Glenn Gould: I don’t think much of French composers

Glenn Gould: I don’t think much of French composers


norman lebrecht

January 10, 2021

This is a rare performance by Gould of his own transcription of Ravel’s La Valse.

Gould was not a musical Francophile. His only other mayonnaise dips are some short piano pieces by Bizet and the Debussy Rhapsodie pour Clarinette.



  • Frankster says:

    What I found, moving to France three decades ago, is that the French themselves had the same view. A movement in the last few decades has changed that. French orchestras and opera companies are rediscovering their heritage and finding, to their surprise, a great deal of unknown genius and a new respect for their already known composers.

    • Thomas Hall says:

      While it may be true that there are some treasures in France’s musical past, if we look to the past twenty years and the way that France “politicised” the arts, like placing Pierre Boulez on a pedestal where he, and he alone, decided whose music was worthy of consideration and performance in the entire country. Boulez even had the last word on who would be named the head of national and regional conservatories. Worship him and his music and you were “approved” and would be rewarded, try to create something different or dare to criticise him and you were blacklisted forever and ignored. That period caused irreparable damage and France today is an extremely uninteresting place for new music creation. How could it be otherwise, in a such a highly centralised and hyper bureaucratic country that more often resembles North Korea than an open, free and innovative society. I’m sure that if they could watch what has happened to France and French creative life, the giants like Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel would be appalled and horrified by what their once great country has become.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That may well be, but in these days France has a couple of very interesting, new-tonal composers: Nicolas Bacri, Karol Beffa, Guillaume Connesson, Thierry Escaich, Richard Dubugnon, and probable a number of others I don’t know about.

        PB’s terrible heritage will soon be forgotten and reduced to its proper place: one of the founders of an interesting new art form which was, unfortunately, presented as music.

        • Francesco U. says:

          Adding to this comment thread, I also agree that France is not a very exciting place for creativity and is actually very boring and outdated when compared to most other places in Europe, the U.S., Canada and even Australia. While there may be a few interesting composers coming out of there, the overall impression that one gets in France is of a very closed, rigid, uptight and extremely conformist society ruled by an outdated archaic elite. Much like in the 18th Century, the new elite in France use art and culture more as a tool for their own political glorification than for anything else and just like in the 18th Century, the current “accepted” composers in France all belong to and serve the current system without any independent thinking and most lacking truly global connections. So, in that sense, comparing France with North Korea makes sense.

          • John Borstlap says:

            The composers I mentioned all operate outside of the modernist, state-susidized post-Boulez establishment, and they still have successful careers with commissions and performances. And as far as a general impression of ‘the arts’ is concerned, much of it is high quality: summer music festivals, exhibitions (there is an emerging figurative scene there, including some very interesting realist sculptors), and the baroque opera scene is – although often small-scale – very good. Well, I have not seen and heard all of it, but that’s what I got to know via local channels. It is true that the French are inclined to close themselves off from international connections in the arts, but my impression is that younger generations are increasingly international in outlook. There are even French people beginning to speak Franglais, which is a spectacular development, and quite controversial, as one can imagine.

            As for ‘conservatism’: the French have all of my sympathy on that point, considering that cultural ‘progress’ in the Anglo-Saxon sphere is often understood as even more stupid and ugly than the year before. One should not confuse conservatism (which wants to freeze life) with traditionalism (which can be dynamic and developmental). There are traditions which are important to preserve, as France’s patrimoine keeps reminding the population, and rightly so.

        • Couperin says:

          Contrary to the reflexive Boulez bashing that seems to be popular now, and in regard to people claiming his music isn’t performed so often anymore, I don’t think it was EVER performed very much except for a few gems, and mostly, it’s because the music is simply very challenging, hard to put together, hard to play well, and needs a lot of time to rehearse. However, any idiot can break out the latest tonal-post-minimal work by the latest flavor of the month composer or a string quartet or vocal work by Caroline Shaw for example and win a Grammy as easy as snapping ones fingers. And I say this as a great admirer of Boulez, even though I don’t love every single piece he wrote.

          • John Borstlap says:

            Apart from the evaluation, all of this is true.

