60_GouldGlenn Gould

by Mark Kingwell; introduction by John Ralston Saul

Penguin Canada

251 pages; $26.00

It has been 45 years since Canadian pianist Glenn Gould gave his last concert, and twenty-seven years since he died suddenly at the age of fifty. Mark Kingwell is the latest writer to bring his own perspective to Gould’s story, in a series called Extraordinary Canadians. Kingwell is a philosopher who teaches at the University of Toronto and writes frequently on cultural matters.  And like any good philosopher he raises more questions than he answers.

Kingwell offers numerous insights into how Gould “achieved a status of almost mythic dimensions.” Yet by treating Gould’s genius as “something larger than Gould himself,” Kingwell contributes to that myth of Gould as an eccentric, socially dysfunctional genius who “broke all the rules” in order to put his personal stamp on whatever he played.

According to Kingwell, Gould became “stranded on a beachhead of his own thinking between past and future,” unable to “fashion a bridge between them.” But Gould never created a philosophical system of thought. The recordings, interviews and writings do reveal “tensions and paradoxes in Gould’s thought.” But his writings, interviews and spoken commentaries need to be understood in the context of his music-making.

Gould’s pivotal decision to stop giving concerts and play only for recordings was psychological rather than philosophical, as Kingwell readily acknowledges. But he nonetheless treats it as a definitive philosophical stance, and relates it to the “then-fashionable notion of dropping out and going electronic.” Improbably, he links Gould with James Dean and Elvis Presley as “one of the first clear casualties of postmodern life, shattered remains of the cult of celebrity hastened by the very technology that made his success possible.”

The format of short, unlinked chapters allows Kingwell a variety of different “takes” on Gould. He uncovers some interesting connections in philosophy, fiction and poetry. But there is no bibliography or index to allow readers to make their own connections and investigate his many philosophical and literary references. And some of his sources are odd indeed. He writes that Gould’s interpretations “were sometimes disparaged as ‘loose,” but in a footnote he reveals that the source of that observation is a fictional character from a novel.

There are numerous errors. Kingwell writes that William Byrd wrote “few” pieces for keyboard. But Davitt Moroney’s recordings fill up seven CDs. Gould himself mentions Byrd’s “prolific output for the keyboard” in the liner notes to his recording of Byrd and Gibbons. Kingwell describes how Gould would soak his hands in icewater before a concert. Gould’s well-documented warm-up ritual did involve hand-soaking, but the water was hot.

Kingwell’s take on Gould is both thought-provoking and illuminating. But the best passages result when Kingwell steps beyond Gould and considers the nature of music itself. By treating Gould as a cultural icon, Kingwell leaves me looking for the musician.

60_NotationsNotations 21
by Theresa Sauer

Mark Batty Publisher

318 pages; $78.00

“We live in an incredible time in music history,” writes Teresa Sauer in her preface to this beautiful book. Sauer has collected scores from a broad range of contemporary composers to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the publication of John Cage’s own collection, Notations. These scores are all remarkably eloquent – even for those who don’t read music. In any case, most of these works do not use traditional notation at all.

 

Some, like Canadian composer Hope Lee’s Tangram are more readily playable than works like Steve Roden’s Pavilion Score, in which the performers are “mapping the space in sound” and “the audience would be listening to a drawing in sound of the space that they were sitting inside of.” Peter Hölscher’s Das Licht im Dunkel der Wolke and Douglas Wadle’s Amphiboly, work as pieces of visual art. Some made me laugh, like John Stump’s Love Theme from Prelude and the Last Hope in C and C-Sharp Minor. Teresa Sauer’s Parthenogenesis features a picture of a Komodo dragon, whose genetic code forms the basis of her piece. Canadian composer Chiyoko Szlavnics uses the evocative untitled drawings reproduced here as inspiration for her traditionally notated compositions. The notation of A Rose is a Rose is a Round by the influential American composer James Tenney, who taught at York University for many years, reflects back on the form of the piece itself. Two works by Canadian R. Murray Schafer, Epitaph for Moonlight and Snowforms, like many of his scores, show his graphic skills.

 

Like Cage, Sauer has arranged the scores in handy alphabetical order. But she adds an index and biographical sketches. Whereas Cage’s collection was in black and while, many of the scores in this volume, like Cage’s own Aria, make use of vivid colours.

60a_new_aldeburgh_anthologyNew Aldeburgh Anthology
compiled by Ariane Bankes
and
Jonathan Reekie
Boydell Press
360 pages, illustrated; $70.00 US

Ariane Bankes and Jonathan Reekie have compiled a dazzling collection of articles, poems, stories, photographs, paintings, set designs, memoirs, short fiction, to celebrate the Aldebugh Festival.

I cannot imagine a more fitting tribute to the festival that British composer Benjamin Britten, his partner tenor Peter Pears, and librettist Eric Crozier started in Britten’s native Suffolk over sixty years ago.

Expanding on the original Aldeburgh Anthology published in 1972, the editors have wisely followed their own “interests and inclinations.” The result is an evocation of the physical and poetic landscapes of Britten’s music, especially the operas, which are referred to throughout this volume.

