Lectures/Scripts/WritingsWritingsThe Truth About a Legend

The Truth About a Legend

by Leonard Bernstein

One day in 1962, I received a call from Glenn in Toronto. He was to play Brahms' D Minor Concerto with me and the New York Philharmonic the following week in Carnegie Hall. He said, "Oh boy, have I got some surprises for you; I have made such discoveries about this piece." I thought, "Well, wonderful." Any discovery of Glenn's was welcomed by me because I worshipped the way he played: I admired his intellectual approach, his "guts" approach, his complete dedication to whatever he was doing, his constant inquiry into a new angle or a new possibility of the truth of a score. That's why he made so many experimental changes of tempi. He would play the same Mozart sonata-movement adagio one time and presto the next, when actually it's supposed to be neither. He was not trying to attract attention, but looking for the truth. I loved that in him.

A week before he was to come to New York, he made that call to announce that he had some really new ideas about the Brahms, and to prepare me for them. I said, "Along what order? You're not making a big cut? You're not taking a huge repeat that Brahms didn't write?" Because he had made it sound so extraordinary I didn't know what to expect. He said, "No, it's just a matter of tempo here and there, but I just want to warn you because you might be a little shocked." I told him nothing he could do would shock me because I knew him too well by now, and I was almost unshockable.

He arrived and set forth three unbelievable tempi for the three movements. In the first place, they were so slow that the first movement alone took about as much time as it should take to play the whole concerto. It was all in six—the whole first movement had to be beaten in six. There was no sense of alla breve, which, of course, is the point of the movement—or, rather, there was no sense of that fine line between 6/4 in two and 6/4 in six. It's a kind of tightrope which you walk so that at any moment you can veer toward one side or the other—be more flowing, or be more sostenuto, whatever—according to the needs of the music. This, however, was no tightrope. This was having fallen off the tightrope into the safety net called adagissimo—and this for an allegro, mind you. I said I was perfectly willing to go along with it, pour le sport, so to speak, as maybe he had something there. .

I also said that I thought we'd have an empty house before we got to the slow movement. Glenn laughed. "Wait till you hear how the slow movement goes, which is also in 6/4. It's exactly the same as the first movement's 6/4. It's just like repeating!" That was his major discovery: the two movements were really both aspects of the same movement, and therefore both—6/4's had to be the same. After an hour of this, we finally got to the finale, which is a 2/4 Hungarian thing, and no matter how much you hold back in the Hungarian manner, you can't possibly do it in four. It's a 2/4 thing, and you can subdivide or hold back all you want, but you can go only so far.

I did forewarn the orchestra a little about this. I said, "Now, don't give up, because this is a great man, whom we have to take very seriously." There were some very odd looks when we began the rehearsal, but they were wonderfully cooperative and went right along with it. Of course, they did get tired: it was very tiring. After the rehearsal I asked him, "Are you sure you're still convinced about the 'slowth' of this piece ?" And he said, "Oh, more than ever; did you hear how wonderfully the tension built?"

In those days, we had our first concert of each weekly series on Thursday night, which was a kind of dress rehearsal in which I talked to the audience. It was a chic night, the night to be there. You could never get a ticket for Thursday night. I sometimes had a piano, and illustrated points about the music being played as I do on a television show, all in order to bring the audience closer to the music. That night I thought, "What am I going to talk to them about?"—when obviously the main subject of the evening was going to be our performance of a Brahms concerto and Glenn's interpretation of it. So I said to Glenn backstage, "You know, I have to talk to the people. How would it be if I warned them that it was going to be very slow, and prepare them for it? Because if they don't know, they really might leave. I'll just tell them that there is a disagreement about the tempi between us, but that because of the sportsmanship element in music I would like to go along with your tempo and try it." It wasn't to be a disclaimer; I was very much interested in the results—particularly the audience reaction to it. I wrote down a couple of notes on the back of an envelope and showed them to Glenn: "Is this okay?" And he said, "Oh, it's wonderful, what a great idea."

So I went out, read these few notes, and said, "This is gonna be different, folks. And it's going to be very special. This is the Glenn Gould Brahms concerto." Out he came, and indeed he played it exactly the way he had rehearsed it, and wonderfully too. The great miracle was that nobody left, because of course it had become such a thing to listen to. The house came down, although, if I remember correctly, it took well over an hour to play. It was very exciting. I never loved him more.

The result in the papers, especially the New York Times, was that I had betrayed my colleague. Little did they know—though I believe I did say so to the audience—that I had done this with Glenn's encouragement. They just assumed that I had sold him down the river by coming out first to disclaim his interpretation. It was, on the contrary, a way of educating the audience as part of Thursday night's procedure. All this was not only misunderstood, but repeated and repeated and multiplied exponentially by every other newspaper that wrote about it.