            It is especially difficult for the players to get the notes just right, while there never seems a reason for it, so it does not really get into your fingers, you’re not supported by an inner emotional image of the work, it remains outside and technical. Don’t forget there are no ‘wrong notes’ in any PB work, because the notes are the result of the pattern making, of the colouring. In any PB performance there is a strong tension, because of the insecurity of the players, and it doesn’t diminish with repeated playing. There is nothing that offers an emotional framework of some ‘bedding’ of the patterns, anything can happen at any time. That is always the difficulty with sound art, everything remains on the surface of sound. I always found it striking, but not surprising, that players who love this stuff often have no feeling for music, when they play a musical work, the fail to pick-up the tonal dynamics and their rhetoric.

            Most serious sonic artists don’t get further than the prowess of an aesthetic super plumber.

      • Hmus says:

        In that respect they were merely follwing the ‘lead’ of the Germans into pointless theoreticism.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      This is very interesting. I would be grateful if you elaborated on recent developments.
      Personally I am aware of the recorded legacies of André Cluytens and Michel Plasson, along with the blossoming of French Baroque in recent decades.

  • V. Lind says:

    More fool Gould, though I sez it as shouldn’t. I love French music.

    Wasn’t mayonnnaise really invented in Spain?

    • John Borstlap says:

      No, it was invented in Mayon, in the south of the country, by a pharmacist looking for a balm to reduce the pain of ‘éclats multiples’, a local skin affliction caused by the dominating presence of sheep herds. But when he dipped, at lunch, his fries by chance in the wrong pot, it appeared to be tasty as well. Many French delicatesses have a comparable origin.

      • dd says:

        Addendum…’Why Russians Are Obsessed with Mayonnaise?
        Love it or hate it, mayonnaise is the most ubiquitous condiment in Russian cooking and a key component in the 2018 World Cup host’s national cuisine. Found throughout salads, in soups, even smothered on meat before roasting, or frozen, crumbed, and then deep-fried; the white, gelatinous sauce has been a signature ingredient in many dishes through Russia’s cultural evolution. So just how did emulsified egg come to be on almost every table and in almost every meal?..’

      • V.Lind says:

        It’s only Wikipedia, but what about this: In 1750, Francesc Roger Gomila, a Valencian friar, published a recipe for a sauce similar to mayonnaise in Art de la Cuina (‘The Art of Cooking’). He calls the sauce aioli bo.[5] Earlier recipes of similar emulsified sauces, usually bearing garlic, appear in a number of Spanish recipe books, dating all the way back to the 14th century Llibre de Sent Soví, where it is called all-i-oli, literally ‘garlic and oil’ in Catalan.[6][7] This sauce had clearly spread throughout the Crown of Aragon, for Juan de Altamiras gives a recipe for it in his celebrated 1745 recipe book Nuevo Arte de Cocina (‘New Art of Cooking’).[8]

        On April 18, 1756, the Duke of Richelieu invaded Menorca and took the port of Mahon. A theory states that the aioli bo sauce was thereafter adopted by the cook of the Duke of Richelieu, who upon his return to France made the sauce famous in the French court.[9] At that point, the sauce became known as mahonnaise (indicating it was named after the city of Mahon)

  • Nijinsky says:

    Mr. Gould was so noncommittal, he makes modern porn directors look like monogamous proselytes and warriors for domesticity. And then we have the cloying sentimentality about it akin to Harold Bloom going on about Shakespeare as if he knew what he was talking about at all. Makes me wonder whether they got their degrees at the five and dime, the bargain basement, a convenient store or at a liquidation sale. But then they’d have to show more signs of being what can be called a shrew.

    • Ronan O’Callaghan says:

      I don’t think it’s necessary to become insulting about Gould or anyone else who does not share our tastes. I was taken aback by this headline myself. I get a lot from listening to Gould playing Bach, I am intrigued by his support of Schoenberg, which makes me think I should open my ears again, but if he was not enthusiastic about Debussy and Ravel that’s not going to diminish my love of their music by one iota. I wonder if he was so infatuated with counterpoint that he was resistant to music which is more about colour and lyricism.
      Meanwhile I heard years ago that Debussy was mad about Wagner and I can’t understand that either – I’m more in tune with Stravinsky’s scepticism of much of that composers output.
      At this stage in life I’ll content myself with enjoying what I enjoy while trying to keep expanding my own taste and not worry too much about what other people like.