Composer Hans Werner Henze describes the setting of the festival, where “ you can sense the vicinity of the sea; you can hear the facets of grey, silver grey, ash grey, white and mother-of-pearl of which the low-lying sky is composed.” Art historian Frances Spalding writes about the paintings and sculptures collected by Pears and Britten, including six Constables and a work by William Blake, whose poems Britten set. Art historian Kenneth Clark, who grew up across the river from Aldeburgh, writes, “My days were all pleasure… I loved the Suffolk country, the heaths and sandpits, the great oaks in Sudbourne wood and the wide river at Ilken.” Mezzo Janet Baker recalls singing for Britten, writing, “Ben was a king. When he walked into a room, the air began to crackle; everyone came alive, became more than themselves.” Journalist Tom Service writes about how composer, conductor and pianist Thomas Adès, just twenty-eight when he became director of the festival, continued the tradition of innovation and individualism.

So much to enjoy here. There’s a poem by Britten’s friend, colleague and librettist W. H. Auden, called The Composer, “Only your notes are pure contraption/Only your song is an absolute gift.” Another by W.G. Sebald, translated by poet Michael Hamburger, who’s represented here as well, closes with, “Whispering madness on the heathland of Suffolk. Is this the promis’d end?”

PERFORMANCE NOTES:

The Toronto Symphony under Peter Oundjian presents Britten’s War Requiem on November 11 and 12 in Roy Thomson Hall at 8.00. The Aldeburgh Connection presents Blessed Cecilia on November 22 at 2.30 in Walter Hall at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music. And on Jan. 28 and 30 at 8:00 in Roy Thomson Hall, the Toronto Symphony under James Gaffigan presents Leila Josefowicz performing a Violin Concerto, “Concentric Paths,” by Thomas Adès, who just completed nine years directing the Aldeburgh Festival.

60b_schwarzkopfElizabeth Schwarzkopf:
From Flower Maiden to Marschallin
by Kirsten Liese
Amadeus Press
160 pages, photos; $27.95 US

During her recent recital in Koerner Hall last month, Frederica von Stade spoke about hearing Elizabeth Schwarzkopf sing over forty years ago, and what an impression it left on her. That made me think about the recital I heard Schwarzkopf give at Massey Hall in the early 1970’s. I can still picture her opening her arms like a butterfly spreading its wings – magnificent and unforgettable.

This large, lovely collection of interviews, testimonials and splensis photographs is not so much a biography as a tribute to the great singer. The only hint of controversy is when Schwarzkopf talks about how Karajan pressured her to take on roles that were too heavy for her, like Elizabeth in Tannhäuser. There is no discussion of her activities during the war, or her documented associations with the Nazi party. Instead the focus is on what her former student, American baritone Thomas Hampson, here calls ‘her passion, her sense of beauty and her singular sense of artistic purpose’ .

In Charles Scribner III’s moving interview with Schwarzkopf shortly before her death at ninety three years ago, she talks about her contempt for contemporary concept-driven productions and her intense dislike of updating the settings of operas. The word “criminals” comes up. Schwarzkopf realizes that she represents a vital tradition of singing, especially for the Viennese repertoire like Strauss and Mozart. “The fixed style of Mozartean singing has rules,” she tells Scribner.

Author and editor Kirsten Liese interviews Lillian Fayer, the photographer who took most of the stage and portrait photos included here. In these photos Fayer penetrates the artificiality of the costumes and makeup to reveal the extraordinary naturalness of the singer. So I was amused when Fayer tells Liese that she was always trying - unsuccessfully - to get Schwarzkopf to wear more makeup.

There are glamorous shots of her as Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni, which Schwarzkopf calls her most difficult role, and in her favorite role as the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier. In a few of the candid shots, we see her with her frequent accompanist, the legendary Canadian pianist Gerald Moore (author of a wonderful autobiography Am I Too Loud?). He is quoted here as saying, “Elizabeth hears things that nobody else can. She would hear the grass growing!”

60c_operaOpera: The Great Composers and their Masterworks
by Joyce Bourne
Mitchell Beazley/ Octopus Books
224 pages, photos; $27.95 US

Joyce Bourne, who wrote the delightful Who’s Who in Opera (recently updated as Who Married Figaro?: A Book of Opera Characters), has packed a remarkable amount of material into this attractive, intelligent survey of opera from Monteverdi to John Adams.

She doesn’t find much space for the operas of Lully, Vivaldi, or Haydn, whose operas are all being rediscovered today. The operas of Martín y Soler, Halévy and Ambroise Thomas, all hugely successful in their time, and presently finding their way back into the repertoire, are completely shut out. But I enjoyed her broad-ranging approach. Along with discussions of the operas themselves, she looks at the composers, librettists, performers, theatrical venues, stage sets, directors, the artistic milieus and political context. As well, she offers an excellent discussion of voice types and vocal production, along with a glossary of musical terms.

The best thing about this book is that one quarter is devoted to opera of the past century, right up to the present. Only Verdi and Wagner get more coverage than Britten.

What does not work, however, is the practical information. The list of “major” opera houses includes the State Opera of South Australia, but omits Rome Opera and the Teatro Real in Madrid. Virginia Opera is mentioned, but not Vancouver Opera, an older, more ambitious company. Sloppy captions on photos – Time Square for Times Square, and singers like Juan Diego Florez left unidentified – detract only marginally from the superb photos. The index is reliable, and the layout is extremely attractive, with an effective use of a variety of typefaces.

In her final chapter, called “The Future of Opera,” Bourne makes the simple but often overlooked point that “if the music is not good enough, the work will not survive for long, no matter how good the story.” Like Schwarzkopf, Bourne objects to director thrusting their own concepts of an opera down the throats of audiences, particularly when they contradict what the composer and librettist wanted. But this is not a desire for directors to honour tradition by avoiding innovation altogether, but rather for them to work with “respect for the work they are directing, consideration for the singers, and the knowledge that many people in this audience are seeing this opera for the first time.”

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