The Goldberg Variations

It was my mother who introduced me to Glenn Gould.

At the time, she was in a high care home for the elderly. Every afternoon, she sat in her large comfortable chair and listened to a classical music station on her small portable CD player/radio whilst reading a book.

Listening to classical music was a long standing habit with her. It began long ago, after her days of playing the piano and organ came to an end with the birth of my brother and sister. Motherhood however never turned out to be a destiny she was comfortable with and it was then that she began studying part time for a degree in accountancy. From notes and bars to facts and figures.   

As the first born and the only child who shared her life when she was playing the piano every day and the organ at the church on Sundays, I was exposed at an early age to classical music.

During my teens and early 20’s, when I was in rebellion against my parents and blasting my ears out with rock music, there were nevertheless times when I listened to classical music and opera.

So there we were, further down the road of life, mother and son, she in a high care institution and me dual citizen on one of my temporary stays in Australia.  

After turning down the music, she began talking about the famous Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould.

Did I know who Glenn Gould was?

Yeah, I knew, I said off handedly.

No one who was interested in classical music could have not have heard of Glenn Gould. Three decades after his death, he still commanded an international cult following who regarded him as a kind of God. He was above all famous for his playing of Bach’s keyboard works – which is precisely why I had never bothered listening to him. Bach’s keyboard works bored me to tears. Too mechanical, like an old clock.

I wondered why all of a sudden she seemed so interested in him.

It transpired that she had followed a programme on the radio about the famous pianist and fallen in love with him.

Irrespective of my distaste for Bach’s keyboard works, Dorothy’s enthusiasm for Glenn Gould was not to be lightly dismissed. In the past, she had recommended soloists, orchestras and conductors, which I had taken an immediate liking to.

So one night I went fishing on You Tube, put on my headphones and listened to Gould playing of Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations’ whilst working on a translation.

Then I stopped work….….

In 1955, Columbia Records invited a 22-year old Canadian pianist to come into their studios and record something. When he told the company executives he wanted to play Bach’s Goldberg Variations, they baulked.

The Goldberg Variations?

 He was strongly advised to chose another piece of music. Bach was a challenge even for the world’s best pianists – people with far more experience than Gould – but even by Bach standards, the technical demands of playing the Goldberg Variations were daunting. Few pianists had recorded it. Gould was adamant. Hence, after some delay, he was given the go-ahead. During the next 4 days the Goldberg Variations were recorded and everyone in the recording studios knew at the end of those 4 days that something remarkable had been caught on tape.

No recording made by a classical musician has ever had the impact of this one.

Gould’s 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations changed the way we listened to Bach’s keyboard works. Long before he walked into the recording studios, Gould had mastered the technical skills necessary for playing the Goldberg Variations. He had done it so well that his playing seemed effortless, but furthermore, he had moved a long way on from the technical challenge of playing this piece. He was in the thrall of a vision, an inspiration. For 300 years Bach’s keyboard works, written for the harpsichord, had been lost to the world, like musty pages of papyrus in an Egyptian tomb. Suddenly this eccentric young man had picked them up, blown the dust off, and brought the bars and notes to life – and what a life!

Gould’s Goldberg Variations outsold Louis Armstrong on the LP market that year and it kept selling for the next 25 years. It became an icon in the history of classical music. In his act of discovery, his artistic leap of faith, Gould presaged the spirit of the post war era, an unprecedented era of new discoveries, of old constraints being burst asunder, of new frontiers. But in blowing the dust off the old pages he found in history’s attic, Gould also, unwittingly triggered off a controversy which still rages today.

Was Gould faithful to the spirit of Bach?

How much debate this question has inspired!

Speaking for myself, the real question is: was the spirit of Bach meant to be boring?

I don’t think so. 

It’s not as if Bach was opposed to change, to innovation. An intensely religious man, Bach believed that technology (in those days the harpsichord represented a triumph of human ingenuity) could be used to bring us closer to God.

Gould showed us that beyond the mechanical contrapuntal we so long associated with Bach, beyond the Swiss clock maker appearances, there was a wonderful dance of notes, a mesmerising journey of transcendence.   

For the believers in God, the Divine means being a part of a purpose, a plan; a part of cosmos which has meaning. As an atheist I can say this much; Gould’s playing of Bach enabled me to put the real world in its rightful place, to distance myself from what I saw as its overwhelming chaos, its brutal lack of any kind of meaning, its relentless capacity for sheer madness.

It allowed to experience my own version of the Divine: a state of mind found in a part of our brain where our dreams emanate from, where our capacity for obsession, idealism, and addiction originates, which is both real and unreal, a source of wonder, excitement and peace, a world unto itself.

Photos of Glenn Gould underline that for whatever reason, he aged quickly, and by the time he died at age 50, he was an old man. He suffered from all sorts of health issues, some of them physical and others psychological. He gave up giving concerts early in his career and became a recluse, leaving his house only to visit a recording studio.

During his short life, various recordings were made of him playing the Goldberg Variations. The last one was recorded shortly before he died. There is a world of difference between that first recording made at age 24 and the other at age 50. The thing about classical music is that there is an enormous difference in how the very same piece of music is played. Classical music is above all about interpretation and there is surely no greater example of this than the two versions of Gould’s playing of Bach’s Goldberg Variations in 1955 and in 1981, the first one as a young man and the second as an elderly one. They are like bookends as it were of his short life.

The second recording is 12 minutes longer than the first. It is much slower, reflective, each note being savoured for what it is, like a fine wine. The first version is full of energy, the expression of prodigy in the prime of his life.

For years, it was the first recording I preferred. I enjoyed the energy of the first recording and found the last version too slow.

All of that changed when my mother died. It was sudden and Anya and I had to drive two thousand kilometres from Queensland where we were camping out and riding our bikes.

It was at the funeral that I experienced the pain, the guilt, of leaving Dorothy behind, the regrets, the sorrow at the lonely life she had led, the defeats she had endured because of her gender and class.  

Gould’s last recording ran through my brain (the soft piped music vanishing into the background) and in that slower tempo, rich in philosophy, I found a sense of closure, of peace: the Divine.


The Goldberg Variations: 1955 and 1981, same piece of music, same notes and bars, completely different spirit…..youth and age. 





Thank you for looking at my site, cheers, Peter