Then Harold Schonberg, the ex-chief critic of the Times who wrote the infamous review, wrote a Sunday piece in the form of a letter to "Dear Ossip"— Gabrilovitch, I assume. "Dear Ossip, you vill nyever guess vat last night in Carnyegie Hall hhappent!" sort of thing. The piece was based on this notion of betrayal. He has never let that notion die, and because it's so juicy it has undergone a kind of propagation all over the world. However, the "juicy" part is what did not happen. (For me, the juicy part is what did happen.) Of course, a defense is very weak, once a legend is born. It's rather like the Radical Chic Black Panther legend, which I can never seem to set straight. I have the feeling, even now, that trying to make this story about Glenn clear by telling the truth can't really erase the now legendary, but false, version.

Glenn laughed about it. He has that kind—had that kind of ... (I can’t get used to this idea of putting him in the past tense)—Glenn had strong elements of sportsmanship and teasing, 'the kind of daring which accounts for his freshness, the great sense of inquiry which made him suddenly understand Schoenberg and Liszt in the same category, or Purcell and Brahms, or Orlando Gibbons and Petula Clark. He would suddenly bring an unlikely pair of musicians together in some kind of startling comparative essay.

At some point, early on—I think when he was doing the Beethoven C Minor Concerto with me—Glenn and I were going to do some work at my apartment, so I invited him to dinner first. This was the first time Felicia, my wife, had actually met him. As you know, Glenn had a "cold complex." He had a fur hat on all the time, several pairs of gloves and I don't know how many mufflers, and coat upon coat. He arrived and began taking off all, or at least some of these things, and Felicia met and loved him instantly. "Oh," she said, "aren't you going to take off your hat?" He had a fur astrakhan cap on, and he said, "Well, I don't think so." At length, he did, and there was all this rotting, matted, sweaty hair that hadn't been shampooed in God knows how long. It was disappearing because it was so unhealthy. Before I knew it, Felicia—before "Have a drink" or anything —had him in the bathroom, washed his hair and cut it, and he emerged from the bathroom looking like an angel. I've never seen anything so beautiful as Glenn Gould coming out of that bathroom with his wonderful blond clean hair.

There was a marvelous relationship that sprang up instantly between Glenn and Felicia which lasted through the years. I remember when during the summer of 1955—several years before we met Glenn—Felicia was waiting to give birth to our son, Alexander. The doctors had miscalculated, so we had an extra month to wait. It was June; there was a heat wave in New York; she was in her ninth month and very easily tired and disgruntled. One of the great sources of comfort to us during that month was Glenn's first recording of the Goldberg Variations which had just come out. It became "our song."

Of course, the haircut Felicia gave Glenn didn't change his lifestyle at all. I remember we had a recording session a week after the dinner, and he had the fur cap and gloves back on along with all the rest of it. He'd whip the gloves off, record a few bars and then whip them on again, or he'd stop suddenly in the middle of a take and race downstairs to the men's room to nm his hands under hot water. He'd come back, gloves on, and start again. He was very unpredictable, but always very approachable. He had a strange combination of dogmaticism and great humor, which don't usually go together. The humor never, to my knowledge, went away.

The one time I saw him on his own turf, so to speak, was when I was making a Canadian tour with the New York Philharmonic, and we stopped in Toronto. Naturally I had to call up Glenn. I went to see him at his apartment, which was a shambles— months of mail stacked up along with newspapers and test pressings. You had to pick your way between piles of things. There he was in the midst of all this, at his special Chickering piano, which he had prepared to sound rather like a fortepiano, or as much like a harpsichord as possible. I wanted to see his apartment and said, "Oh, this must be the bedroom," but he wouldn't let me go in—apparently it was an even worse mess. In any case, he said, "Let's go and do my favorite thing." So we went down and got into his car, he being wrapped up in all his furs and gloves and hats, with all the windows up, the heat turned on full blast, and the radio turned on to a good music station, also full blast. We drove around the city of Toronto, just listening to the radio and sweating. I couldn't stop sweating, but he loved it. I said, "Do you do this often?" He said, "Every day."

This was a man who was fascinated by the Arctic and the North Pole. In fact, at that very time he was making the incredible documentary about the North. He'd been there twice and was just about to go again because he was so fascinated by it. For this man, who was so afraid of the cold, to be attracted to the cold, is a paradox that only twelve Freuds could figure out.

Here was a man you could really come to love. We became very close friends, but when he stopped playing in public, I saw less and less of him. I regret that, because it was a real relationship, based on a mutual appreciation of the sense of inquiry. He had an intellect that one could really play against and learn from. He was about fifteen years younger than I, I think, but I never felt that he was my junior, in any sense. He was a real peer, in every sense. When he died, l just couldn't bear it.

©1983 Amberson Holdings LLC. First published in "Glenn Gould Variations – By Himself and His Friends", edited with an introduction by John McGreevy, Publisher: Quill, New York.