      • BruceB says:

        “I wonder if he was so infatuated with counterpoint that he was resistant to music which is more about colour and lyricism.”

        That strikes me as an excellent point.

        • John Borstlap says:

          There is thematic counterpoint as in Bach, note for note relating to other notes, and there is a much wider form of counterpoint which consists of the combination of different layers of music, an orchestral counterpoint one finds in Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky. (The introduction to the 1st half of the Sacre is a masterpiece of colourful counterpoint.) Gould had the idea that Bach counterpoint and all other counterpoint based upon it, was somehow superior, because of being ‘difficult’. But it is not more difficult than orchestral counterpoint.

          Counterpoint is the art of combining things in such a way that they sound different but are still harmonious together.

      • HugoPreuss says:

        While I agree with you in principle, given the way Mr. Gould has (trash-)talked about composers (starting with Mozart…) it is kind of difficult to resist the temptation of being somewhat insulting in turn.

      • Jewel Dirks says:

        Fantastic response. You articulated my thoughts exactly.

      • David K. Nelson says:

        Well as has been remarked many times on this blog, Gould liked to provoke and he had a gift for it.

        Debussy came to dislike Wagner’s music and indeed came to dislike most of the German classical music heritage (in reply to the notion that Wagner’s was the “music of the future” he famously quipped that, no, it was a sunset mistaken for a dawn).

        As far as La Valse goes, Ravel himself made a version for solo piano but I am not sure he was thinking of virtuoso public performance so much as practical home study of what is still, after all these decades, a surprisingly complex and intricate creation. The late Leonard Pennario took the Ravel original and made a virtuoso solo piano showpiece out of it, one of his most famous Capitol recordings in fact. It is on YouTube. Pennario’s reputation more or less died when he died but he was remarkable. An interesting contrast to Gould’s performance.

    • Poldy says:

      How do you reckon Harold Bloom a sentimental?

  • Hilary says:

    The opening is unlike any other rendition I know as Gould has no time for conjuring up a sense of mystery here!
    Being Glenn Gould, this is far from rare….it’s been floating around in the catalogue even before YouTube came along.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I’ve read every scrap of Gould’s writings I can get my hands on.
    It’s amazing how beautifully he plays the music of composers he doesn’t much care for.

    • Hilary says:

      His Chopin 3rd Sonata is excruciating though. Whatever he touches carries complete conviction, that I would say.

      • John Borstlap says:

        That 2nd sentence is also applicable on brilliant criminals and does not convey any quality assessment.

        • M2N2K says:

          Au contraire, the word “brilliant” in your response shows that the sentence in question does indeed convey precisely what you are saying it does not.

          • John Borstlap says:

            I don’t think so, but I will take it into consideration.

          • M2N2K says:

            If you “don’t think so”, then it would be interesting to know what you do think the word “brilliant” means other than indicating that someone or something is in possession of the quality of brilliance.

          • John Borstlap says:

            I think ‘brilliance’ refers to execution, not meaning or content.

            Raphael was a brilliant painter, as Vermeer was; Hitler was brilliant in manipulating desperate masses; the internet is a brilliant invention as was the wheel and the vacuum cleaner; Rattle is (almost) always brilliant; my PA is brilliant at destroying the mood. It’s something on the outside of things.

          • M2N2K says:

            Precisely – and in all these cases “brilliant” does describe a certain quality of the thing or person in question. No one says that it is always a good quality, but a particular quality it definitely is. In case of “Hilary”‘s comment, (s)he does not state that the “commitment” (s)he mentions makes musical results better, but only that it is usually present in GG’s performances – a perfectly reasonable opinion.

  • RW2013 says:

    Everyone should play the Variations chromatiques.

  • Fernandel says:

    His “pensées” on music made Glenn Gould a cross between General Lavine and Joseph Pujol.

