views which some now consider gospel. So much so, that I have stopped listening to him or considering him as the end-all of the world of Bach.

  • IP says:

    I won’t be able to go to sleep unless I learn what he thought of BVW 922.

  • David K. Nelson says:

    There is also a Gould video on YouTube where he expresses his intense distaste for Richard Strauss’s song “Morgen” and proceeds to play it just to demonstrate how awful it is – and he plays it beautifully.

    I am not intellectually equipped to opine on whether Gould’s suspicions about the piece, particularly the fugue, are well founded or not (Forkel accepted the piece as genuine but did admit that he looked in vain for even one other piece by Bach that was anything like it).

    I do wonder if the real reason he disliked the piece is that the eccentricities are already built into it – it makes EVERYbody sound like Glenn Gould!

  • Dale Fleck says:

    Why do pianists like such dry rooms? If this were performed on a harpsichord in a resonant room it would be far more dramatic

    • Preman Tilson says:

      It looks like it’s filmed in a TV studio, and those are always extremely dry. Engineers usually add reverb, but perhaps they didn’t here. I doubt Gould had any choice in the venue.

  • Charles Clark-Maxwell says:

    Is this a well researched theory re: the fugue being only attributed to JSB ? Have never heard of it before. Maybe Gould is the only person to have made this point ?

  • Alexander T says:

    Fascinating performance nonetheless….

  • Max de Zarobe says:

    Doesn’t it sound like Chopin? Not my cup of tea.

  • Alphonse says:

    Phenomenal playing, as always. Just a note- Gould’s comment was, “That’s the sort of thing Bach’s sons probably wished the old man had written all his life-but thank God he resisted the urge- most of the time, anyway.” Moreover, this quip was made in reference to the Italian Concerto, not the Chromatic Fantasty. The entire video can readily be found on YouTube: The Question of Instrument, filmed in 1979. It concludes with a truly stunning performance of the D Major Partita. I highly recommend it, as well as its 1980 sequel, “An Art of Fugue”, also on YouTube, and also a collaboration with Bruno Monsaingeon.

  • Rusharp says:

    The fuge is not found together in any original sources with the fantasia anyway, and if J.S. then it is not one of his greatest examples…

  • Jim Bob says:

    Support businesses that ban M@SKS!!!

  • Fliszt says:

    OMG, Wanda and Roslyn must be turning over in their graves…

  • An utterly remarkable work and performance. Gould’s quasi harpsichordization of the piano by not using the pedals and yet using the piano’s dynamic range in a constrained manner to shape the phrases and voice-leading, transfers the work to the piano in a very authentic manner. (And one notes that the dampers on his piano were so perfectly “tuned.”)

    In many respects, Bach invented tonality, and in his hands it often harbors the alien qualities of something very new, something avant-garde. In this work he was exploring, demonstrating actually, the way tonality can slide through key centers, that it can be something poly timbrel, that pulling against tonal centers can be deeply expressive. He invented tonality, and at the same hinted at the infinite resources of poly-tonality and atonality that would be discovered 200 years later, and which after many excesses we are still learning to use. With Bach, one always comes back to profounds of mind that are unfathomable.

    • Jennifer says:

      Thanks for teaching me that. I can see exactly what you mean, but had no vocabulary to express the thought.

  • Mary says:

    I agree,this is NOT J.S.Bach

  • David Ohrenstein says:

    In one word: “Masterful.” It makes me wish I could have heard him live when he was with us.

  • jmccarty3 says:

    Would that Gould had disliked all of Bach.

    And that all other pianists had disliked the harpsichord literature as well.

    (Submitted on the birthday of Gustav Leonhardt)

  • guest says:

    I stopped listening to Gould after I heard his fugue. After all those years, that’s the best he could do? C’mon dude.

  • RobK says:

    Everyone should be allowed at least ONE piece by Bach they don’t like. The Italian Concerto is fine as a piece, except it gets played all the time! I could live without all those apparently interminable courantes in the First English Suite though…

    • Edgar Self says:

      RobK — But the bourrees in the second English suite make up for them: Landowska’s cclockwork and sewing-machine trills; Pogorelic(h) in one of his best records; and Glenn Gould, who can’t shake one ornament off his fingers.

      In principle I agree we should get to dislike one Bach piece. For me it’s a tough choice: the “Osanna, Osanna” of the B-minor Mass, regrettably repeated after the next number; the gamba sonatas that even Maisky and Argerich cannot save; and the orchestral Overture/Suite in D that drags on with club-footed dances, also repeated. He should have stopped with the Air. The violin.keyboard sonatas almost, except theE major. Are they SURE Bach really wrote these?

  • Edgar Self says:

    RobK, you might try Wanda Lanowska and her Pleyel harpsichord on the Italian Concerto. It doesn’t fit the piano very well and is often badly played at extreme tempi, too slow or too fast.