  • Jewel Dirks says:

    What a Grand way to start the day! GG always brings out something in the music—be it Bach, Gibbons, Brahms or dear Ravel— that makes me hear it in a new way. Interesting to hear how GG predates our current reckoning of Western appropriation of other cultural’s music. Thanks for posting this film.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Gould merely wanted to use the piece to show-off his virtuosity, but without any understanding of the music (it sounds rude, unsophisticated, charmless, even unmusical), or of Ravel for that matter – calling Daphnis ‘impressionist’ is the ususal conventional and very superficial description. (It is a symphonic work with a thorough structure and narrative, subtitled ‘Symphonie Choréographique’.)

    G’s rendering of this beautiful work is unlistenable, really.

  • Minnesota says:

    Debussy was a very interesting critic. Would love to have read a review by Debussy of Gould playing a recital that included French music….

    • John Borstlap says:

      When GG was very young and Debussy very old, Debussy wrote a review on one of G’s early recitals which D heard on tour through Canada, when he played D’s Images I & II, and Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales. ‘Pour éviter le pire, on dirait qu’il avait découvert mes roses et les tuait avec une bonne dose de vinaigre caustique. Concernant les Ravel, pourquoi trancher dans le vif avec des couteaux additionnels quand il y a déja suffisamment de torture dans l’originel?’

      • Le Křenek du jour says:

        > “When GG was very young and Debussy very old, Debussy wrote a review on one of G’s early recitals which D heard on tour through Canada, when he played D’s Images I & II, and Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales.”

        Maître Borstlap is being at his most facetious here. (At least we must assume so.)
        As he fully well knows, but somehow expects most of us ‘hoi polloi’ not to, Claude Debussy died on March 25, 1918.
        Glenn Gould was born on September 25, 1932.

        Unless Maître Borstlap wants to sell us the critique he is quoting as the result of itinerant metempsychosis on the part of Debussy, he is pulling our collective leg.

        If I hadn’t committed to memory most of Monsieur Croche, Debussy’s critical alter ego, I’d say that the phrase quoted — out of chronological context, but se non è vero, è ben trovato — does indeed resemble his ductus and vocabulary. Either my edition of Monsieur Croche is incomplete, or the phrase originates from some other source I have missed. An intriguing third possibility would reveal this musicological pastiche as a van Meegeren by the Maître himself, in which case we might surmise a carry-over from his Dutch days.

      • AlbericM says:

        Since Gould was born in 1930 and Debussy died in 1918, I doubt there was much overlap. Did you intend a different name in one of those positions? And while Debussy became somewhat envious of Ravel’s discoveries, I can’t imagine him being so “caustique”. Clearly, I need to find Debussy’s criticism and correspondance in French and spend a good month updating my education.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Gould was not alone. Horowiz said that when he first played Debussy in Vienna in the 1920’s, the audience just laughed. Gould was a master at saying provocative and controversial things to split the ears of the groundlings. Walter Gieseking was one of the few German pianists to play much French music, which he did marvelously, and he was born in Lyon and probably bi-;ingual.

    This recalls an unexpected observation of Thomas Beecham’s: “The function of music is to free us from the tyranny of conscious thouht.”

    • John Borstlap says:

      There is a story that the audience laughed at a Horowitz recital in Vienna because he read from the music, and halfway turned it around, discovering he had played it upside down.

  • phf655 says:

    What about Gabriel Faure? He had a remarkable career as a composer that began in the salon and ended in the avant garde. His later works are still not known and appreciated as much as they should be. It would have been interesting to hear what Gould might have done with the last piano works, such as the sublime Thirteenth Nocturne.

  • Claremonter says:

    Gould also was the pianist in a television recording of Poulenc’s “Aubade”.

  • Comparing French music of the past three centuries to that of Germany answers the question about the importance of French music. But let’s not forget that we wouldn’t have 20th century music without Debussy, who, like Beethoven, opened up whole new spheres of musical expression. And Ravel was one of the greatest orchestrators of all time, and certainly the best in the 20th century (with a tip of the hat to Stravinsky, who learned his orchestration skills from Rimsky-Korsakov.). I would say that Russia has produced less accomplished music overall than France but somehow manages to get its music over-performed even to this day.

    • John Borstlap says:

      The nationality of composers is irrelevant in relation to their stature and the qualities of their music. They are all Europeans, part of the European spirit.

      • V.Lind says:

        You are right as far as you go, but there are nonetheless traditions, if not nationalities, among artists who have had some exposure to similar elements in their upbringing, be it teaching methods, church experience, social aspects. I can turn on the radio while a piece unknown to me is playing (of which there are many) and usually identify its nationality correctly. I find this to be particularly true of English and French music.

        Liking a broad canvas, I also have spent a great deal of time in Latin America. I can identify a Brazilian piece of music from its first note, or a Cuban.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Yes, of course national identities in cultural traditions do exist and can be very strong. But it is irrelevant to the stature and the quality of the music. The aspect that makes a piece interesting or good or great, is not its national identity but its musical qualities. A piece is not good because of its nationality.

          • V.Lind says:


          • John Borstlap says:

            I would like to add that it has been the differences between national traditions which have fertilized the music of the last 200 years the most. It has created a diversity hardly seen in any other cultural tradition. And it is all still the Western musical tradition… it is stunning.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      We certainly would have had 20th century music without any of the masters — by definition. It would just as certainly not have been the 20th century repertoire we are accustomed to.

  • Christopher Magyar says:

    Though I have not listened to it, I have seen in a discography of Glenn Gould’s work a recording he made of the Sextet by Francis Poulenc (!) It doesn’t get much more French than that. I am amazed at how broad his recorded repertoire is; he didn’t just play Bach.

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      Kevin Bazzana and a few other authors, composers, and musicians were interviewed by Flavia Gervasi on the subject of “Gould’s influence on composers, performers and producers” for the anniversary edition of Circuit – Musiques contemporaines.

      “How would you evaluate Glenn Gould’s recordings of contemporary or modern music (whether those of Schoenberg on the one hand or the Canadian album of music of Hétu, Morawetz, etc.)?

      Kevin Bazzana:
      I like the way he brings out the Romantic rhetoric in Schoenberg’s and Berg’s piano music, and the way he emphasizes the neoclassical wit in Schoenberg’s Op. 25 suite. He played modern music with real commitment and insight, and with a great deal of passion and pianistic colour (Krenek’s Sonata No. 3 offers a great example).
      In some cases (Webern, Hindemith), his 20th century playing had a lean, “high-modernist” sound, but even here the playing was always dynamic and probing. I also admire his willingness to treat modern music with the same degree of creative freedom as he treated earlier music, even to the point of arguing with a living composer about his own music (witness his recordings of Morawetz and Hétu).
      He wore the same blinders in the 20th century as he did in earlier music, so there were whole swaths of modern music that he rejected outright (Debussy, Stravinsky, Bartók, Boulez, Cage, etc. etc. etc.), but within given parameters he could show admirable curiosity, and some of the relatively obscure works he championed (Krenek, Valen, Hétu) are, I think, first-rate works that show good taste on his part.”

      URL :
      DOI :

      • John Borstlap says:

        Here we have the 3rd Krenek sonata played by GG:

        The piece suffers from the same problem as the Schoenberg 12-tone dodecacaphony: gestures borrowed from music but without the musical logic from which they developed. One could ‘translate’ the piece into tonal music and maybe then it would convey something like musical meaning. THIS is merely expressing how it feels if you suffer brain damage and can no longer connect input stimuli however hard you try. In other words, it is psychic indigestion problems. No wonder Gould liked it, he recognized the ‘subject’ instinctively.

  • Patricia says:

    My favorite music is contrapuntal. Just not the way GG played it. No phrasing – no spontaneity. Heaven only knows what editions he used.

  • Barbara J Levin O’Riordan says:

    Glenn Gould has stated that he does not care for the work of certain composers, including Mozart and Beethoven.

    I can only say that my inner experience of listening to much of the music of Beethoven and Mozart has been so profound that what Mr. Gould has to say about them does not matter that much to me.

    I believe Mr. Gould’s discussions of music satisfy the mind much more than they do the heart.

    When I listen to Mr. Gould’s discussions about music, I feel disappointed and tell myself that I must not be very discriminating or very intelligent.

    When I listen to the works of Beethoven or Mozart, I feel exhilarated and tell myself that I may be one of the angels.

    I listen to music not so that I may be considered intelligent. I do so because I would like to join the angels, even for a few moments.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Beautiful comment.

      True: GG wanted to be an ‘intellectual’, in accordance with the Zeitgeist: turning every life experience into something that can be rationally unpicked. In the process, most things that are important get lost, like emptying a wash-tub to get rid of the baby. Although an art form which requires a lot of intellectual work to create it, with music all rationality is a mere means to an end which is not rational at all. GG probably had serious psycho problems and sublimated them in his very restricted approach of music. We know of his neurotic hypochondrism, night life, contact anxiety, etc. etc. – typical symptoms of someone struggling with Nature. (We have to call Freud to find answers but why should we want to know?)

      • Poldy says:

        Gould’s impersonation of an intellectual is off-putting, although he knew what he was doing, so in some way it’s deliberatley affected; but surely you can’t accuse him of being rational in the sense of unpicking experience, he who defined Art as the gradual lifelong construction of a state of wonder? (Strangely like Plato’s own definition of philosophy, in a language where music and law are one and the same.)

        • John Borstlap says:

          Well, I related it to G’s playing, to what he did with music, not to what he said about it.

          I would not deny he was a brilliant musician.

          He would have been more interesting as a composer, than as a pianist: getting his own ego in the way instead of serving.

          • Poldy says:

            I wish Gould had composed, but as regards serving the music, or the composer, in the best cases, ‘how can we know the dancer from the dance?’

          • John Borstlap says:

            But the performer of music is not the composer.

  • Edgar Self says:

    A foreign visitor to Paris met Debussy and told him he admired the French composers. Debussy eyed him coldly nd said, “Really? I can’t stand them myself.” There could, of couse, be several rasons for that, and Debussy was acid-tongued on occasion.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Debussy, always thinking about transcending boundaries and trying entirely new things, burning the ships behind him, often got irritated about fellow composers who did not see what he saw and stuck to known formulas. Also his own premieres were often not well-received – except Faun Prelude and Pélleas – while audiences expressed their immediate enthusiasm freely on the music they knew already, especially French music, and Wagner. On top of that, after he suddenly became very famous and contested he got constantly bothered by ignorant people, so he was always on the defensive. This became worse after the scandals of his love life spread through the tabloids and chatter salons. So, his emblem understandably became the porcupine.

  • JussiB says:

    i find french music best suited as ‘mood’ music (franck’s flute sonata, etc.) french operas are generally a bore, some good bizet & massenet nonewithstanding… mozart sat through one and didn’t get it.

    • John Borstlap says:

      It is well-known that Mozart hated Massenet’s operas and said he could do that much better.

      • V.Lind says:

        Yes — he always said he preferred La Cenerentola to Cendrillon. It was one of the things that made us fall out.

        And of course he fell out with Debussy over the review of Gould!

    • JussiB says:

      mozart sat through a Rameau opera and wrote his father, “I didn’t get it at all… I did not hear a single tune the whole evening!”

    • V.Lind says:

      Offenbach is a lot of things, but rarely a bore. Especially Gerolstein. Les Troyens is real music. So are Samson et Dalila and Lakmé. Me, I find Dialogue des Carmélites interesting. And Iphigénie en Aulide.

      And Cendrillon was one of the most delightful nights I ever spent in a theatre, in a wonderful production with Flicka Von Stade and Maureen Forrester. And I adore Faust — Anges Purs is one of the great stirring marches of all opera!

      But I will give you Pélleas et Mélisande and (perhaps because the production I saw was lousy) L’enfant et les sortilèges. And I have to admit that, apart from the celebrated duet, watching and listening to Les Pêcheurs de perles at ENO marked a low point in my opera-going life.

      No Verdis, no Mozarts or Wagners, but many a happy opera (and other musical) experience among the French…

  • JussiB says:

    we need more people in important positions to speak their mind even though it may not be politically correct thing to say.

  • french horn says:

    He didn’t like Mozart or Chopin either ! Frankly, apart from his Bach’s interpretations (I mean the Goldberg varations), there isn’t much to celebrate with this so-called “genius” . Have you ever heard its Mozart’s sonatas ? It’s just awfull ..

  • Paul says:

    Then avoid playing their works. Who cares whether you like them or not?